OK I have to admit that I trained as an economist and economic historian, but I walked out of an academic career in those fields when I realized how psychotically unrealistic the economic models were. While the recent financial catastrophe is the fault above all of de-regulating politicians, the mental models that inspired their de-regulatory insanity, came from economists. So it is heartening to read about the revolt going on in the economics profession: even first year students walking out of lectures in protest at the free market insanity they are being asked to believe. There is some hope. This article from Real World Economics, an excellent source of varied sanity in the subject of economics, describes what is happening:
Economists: A Profession at Sea
By Robert Johnson
After the financial crisis of 2008, the Queen of England asked economists, “Why did no one see the credit crunch coming?” Three years later, a group of Harvard undergraduate students walked out of introductory economics and wrote, “Today, we are walking out of your class, Economics 101, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course. We are deeply concerned about the way that this bias affects students, the University, and our greater society.”
What has happened? Rebellion from both above and below suggests that economists, who were recently at the core of power and social leadership in our society, are no longer trusted. Not long ago, the principal theories of economics appeared to be the secular religion of society. Today, economics is a discipline in disrepute. It’s as if our ship of state broke from its stable mooring and unexpectedly slammed into the rocks. How could things have gone so spectacularly wrong? And what can be done to repair economics so economists can play a productive role in helping society?
As the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job illustrated, there is a very lucrative market for false visions of financial-market behavior that legitimate the desires of participants to be unshackled and make more money. But good policy prescriptions are public goods that represent the social good and not just the concentrated financial interests. Unfortunately, as economists beginning with the work of Adam Smith have repeatedly shown, public goods are underprovided in the marketplace. In addition, the reputation of the economics profession is itself a collective good, and those who have tarnished it are not adequately penalized for the damage they do to their fellow professionals when they accept large sums of money in return for marketing a perspective that benefits vested interests.
These are problems that some within economics have been aware of for a long time, but the discipline as a whole has been unable to address them. The onus is on the profession to face these challenges and help lead society off the rocks.
How to Save Economics
first, economists should resist overstating what they actually know. The quest for certainty, as philosopher John Dewey called it in 1929, is a dangerous temptress. In anxious times like the present, experts can gain great favor in society by offering a false resolution of uncertainty. Of course when the falseness is later unmasked as snake oil, the heroic reputation of the expert is shattered. But that tends to happen only after the damage is done.
Second, economists have to recognize the shortcomings of high-powered mathematical models, which are not substitutes for vigilant observation. Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow saw this danger years ago when he exclaimed, “The math takes on a life of its own because the mathematics pushed toward a tendency to prove theories of mathematical, rather than scientific, interest.”