Macroeconomic blindspots

10 Feb, 2017 at 19:16 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

There was an unusual degree of consensus among economists about what would happen if Britain voted for Brexit in the referendum on June 23 last year. The language used by the International Monetary Fund was typical: It expressed fears of an “abrupt reaction,” adding that this “may have already begun” …

What happened instead was that Britain enjoyed the best growth of any major advanced economy in 2016 … Andy Haldane compared the pitfalls of economic prediction to the single most famously wrong weather forecast in British history, made on the BBC on Oct. 15, 1987. A woman had called the BBC to say she was worried there was a hurricane on the way. “Don’t worry, there isn’t,” the weatherman responded. That night, 22 people died amid hurricane-force winds …

6a00e551f080038834019affbd1c2a970bThe reason this poses a deep intellectual crisis for macro-economics is that the entire point of the field, as it has developed since the work of John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s, is to prevent just this sort of severe downturn. Keynes once spoke of a future in which economists would be “humble, competent people on a level with dentists” …  It seems to me, though, that what macroeconomists do is really most like bomb disposal. Uniquely in the social sciences and humanities, macroeconomics was developed with a specific, real-world purpose, and a negative purpose to boot: to stop anything like the Great Depression from ever happening again. Given this goal — to avert systemic crises and downturns — the credit crunch and the Great Recession were, for macroeconomics, an intellectual disaster.

In retrospect, the failure of the discipline to predict and prevent the crisis was based on deep conceptual faults. One of these concerned a mysterious refusal to engage with the role of the banking and finance system in the economy. Another was the assumption that the discipline makes about individual motivations, assuming that individuals “optimize” their decision-making to behave, in economic terms, rationally. This is a convenient intellectual shortcut for building models, but it is also a fiction, as we know not just from our own human experience but even from within economics itself, where microeconomics has recently made exciting progress in the study of human irrationality, bias and cognitive error. It is a matter of provable fact that our decision-making is not entirely rational. Economic models built on the premise of our rationality will always have a creaky underpinning.

John Lancaster

Reading Lancaster’s article is certainly a very worrying confirmation of what Paul Romer wrote a couple of months ago —  modern macroeconomics is becoming more and more a total waste of time.

One of the problems with macroeconomics that Lancaster
doesn’t discuss is its obsessive mathematization since WW II. This has made mainstream neoclassical economists more or less obsessed with formal, deductive-axiomatic models. Confronted with the critique that they do not solve real problems, they  often react as Saint-Exupéry’s Great Geographer, who, in response to the questions posed by The Little Prince, says that he is too occupied with his scientific work to be be able to say anything about reality. Confronting economic theory’s lack of relevance and ability to tackle real problems, these economists retreat to the wonderful world of economic models. They enter the tool shed — and stay there. While the economic problems in the world around us steadily increase, they are  rather happily playing along with the latest toys in the mathematical toolbox.

Instead of making the model the message, I think we are better served by economists who more  than anything else try to contribute to solving real problems. And then the motto of John Maynard Keynes is more valid than ever:

It is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong


  1. As the Mixicans might say, Olé:

    • Thanks. Always very interesting to read Ole! Olé 🙂

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