Gary Becker — epitome of the irrelevance of economic theory

7 Sep, 2013 at 10:23 | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments

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Labor economist Daniel Hamermesh is interviewed at the Browser … Hamermesh is an optimist, in that he believes the academic market selects, over time, for usefulness:

I do believe in markets. We had some useless macro guys here who just left, thank God, and we’re now looking for replacements. I do think the failure of these people is conditioning how we search for a replacement. I’m quite sure the journals in academe are going to reflect this too. People are interested in being useful in this profession. It doesn’t mean the people who were the bad guys from the last 20 years in macro are going to be doing anything different. They’re incapable of doing anything different! But markets do work and the dead and useless get shoved aside by the young and useful. I’m a tremendous optimist. I do believe markets work and that people run to fill niches. There’s an obvious niche here, and you’re already starting to see it being filled.

I think this is interesting: Macroeconomics the last few decades has basically been run by guys that Harmermesh charges with doing mostly “worthless rubbish. Worthless, useless, uninteresting rubbish, catering to a very few people in their own little cliques.” These are the guys who’ve dominated top journals and top economics departments and who have won Nobel Prizes for their macro work. Yet he still sees the academic market as a well-functioning mechanism selecting for usefulness.

There’s a second thing I find interesting about this: The “top economists” that Harmermesh mentions to show that micro (as opposed to macro) is useful, is the same economist that I trot out to show how absurd nonsense is accepted in economics.

Together with Hans Melberg, I recently argued that there is a “market failure” in (at least a large part of) the academic market for economists: If you have a model that is theoretically consistent and in line with “standard theory” (rational choice, equilibrium, etc.), and if the model matches some stylized facts and can reproduce regularities in market data – then you’re more or less given free reign to make causal claims and say that the “theory” can support strong and important claims regarding the welfare effects of actual real world policies.

In this work, Melberg and I looked at the kind of claims made in the literature on rational addiction theory. We argue that this is a literature featuring claims so obviously unsupported (we call them “absurd”), that their acceptance into good journals is a clear indication of a “broken market.”

The funny thing is: The whole literature on rational addiction theory – which we see as a clear example of how the “academic market” in economics allows policy-useless nonsense claims to rise to the top – is based on the work of Gary Becker. This same economist is one of two economists that Hamermesh mentions as examples of good economics that, presumably, show how well-functioning the market is.

There have been some great economists since then, in the last 30 to 40 years. [..] There’s Gary Becker, who in my view is the top economist of the last 50 years. His notions of family bargaining and how families behave are terribly important, and affect how, in the end, we all think.

To me, the rise of Gary Becker and his theories does not illustrate the usefulness (in the sense of credible, well-supported insights into the real world and the effects of actual policy choices on real people) of his work, but more that it “opened new markets” for economists: He showed them ways to build theories of the kind they were familiar with within a host of new areas (education, family, crime, addiction), in ways that seamlessly fit the criteria of “rational choice” and standard micro-economic practice. He provided innovative, creative, exciting strategies for economic imperialism. His work allows you to interpret all sorts of things using the universal acid of economic theory. Some of it may be truly useful and correct, some of it is very clearly not, yet all of it has been very successful within the discipline. To me, that makes it unlikely that “usefulness” was the selection criteria involved.

Ole Rogeberg

[h/t Jan Milch]


  1. Stripped of the fancy footwork, Gary Becker’s approach to economics from the so-called sociological perspective instead of strictly Benthamite rationality epitomizes the logical fallacy of petitio principii, where assumptions are selected that guarantee the desired result. Many who are actually conversant with social science and institutionalism point out that key assumptions are chosen for ideological effect rather than based on scientific rigor. Neoliberalism at its worst and on the level of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life i(1994) by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray,as well as special pleading based on conservative ideology, the basis of which is that some people are born better than others, masquerading as liberalism, which holds that all persons are created equal.

  2. It’s difficult to know whether to be optimistic like Hamermesh. Since the crisis we’ve seen the absurdity of Rogoff, Reinhart and the rest of the Harvard Economics department doing their best to prevent adequate levels of stimulus. And they’ve been backed up the IMF and OECD’s absurd calls for “fiscal consolidation”.

    In short, we’ve almost gone back to the pre-Keynsian economics of the 1920s or thereabouts.

  3. […] Syll has directed me to an interesting post by Ole Rogeberg. It is about an interview that was undertaken with labour […]

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