Modern economics — a severe case of model Platonism

28 Aug, 2018 at 09:24 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment

That is the great thing about abstraction. Working with what can be called ‘flex price’ models does not imply that you think price rigidity is unimportant, but instead that it can often be ignored if you want to focus on other processes.

Simon Wren-Lewis

When applying deductivist thinking to economics, mainstream economists like Wren-Lewis usually set up ‘as if’ models based on a set of tight axiomatic assumptions from which consistent and precise inferences are made. The beauty of this procedure is, of course,​ that if the axiomatic premises are true, the conclusions necessarily follow. The snag is that if the models are to be relevant, we also have to argue that their precision and rigour still holds when they are applied to real-world situations. They often do not. When addressing real economies, the idealizations necessary for the deductivist machinery to work — as e. g. ‘flex price’ models — simply do not hold.

If the real world is fuzzy, vague and indeterminate, then why should our models build upon a desire to describe it as precise and predictable? The logic of idealization is a marvellous tool in mathematics and axiomatic-deductivist systems, but a poor guide for action in real-world systems, in which concepts and entities are without clear boundaries and continually interact and overlap.

hansalbertThe neoclassical style of thought – with its emphasis on thought experiments, reflection on the basis of illustrative examples and logically possible extreme cases, its use of model construction as the basis of plausible assumptions, as well as its tendency to decrease the level of abstraction, and similar procedures — appears to have had such a strong influence on economic methodology that even theoreticians who strongly value experience can only free themselves from this methodology with difficulty …

Clearly, it is possible to interpret the ‘presuppositions’ of a theoretical system not as hypotheses, but simply as limitations to the area of application of the system in question. Since a relationship to reality is usually ensured by the language used in economic statements, in this case the impression is generated that a content-laden statement about reality is being made, although the system is fully immunized and thus without content. In my view that is often a source of self-deception in pure economic thought …

A further possibility for immunizing theories consists in simply leaving open the area of application of the constructed model so that it is impossible to refute it with counter examples. This of course is usually done without a complete knowledge of the fatal consequences of such methodological strategies for the usefulness of the theoretical conception in question, but with the view that this is a characteristic of especially highly developed economic procedures: the thinking in models, which, however, among those theoreticians who cultivate neoclassical thought, in essence amounts to a new form of Platonism.

 Hans Albert

1 Comment

  1. “That is the great thing about abstraction. Working with what can be called ‘flex price’ models does not imply that you think price rigidity is unimportant, but instead that it can often be ignored if you want to focus on other processes.

    This is of course self-serving nonsense. It is a way of keeping economics to the economists and excluding others and crucial information.

    What if price rigidity (or flexibility) is important? By the way this does not mean that prices are rigid. Historians looking at the Depression have argued that prices were very flexible, and this was a key part of the causes of problems, and their solutions. In many developing countries with small family sized firms, wages and prices are cut before family members are put out of work. In an age of zero hour contracts, underemployment and very low paid work we need more information from anthropologists, sociologists and others and others on the ground or who have done the field work to know about what is really going on – not more abstraction.

    The explanation must be built up from the facts – not from Model. There does not even have to be a model. But you must have the facts – all of them.


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