Diego Maradona (1960-2020)

27 Nov, 2020 at 19:28 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

Maradona was more than just an extraordinary footballer. He was also a complicated social icon. That further distinguishes him from other footballers, though Pele also has some of that…

70 facts about Argentina legend Diego Maradona | Goal.comHe was both rewarded by and terribly exploited by the system. The system treated him like a “race horse”. They wanted him to play at all cost and pumped him with drugs. They did not care about the physical and psychological costs to him. That contributed to his addiction …

He came from great poverty, from a shanty town. He never hid that and insisted on keeping the connection. I’m told he had tattoos of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. He also had a relationship with the Pope (Francisco, not Benedict II or John Paul II). That politics speaks well of him, even if it was not carried through with the consistency of an intellectual or political activist …

Did you know that in Argentina, before inflation made them irrelevant, they used to call the 10 (diez) peso note a “Diego”? That is how much people loved him.

Thomas Palley

Logic and truth in economics

26 Nov, 2020 at 16:52 | Posted in Economics | 6 Comments

Logic yields validity, not truth. - Post by Ziya on BoldomaticTo be ‘analytical’ and ‘logical’ is something most people find recommendable. These words have a positive connotation. Scientists think deeper than most other people because they use ‘logical’ and ‘analytical’ methods. In dictionaries, logic is often defined as “reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity” and ‘analysis’ as having to do with “breaking something down.”

But that’s not the whole picture. As used in science, analysis usually means something more specific. It means to separate a problem into its constituent elements so to reduce complex — and often complicated — wholes into smaller (simpler) and more manageable parts. You take the whole and break it down (decompose) into its separate parts. Looking at the parts separately one at a time you are supposed to gain a better understanding of how these parts operate and work. Built on that more or less ‘atomistic’ knowledge you are then supposed to be able to predict and explain the behaviour of the complex and complicated whole.

In economics, that means you take the economic system and divide it into its separate parts, analyse these parts one at a time, and then after analysing the parts separately, you put the pieces together.

The ‘analytical’ approach is typically used in economic modelling, where you start with a simple model with few isolated and idealized variables. By ‘successive approximations,’ you then add more and more variables and finally get a ‘true’ model of the whole.

This may sound like a convincing and good scientific approach.

But there is a snag!

The procedure only really works when you have a machine-like whole/system/economy where the parts appear in fixed and stable configurations. And if there is anything we know about reality, it is that it is not a machine! The world we live in is not a ‘closed’ system. On the contrary. It is an essentially ‘open’ system. Things are uncertain, relational, interdependent, complex, and ever-changing.

Without assuming that the underlying structure of the economy that you try to analyze remains stable/invariant/constant, there is no chance the equations of the model remain constant. That’s the very rationale why economists use (often only implicitly) the assumption of ceteris paribus. But — nota bene — this can only be a hypothesis. You have to argue the case. If you cannot supply any sustainable justifications or warrants for the adequacy of making that assumption, then the whole analytical economic project becomes pointless non-informative nonsense. Not only have we to assume that we can shield off variables from each other analytically (external closure). We also have to assume that each and every variable themselves are amenable to be understood as stable and regularity producing machines (internal closure). Which, of course, we know is as a rule not possible. Some things, relations, and structures are not analytically graspable. Trying to analyse parenthood, marriage, employment, etc, piece by piece doesn’t make sense. To be a chieftain, a capital-owner, or a slave is not an individual property of an individual. It can come about only when individuals are integral parts of certain social structures and positions. Social relations and contexts cannot be reduced to individual phenomena. A cheque presupposes a banking system and being a tribe-member presupposes a tribe.  Not taking account of this in their ‘analytical’ approach, economic ‘analysis’ becomes uninformative nonsense.

Using ‘logical’ and ‘analytical’ methods in social sciences means that economists succumb to the fallacy of composition — the belief that the whole is nothing but the sum of its parts.  In society and in the economy this is arguably not the case. An adequate analysis of society and economy a fortiori cannot proceed by just adding up the acts and decisions of individuals. The whole is more than a sum of parts.

Mainstream economics is built on using the ‘analytical’ method. The models built with this method presuppose that social reality is ‘closed.’ Since social reality is known to be fundamentally ‘open,’ it is difficult to see how models of that kind can explain anything about what happens in such a universe. Postulating closed conditions to make models operational and then impute these closed conditions to society’s real structure is an unwarranted procedure that does not take necessary ontological considerations seriously.

In face of the kind of methodological individualism and rational choice theory that dominate mainstream economics we have to admit that even if knowing the aspirations and intentions of individuals are necessary prerequisites for giving explanations of social events, they are far from sufficient. Even the most elementary ‘rational’ actions in society presuppose the existence of social forms that it is not possible to reduce to the intentions of individuals. Here, the ‘analytical’ method fails again.

The overarching flaw with the ‘analytical’ economic approach using methodological individualism and rational choice theory is basically that they reduce social explanations to purportedly individual characteristics. But many of the characteristics and actions of the individual originate in and are made possible only through society and its relations. Society is not a Wittgensteinian ‘Tractatus-world’ characterized by atomistic states of affairs. Society is not reducible to individuals, since the social characteristics, forces, and actions of the individual are determined by pre-existing social structures and positions. Even though society is not a volitional individual, and the individual is not an entity given outside of society, the individual (actor) and the society (structure) have to be kept analytically distinct. They are tied together through the individual’s reproduction and transformation of already given social structures.

Since at least the marginal revolution in economics in the 1870s it has been an essential feature of economics to ‘analytically’ treat individuals as essentially independent and separate entities of action and decision. But, really, in such a complex, organic and evolutionary system as an economy, that kind of independence is a deeply unrealistic assumption to make. To simply assume that there is strict independence between the variables we try to analyze doesn’t help us the least if that hypothesis turns out to be unwarranted.

To be able to apply the ‘analytical’ approach, economists have to basically assume that the universe consists of ‘atoms’ that exercise their own separate and invariable effects in such a way that the whole consist of nothing but an addition of these separate atoms and their changes. These simplistic assumptions of isolation, atomicity, and additivity are, however, at odds with reality. In real-world settings, we know that the ever-changing contexts make it futile to search for knowledge by making such reductionist assumptions. Real-world individuals are not reducible to contentless atoms and so not susceptible to atomistic analysis. The world is not reducible to a set of atomistic ‘individuals’ and ‘states.’ How variable X works and influence real-world economies in situation A cannot simply be assumed to be understood or explained by looking at how X works in situation B. Knowledge of X probably does not tell us much if we do not take into consideration how it depends on Y and Z. It can never be legitimate just to assume that the world is ‘atomistic.’ Assuming real-world additivity cannot be the right thing to do if the things we have around us rather than being ‘atoms’ are ‘organic’ entities.

If we want to develop new and better economics we have to give up on the single-minded insistence on using a deductivist straitjacket methodology and the ‘analytical’ method. To focus scientific endeavours on proving things in models is a gross misapprehension of the purpose of economic theory. Deductivist models and ‘analytical’ methods disconnected from reality are not relevant to predict, explain or understand real-world economies

To have ‘consistent’ models and ‘valid’ evidence is not enough. What economics needs are real-world relevant models and sound evidence. Aiming only for ‘consistency’ and ‘validity’ is setting the economics aspirations level too low for developing a realist and relevant science.

Economics is not mathematics or logic. It’s about society. The real world.

Models may help us think through problems. But we should never forget that the formalism we use in our models is not self-evidently transportable to a largely unknown and uncertain reality. The tragedy with mainstream economic theory is that it thinks that the logic and mathematics used are sufficient for dealing with our real-world problems. They are not! Model deductions based on questionable assumptions can never be anything but pure exercises in hypothetical reasoning.

The world in which we live is inherently uncertain and quantifiable probabilities are the exception rather than the rule. To every statement about it is attached a ‘weight of argument’ that makes it impossible to reduce our beliefs and expectations to a one-dimensional stochastic probability distribution. If “God does not play dice” as Einstein maintained, I would add “nor do people.” The world as we know it has limited scope for certainty and perfect knowledge. Its intrinsic and almost unlimited complexity and the interrelatedness of its organic parts prevent the possibility of treating it as constituted by ‘legal atoms’ with discretely distinct, separable and stable causal relations. Our knowledge accordingly has to be of a rather fallible kind.

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? Even if there always has to be a trade-off between theory-internal validity and external validity, we have to ask ourselves if our models are relevant.

‘Human logic’ has to supplant the classical — formal — logic of deductivism if we want to have anything of interest to say of the real world we inhabit. Logic 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. In this world, I would say we are better served with a methodology that takes into account that the more we know, the more we know we do not know.

‘Mathiness’ in economics

25 Nov, 2020 at 16:35 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

 blah_blahIn practice, what math does is let macro-economists locate the FWUTVs [facts with unknown truth values] farther away from the discussion of identification … Relying on a micro-foundation lets an author say, “Assume A, assume B, …  blah blah blah … And so we have proven that P is true. Then the model is identified.” …

Distributional assumptions about error terms are a good place to bury things because hardly anyone pays attention to them. Moreover, if a critic does see that this is the identifying assumption, how can she win an argument about the true expected value the level of aether? If the author can make up an imaginary variable, “because I say so” seems like a pretty convincing answer to any question about its properties.

Paul Romer

Yes, indeed, modern mainstream economics — and especially its mathematical-statistical operationalization in the form of econometrics — fails miserably over and over again. ‘Modern’ mainstream economics is based on the belief that deductive-axiomatic modelling is a sufficient guide to truth. That belief is, however, totally unfounded as long as no proofs are supplied for us to believe in the assumptions on which the model-based deductions and conclusions build. ‘Mathiness’ masquerading as science is often used by mainstream economists to hide the problematic character of the assumptions used in their theories and models. But — without showing the model assumptions to be realistic and relevant, that kind of economics indeed, as Romer puts it, produces nothing but “blah blah blah.”

Radical Uncertainty' Review: The Dismal Overreachers - WSJ The belief that mathematical reasoning is more rigorous and precise than verbal reasoning, which is thought to be susceptible to vagueness and ambiguity, is pervasive in economics. In a celebrated attack on … Paul Krugman, the Chicago economist John Cochrane wrote, ‘Math in economics serves to keep the logic straight, to make sure that the “then” really does follow the “if,” which it so frequently does not if you just write prose.’ But there is a difficulty here which appears to be much more serious in economics than it is in natural sciences: that of relating variables which are written down and manipulated in mathematical models to things that can be identified and measured in the real world … Concepts such as ‘investment specific technology shocks’ and ‘wage markup’ which are no more observable, or well defined, than toves or borogoves. They exist only within the model, which is rigorous only in the same sense as ‘Jabberwocky’ is rigorous; the meaning of each term is defined by the author, and the logic of the argument follows tautologically from these definitions.

Without strong evidence, all kinds of absurd claims and nonsense may pretend to be science. Using math can never be a substitute for thinking. Or as Romer has it in his showdown with ‘post-real’ economics:

Math cannot establish the truth value of a fact. Never has. Never will.

Has mainstream economics — really — gone through a pluralist and empirical revolution?

20 Nov, 2020 at 18:14 | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments

1390045613 In an issue of the journal Fronesis yours truly and a couple of other academics (e.g. Julie Nelson, Tony Lawson, and Phil Mirowski) made an effort at introducing its readers to heterodox economics and its critique of mainstream economics. Rather unsurprisingly this hasn’t pleased the Swedish economics establishment.

On the mainstream economics blog Ekonomistas, professor Daniel Waldenström rode out to defend the mainstream with the nowadays standard defence — heterodox critics haven’t understood that mainstream economics today has gone through a pluralist and empirical revolution. Since heterodox critics haven’t noticed that, their views on the mainstream project is more or less irrelevant.

Well, the problem with that defence is that it has pretty little with reality to do.

When mainstream economists today try to give a picture of modern economics as a pluralist enterprise, they silently ‘forget’ to mention that the change and diversity that gets their approval only takes place within the analytic-formalistic modelling strategy that makes up the core of mainstream economics.logo_netzwerk_500px_transparent You’re free to take your analytical formalist models and apply it to whatever you want — as long as you do it with a modeling methodology that is acceptable to the mainstream. If you do not follow this particular mathematical-deductive analytical formalism you’re not even considered doing economics. If you haven’t modeled your thoughts, you’re not in the economics business. But this isn’t pluralism. It’s a methodological reductionist straightjacket.

To most mainstream economists you only have knowledge of something when you can prove it, and so ‘proving’ theories with their models via deductions is considered the only certain way to acquire new knowledge. This is, however, a view for which there is no warranted epistemological foundation. Outside mathematics and logics, all human knowledge is conjectural and fallible.

Validly deducing things in closed analytical-formalist-mathematical models — built on atomistic-reductionist assumptions — doesn’t much help us understand or explain what is taking place in the real world we happen to live in. Validly deducing things from patently unreal assumptions — that we all know are purely fictional — makes most of the modelling exercises pursued by mainstream macroeconomists rather pointless. It’s simply not the stuff that real understanding and explanation in science is made of. Had mainstream economists not been so in love with their smorgasbord of models, they would have perceived this too. Telling us that the plethora of models that make up modern macroeconomics ‘are not right or wrong,’ but ‘just more or less applicable to different situations,’ is nothing short of hand waving.

Take macroeconomics as an example. Yes, there is a proliferation of macromodels nowadays — but it almost exclusively takes place as a kind of axiomatic variation within the standard DSGE modelling framework. And — no matter how many thousands of models mainstream economists come up with, as long as they are just axiomatic variations of the same old mathematical-deductive ilk, they will not take us one single inch closer to giving us relevant and usable means to further our understanding and explanation of real economies.

Most mainstream economists seem to have no problem with this lack of fundamental diversity — not just path-dependent elaborations of the mainstream canon — and the vanishingly little real world relevance that characterise modern macroeconomics. To these economists there is nothing basically wrong with ‘standard theory.’ As long as policy makers and economists stick to ‘standard economic analysis’ — DSGE — everything is fine. Economics is just a common language and method that makes us think straight and reach correct answers.

Most mainstream neoclassical economists are not for pluralism. They are fanatics insisting on using an axiomatic-deductive economic modelling strategy. To yours truly, this attitude is nothing but a late confirmation of Alfred North Whitehead’s complaint that “the self-confidence of learned people is the comic tragedy of civilisation.”

Daniel Waldenström — like so many other mainstream economists today — seems to maintain that new imaginative empirical methods — such as natural experiments, field experiments, lab experiments, RCTs — help us to answer questions concerning the validity of economic theories and models.

Yours truly beg to differ. There are few real reasons to share his optimism on the alleged pluralist and empirical revolution in economics.

I am basically — though not without reservations — in favour of the increased use of experiments and field studies within economics. Not least as an alternative to completely barren ‘bridge-less’ axiomatic-deductive theory models. My criticism is more about aspiration levels and what we believe that we can achieve with our mediational epistemological tools and methods in the social sciences.

The increasing use of natural and quasi-natural experiments in economics during the last couple of decades has led several prominent economists to triumphantly declare it as a major step on a recent path toward empirics, where instead of being a deductive philosophy, economics is now increasingly becoming an inductive science.

In randomised trials the researchers try to find out the causal effects that different variables of interest may have by changing circumstances randomly — a procedure somewhat (‘on average’) equivalent to the usual ceteris paribus assumption).

Besides the fact that ‘on average’ is not always ‘good enough,’ it amounts to nothing but hand waving to simpliciter assume, without argumentation, that it is tenable to treat social agents and relations as homogeneous and interchangeable entities.

Randomisation is used to basically allow the econometrician to treat the population as consisting of interchangeable and homogeneous groups (‘treatment’ and ‘control’). The regression models one arrives at by using randomised trials tell us the average effect that variations in variable X has on the outcome variable Y, without having to explicitly control for effects of other explanatory variables R, S, T, etc., etc. Everything is assumed to be essentially equal except the values taken by variable X.

Just as e.g. econometrics, randomisation promises more than it can deliver, basically because it requires assumptions that in practice are not possible to maintain.

Like econometrics, randomisation is basically a deductive method. Real target systems are seldom epistemically isomorphic to our axiomatic-deductive models/systems, and even if they were, we still have to argue for the external validity of the conclusions reached from within these epistemically convenient models/systems. Causal evidence generated by randomisation procedures may be valid in ‘closed’ models, but what we usually are interested in, is causal evidence in the real target system we happen to live in.

‘Ideally controlled experiments’ tell us with certainty what causes what effects — but only given the right ‘closures.’ Making appropriate extrapolations from (ideal, accidental, natural or quasi) experiments to different settings, populations or target systems, is not easy. ‘It works there ‘s no evidence for ‘it will work here.’ Causes deduced in an experimental setting still have to show that they come with an export-warrant to the target population/system. The causal background assumptions made have to be justified, and without licenses to export, the value of ‘rigorous’ and ‘precise’ methods — and ‘on-average-knowledge’ — is despairingly small.

So, no, I find it hard to share Waldenström’s and other mainstream economists’ enthusiasm and optimism on the value of the latest ’empirical’ trends in mainstream economics. I would argue that although different ’empirical’ approaches have been — more or less — integrated into mainstream economics, there is still a long way to go before economics has become a truly empirical science.

Heterodox critics are not ill-informed about the development of mainstream economics. Its methodology is still the same basic neoclassical one. It’s still non-pluralist. And although more and more economists work within the field of ’empirical’ economics, the foundation and ‘self-evident’ bench-mark is still of the neoclassical deductive-axiomatic ilk.

Sad to say, but we still have to wait for the revolution that will make economics an empirical and truly pluralist and relevant science. Until then — if you’r familiar with the Swedish language — why not read Fronesis and get a glimpse of the future to come? Mainstream economics belongs to the past.

Paul Samuelson and the ergodic hypothesis

20 Nov, 2020 at 10:57 | Posted in Economics | 7 Comments

Paul Samuelson claimed that the “ergodic hypothesis” is essential for advancing economics from the realm of history to the realm of science.

But is it really tenable to assume that ergodicity is essential to economics?

The answer can only be – as I have argued






here – NO WAY!

Obviously yours truly is far from the only scientist being critical of Paul Samuelson. This is what Ole Peters writes in a highly interesting article on Samuelson’s stance on the ergodic hypothesis:

Samuelson said that we should accept the ergodic hypothesis because if a system is not ergodic you cannot treat it scientifically. First of all, that’s incorrect, although I think I understand how he ended up with this impression: ergodicity means that a system is very insensitive to initial conditions or perturbations and details of the dynamics, and that makes it easy to make universal statements about such systems …

Another problem with Samuelson’s statement is the logic: we should accept this hypothesis because then we can make universal statements. But before we make any hypothesis—even one that makes our lives easier—we should check whether we know it to be wrong. In this case, there’s nothing to hypothesize. Financial and economic systems are non-ergodic. And if that means we can’t say anything meaningful, then perhaps we shouldn’t try to make meaningful claims. Well, perhaps we can speak for entertainment, but we cannot claim that it’s meaningful.

In what sense would saying something that’s patently false be “meaningful,” or “scientific” rather than “historical”? You can see where I’m going with this. Important models that economists use are not ergodic, so what’s this debate about?…

Samuelson’s comment makes little sense. A hypothesis is about something we don’t know, but in the case of finance models this is something we do know. There’s no reason to hypothesize—the system is not ergodic. It’s like hypothesizing that 3 times 4 is 0 because it makes the mathematics simpler. But I can calculate that the product is 12. Of course, a formalism that’s based on the 3-times-4 hypothesis will run into trouble sooner or later. In economics, that happens with the ergodic hypothesis when we think about risk, or financial stability. Or inequality, as we’re just working out at the moment.

And this is Nassim Taleb’s verdict on Samuelson’s view on science:

However, if you believe in free will you can’t truly believe in social sci­ence and economic projection. You cannot predict how people will act. Except, of course, if there is a trick, and that trick is the cord on which neoclassical economics is suspended. You simply assume that individuals will be rational in the future and thus act predictably. There is a strong link between rationality, predictability, and mathematical tractability …

In orthodox economics, rationality became a straitjacket … This led to mathematical techniques such as “maximization,” or “optimization,” on which Paul Samuelson built much of his work … This optimization set back social science by reducing it from the intellectual and reflective discipline that it was becoming to an attempt at an “exact science.” By “exact science,” I mean a second-rate engineering problem for those who want to pretend that they are in the physics department— so-called physics envy. In other words, an intellectual fraud …

uesc_09_img0509The tragedy is that Paul Samuelson, a quick mind, is said to be one of the most intelligent scholars of his generation. This was clearly a case of very badly invested intelli­gence. Characteristically, Samuelson intimidated those who questioned his techniques with the statement “Those who can, do science, others do methodology.” If you knew math, you could “do science” … Alas, it turns out that it was Samuelson and most of his followers who did not know much math, or did not know how to use what math they knew, how to apply it to reality. They only knew enough math to be blinded by it.

Tragically, before the proliferation of empirically blind idiot savants, interesting work had been begun by true thinkers, the likes of J . M . Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and the great Benoît Mandelbrot, all of whom were displaced because they moved economics away from the precision of second-rate physics. Very sad.

Using ‘small-world’ models in a large world

19 Nov, 2020 at 10:14 | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments

Radical uncertainty arises when we know something, but not enough to enable us to act with confidence. And that is a situation we all too frequently encounter …

kayThe language and mathematics of probability is a compelling way of analysing games of chance. And similar models have proved useful in some branches of physics. Probabilities can also be used to describe overall mortality risk just as they also form the basis of short-term weather forecasting and expectations about the likely incidence of motor accidents. But these uses of probability are possible because they are in the domain of stationary processes. The determinants of the motion of particles in liquids, or overall (as distinct from pandemic-driven) human mortality, do not change over time, or do so only slowly.  

But most of the problems we face in politics, business (including finance) and society are not like that. We do not have, and never will have, the kind of understanding of human behaviour which emulates the understanding of physical behaviour which yields equations of planetary motion. Worse, human behaviour changes over time in a way that the equations of planetary motion do not …

Discourse about uncertainty has fallen victim to a pseudo-science. When no meaningful quantification is possible, algebra can provide only spurious precision, while at the same time the language becomes casual and sloppy. The terms risk, uncertainty and volatility are treated as equivalent; the words likelihood, confidence and probability are also used as if they had the same meaning. But risk is not the same as uncertainty, although it arises from it, and the confidence with which a statement is made is at best weakly related to the probability that it is true. 

The mistake that Viniar of Goldman Sachs exemplified as the credit crunch bit was to believe that a number derived from a “small world” model—a simplification based on a historic data set—is directly applicable to the “large world,” complex and constantly evolving, in which we live. We are both strongly committed to the construction and use of models—we have spent much of our careers in academia and in the financial and business world doing exactly those things. But that has left us aware of the limitations of models as well as their uses. 

John Kay & Mervyn King

Since yours truly thinks this is a great article — as is the authors’ book Radical Uncertainty (The Bridge Street Press, 2020) — it merits a couple of comments.

To understand real world ”non-routine” decisions and unforeseeable changes in behaviour, ergodic probability distributions are of no avail. In a world full of genuine uncertainty – where real historical time rules the roost – the probabilities that ruled the past are not those that will rule the future.

Time is what prevents everything from happening at once. To simply assume that economic processes are ergodic and concentrate on ensemble averages – and a fortiori in any relevant sense timeless – is not a sensible way for dealing with the kind of genuine uncertainty that permeates open systems such as economies.

When you assume the economic processes to be ergodic, ensemble and time averages are identical. Let me give an example: Assume we have a market with an asset priced at 100 €. Then imagine the price first goes up by 50% and then later falls by 50%. The ensemble average for this asset would be 100 €- because we here envision two parallel universes (markets) where the asset-price falls in one universe (market) with 50% to 50 €, and in another universe (market) it goes up with 50% to 150 €, giving an average of 100 € ((150+50)/2). The time average for this asset would be 75 € – because we here envision one universe (market) where the asset-price first rises by 50% to 150 €, and then falls by 50% to 75 € (0.5*150).

From the ensemble perspective nothing really, on average, happens. From the time perspective lots of things really, on average, happen.

Assuming ergodicity there would have been no difference at all. What is important with the fact that real social and economic processes are nonergodic is the fact that uncertainty – not risk – rules the roost. That was something both Keynes and Knight basically said in their 1921 books. Thinking about uncertainty in terms of “rational expectations” and “ensemble averages” has had seriously bad repercussions on the financial system.

Knight’s uncertainty concept has an epistemological founding and Keynes’ definitely an ontological founding. Of course, this also has repercussions on the issue of ergodicity in a strict methodological and mathematical-statistical sense. I think Keynes’ view is the most warranted of the two.

The most interesting and far-reaching difference between the epistemological and the ontological view is that if one subscribes to the former, Knightian view –- as Kay and King do –- you open up for the mistaken belief that with better information and greater computer-power we somehow should always be able to calculate probabilities and describe the world as an ergodic universe. As Keynes convincingly argued, that is ontologically just not possible.

If probability distributions do not exist for certain phenomena, those distributions are not only not knowable, but the whole question regarding whether they can or cannot be known is beside the point. Keynes essentially says this when he asserts that sometimes they are simply unknowable.

John Davis

To Keynes, the source of uncertainty was in the nature of the real — nonergodic — world. It had to do, not only — or primarily — with the epistemological fact of us not knowing the things that today are unknown, but rather with the much deeper and far-reaching ontological fact that there often is no firm basis on which we can form quantifiable probabilities and expectations at all.

Sometimes we do not know because we cannot know.

Economic methodology

18 Nov, 2020 at 12:16 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

We are all realists and we all — Mäki, Cartwright, and I — self-consciously present ourselves as such. The most obvious research-guiding commonality, perhaps, is that we do all look at the ontological presuppositions of economics or economists.

title-methodology-image_tcm7-198540Where we part company, I believe, is that I want to go much further. I guess I would see their work as primarily analytical and my own as more critically constructive or dialectical. My goal is less the clarification of what economists are doing and presupposing as seeking to change the orientation of modern economics … Specifically, I have been much more prepared than the other two to criticise the ontological presuppositions of economists—at least publically. I think Mäki is probably the most guarded. I think too he is the least critical, at least of the state of modern economics …

One feature of Mäki’s work that I am not overly convinced by, but which he seems to value, is his method of theoretical isolation (Mäki 1992). If he is advocating it as a method for social scientific research, I doubt it will be found to have much relevance—for reasons I discuss in Economics and reality (Lawson 1997). But if he is just saying that the most charitable way of interpreting mainstream economists is that they are acting on this method, then fine. Sometimes, though, he seems to imply more …

I cannot get enthused by Mäki’s concern to see what can be justified in contemporary formalistic modelling endeavours. The insights, where they exist, seem so obvious, circumscribed, and tagged on anyway …

As I view things, anyway, a real difference between Mäki and me is that he is far less, or less openly, critical of the state and practices of modern economics … Mäki seems more inclined to accept mainstream economic contributions as largely successful, or anyway uncritically. I certainly do not think we can accept mainstream contributions as successful, and so I proceed somewhat differently …

So if there is a difference here it is that Mäki more often starts out from mainstream academic economic analyses accepted rather uncritically, whilst I prefer to start from those everyday practices widely regarded as successful.

Tony Lawson

Tony Lawson and Uskali Mäki are both highly influential contemporary students of economic methodology and philosophy. Yours truly has learned a lot from both of them. Although to a certain degree probably also a question of temperament, I find Lawson’s critical realist critique of mainstream economic theories and models deeper and more convincing than Mäki’s more ‘distanced’ approach. Mäki’s detached style probably reflects the fact that he is a philosopher with an interest in economics, rather than an economist. Being an economist it is easier to see the relevance of Lawson’s ambitious and far-reaching critique of mainstream economics than it is to value Mäki’s often rather arduous application of the analytic-philosophical tool-kit, typically less ambitiously aiming for mostly conceptual and terminological ‘clarifications.’

Graduate education in economics

16 Nov, 2020 at 17:44 | Posted in Economics | 7 Comments

Modern economics has become increasingly irrelevant to the understanding of the real world. In his seminal book Economics and Reality (1997) Tony Lawson traced this irrelevance to the failure of economists to match their deductive-axiomatic methods with their subject.

It is — sad to say — as relevant today as it was twenty-three years ago.


It is still a fact that within mainstream economics internal validity is everything and external validity nothing. Why anyone should be interested in that kind of theories and models is beyond my imagination. As long as mainstream economists do not come up with any export-licenses for their theories and models to the real world in which we live, they really should not be surprised if people say that this is not science, but autism!

Studying mathematics and logics is interesting and fun. It sharpens the mind. In pure mathematics and logics we do not have to worry about external validity. But economics is not pure mathematics or logics. It’s about society. The real world.

Already back in 1991, Journal of Economic Literature published a study by the Commission on Graduate Education in Economics (COGEE) of the American Economic Association (AEA) — chaired by Anne Krueger and including people like Kenneth Arrow, Edward Leamer, Joseph Stiglitz, and Lawrence Summers — focusing on “the extent to which graduate education in economics may have become too removed from real economic problems.” The COGEE members reported from own experience “that it is an underemphasis on the ‘linkages’ between tools, both theory and econometrics, and ‘real world problems’ that is the weakness of graduate education in economics,”  and that both students and faculty sensed “the absence of facts, institutional information, data, real-world issues, applications, and policy problems.” And in conclusion they wrote (emphasis added):

The commission’s fear is that graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiot savants skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.

Sorry to say, not much is different today. Economics education is still in dire need of a remake.

Marknadsstyrd skola? Nej tack!

15 Nov, 2020 at 16:15 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment

Friskolorna och sekretessen | LARS P. SYLLDet är allvarligt att likvärdigheten brister i dag, men tyvärr blir det inte bättre utan skevheterna ökar med tiden när vi har ett fritt skolval och en rörlig skolpeng. Den dystra slutsatsen är att Sverige allt mer blir ett samhälle där du måste vara född i rätt familj och med ett starkt socialt kapital i bagaget för att kunna lyckas i livet.

Det är en tankemodell som tyvärr kommer att vinna mark. Att inte se problemen med dagens marknadsstyrda skola är blunda för verkligheten. Dagens marknadiserade skola leder till att demokratin och tanken på allas lika möjligheter att lyckas i livet successivt urholkas. Ungefär som den utveckling USA har haft under en längre tid och som manifesterats i Trumps framgångar.

Nu har USA:s väljare valt en annan väg och det ser ljusare ut nu än före valet. De svenska väljarna står också inför ett vägval och måste ställa sig frågan: Vilken skola vill vi ha, en skola där alla kan lyckas eller bara de med ett starkt socialt kapital?

Svaret på den frågan borde var given för den som vill att skolan ska vara en plats där alla elever ges lika möjlighet att lyckas med sin skolgång, och i förlängningen kunna förverkliga sina liv.

Mattias Karlsson / HallandsPosten

France Relance

10 Nov, 2020 at 18:21 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment

Le plan de relance français est-il déjà obsolète avant d’avoir servi ? En tout cas, sa forme et son application sont sérieusement remises en cause par le deuxième confinement qui est en train de replonger dans le rouge tous les indicateurs économiques, ragaillardis à la faveur de l’été. Il voyait pourtant loin cet ambitieux dispositif, baptisé « France Relance », le regard volontairement tourné vers 2030. C’est bien justement ce qu’on lui reproche aujourd’hui : avoir la tête dans le futur. Avant de penser à la décennie prochaine, il serait opportun de réaliser que la survie de notre économie se joue dans les mois à venir …

Keynes vs. Hayek on BBC Radio 4 | LARS P. SYLLCe débat entre court terme – aide à la consommation – et long terme – aide aux entreprises – est aussi vieux que les plans de relance. Et clive l’économie entre ceux qui pensent comme John Maynard Keynes « qu’à long terme nous serons tous morts », et qu’il faut donc aider tout de suite le consommateur, et les libéraux pour qui il est plus efficace de soutenir les entreprises en baissant leurs coûts pour les inciter à investir et à embaucher, ce qui prend plus de temps. Comme le disait l’économiste libéral autrichien Ludwig von Mises, répondant à Keynes, « brûler ses meubles n’est pas forcément une bonne méthode pour chauffer son logis ». Il reste que, quand la maison brûle, les rêves de long terme se brisent facilement sur les désastres économiques et les révoltes sociales.

Where modern macroeconomics went wrong

7 Nov, 2020 at 09:19 | Posted in Economics | 8 Comments

DSGE models seem to take it as a religious tenet that consumption should be explained by a model of a representative agent maximizing his utility over an infinite lifetime without borrowing constraints. Doing so is called micro-founding the model. But economics is a behavioral science. If Keynes was right that individuals saved a constant fraction of their income, an aggregate model based on that assumption is micro-founded.FRANCE-US-ECONOMY-NOBEL-STIGLITZOf course, the economy consists of individuals who are different, but all of whom have a finite life and most of whom are credit constrained, and who do adjust their consumption behavior, if slowly, in response to changes in their economic environment. Thus, we also know that individuals do not save a constant fraction of their income, come what may. So both stories, the DSGE and the old-fashioned Keynesian, are simplifications. When they are incorporated into a simple macro-model, one is saying the economy acts as if… And then the question is, which provides a better description; a better set of prescriptions; and a better basis for future elaboration of the model. The answer is not obvious. The criticism of DSGE is thus not that it involves simplification: all models do. It is that it has made the wrong modelling choices, choosing complexity in areas where the core story of macroeconomic fluctuations could be told using simpler hypotheses, but simplifying in areas where much of the macroeconomic action takes place.

Joseph Stiglitz

Stiglitz is, of course, absolutely right.

DSGE models are worse than useless — and still, mainstream economists seem to be impressed by the ‘rigour’ brought to macroeconomics by New-Classical-New-Keynesian DSGE models and its rational expectations and microfoundations!

It is difficult to see why.

Take the rational expectations assumption. Rational expectations in the mainstream economists’ world imply that relevant distributions have to be time independent. This amounts to assuming that an economy is like a closed system with known stochastic probability distributions for all different events. In reality, it is straining one’s beliefs to try to represent economies as outcomes of stochastic processes. An existing economy is a single realization tout court, and hardly conceivable as one realization out of an ensemble of economy-worlds since an economy can hardly be conceived as being completely replicated over time. It is — to say the least — very difficult to see any similarity between these modelling assumptions and the expectations of real persons. In the world of the rational expectations hypothesis, we are never disappointed in any other way than as when we lose at the roulette wheels. But real life is not an urn or a roulette wheel. And that’s also the reason why allowing for cases where agents make ‘predictable errors’ in DSGE models doesn’t take us any closer to a relevant and realist depiction of actual economic decisions and behaviours. If we really want to have anything of interest to say on real economies, financial crisis and the decisions and choices real people make we have to replace the rational expectations hypothesis with more relevant and realistic assumptions concerning economic agents and their expectations than childish roulette and urn analogies.

Or take the consumption model built into the DSGE models that Stiglitz criticises. There, people are basically portrayed as treating time as a dichotomous phenomenon – today and the future — when contemplating making decisions and acting. How much should one consume today and how much in the future? Facing an intertemporal budget constraint of the form

ct + cf/(1+r) = ft + yt + yf/(1+r),

where ct is consumption today, cf is consumption in the future, ft is holdings of financial assets today, yt is labour incomes today, yf is labour incomes in the future, and r is the real interest rate, and having a lifetime utility function of the form

U = u(ct) + au(cf),

where a is the time discounting parameter, the representative agent (consumer) maximizes his utility when

u´(ct) = a(1+r)u´(cf).

This expression – the Euler equation – implies that the representative agent (consumer) is indifferent between consuming one more unit today or instead consuming it tomorrow. Typically using a logarithmic function form – u(c) = log c – which gives u´(c) = 1/c, the Euler equation can be rewritten as

1/ct = a(1+r)(1/cf),


cf/ct = a(1+r).

This importantly implies that according to the neoclassical consumption model that changes in the (real) interest rate and the ratio between future and present consumption move in the same direction.

So good, so far. But how about the real world? Is the neoclassical consumption as described in this kind of models in tune with the empirical facts? Hardly — the data and models are as a rule inconsistent!

In the Euler equation, we only have one interest rate, equated to the money market rate as set by the central bank. The crux is that — given almost any specification of the utility function – the two rates are actually often found to be strongly negatively correlated in the empirical literature. The data on returns and aggregate consumption simply are inconsistent with the DSGE models.

Although yours truly shares a lot of Stiglitz’ critique of DSGE modelling — “the standard DSGE model provides a poor basis for policy, and tweaks to it are unlikely to be helpful” —  it has to be said that his more general description of the history and state of modern macroeconomics is less convincing.  Stiglitz notices that some of the greatest deficiencies in DSGE models “relates to the treatment of uncertainty,” but doesn’t really follow up on that core difference between Keynesian ‘genuine uncertainty’ economics and neoclassical ‘stochastic risk’ economics. DSGE models are only the latest outgrow of neoclassical general equilibrium (Arrow-Debreu) economics. And that theory has never, and will never, be a good starting point for constructing good macroeconomic theory and models. When the foundation of the house you build is weak, it will never be somewhere you want to live, no matter how many new — and in Stiglitz’ view better — varieties of ‘micro-foundations’ you add.

Ergodicity (wonkish)

2 Nov, 2020 at 10:23 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

Time irreversibility and non-ergodicity are — as yours truly repeatedly has argued — extremely important issues for understanding what are some of the deep fundamental flaws of mainstream economics.

Ole Peters presentation at Gresham College gives further  evidence why expectation values are irrelevant for understanding real-world economic systems.

Olivier Blanchard fordert generöser Subventionen statt Kredite

31 Oct, 2020 at 12:18 | Posted in Economics | Comments Off on Olivier Blanchard fordert generöser Subventionen statt Kredite

ZEIT ONLINE: Herr Blanchard, Deutschland hat gerade einen umfassenden Lockdown beschlossen, wie viele andere Staaten weltweit. Und der erste Lockdown ist noch nicht lange her. Glauben Sie, dass Unternehmen und Regierungen diesmal besser vorbereitet sind?

Olivier Blanchard (@ojblanchard1) | TwitterOlivier Blanchard: Dieser zweite Lockdown hat ganz neue Dimensionen … Wir müssen die direkt und indirekt betroffenen Unternehmen und Arbeiterinnen und Arbeiter schützen. Europa hat das in der ersten Welle relativ gut gemacht … Es kann aber durchaus sein, dass die Rettung der Wirtschaft dieses Mal sogar noch teurer wird. Da beim ersten Mal die staatliche Unterstützung vielerorts aus einer Mischung aus Subventionen und Krediten bestand, haben sich viele Firmen verschuldet. Passiert das noch einmal, steigt die Verschuldung weiter – mit dem Risiko, dass die Unternehmen die Schulden irgendwann nicht mehr zurückzahlen können. Diesmal sollten die Staaten daher noch großzügiger sein als in der ersten Welle.

ZEIT ONLINE: Noch generöser? Schon jetzt summieren sich weltweit die Rettungsprogramme auf Billionenbeträge.

Blanchard: Aber wir müssen realistisch sein: Die Unternehmen, die sich bereits im Frühjahr verschuldeten, brauchen weitere Unterstützung. Werden das Kredite sein, werden sie diese irgendwann nicht mehr bedienen können. Wir werden viele Bankrotterklärungen von an sich profitablen Unternehmen sehen. Deshalb brauchen wir weniger Kredite und mehr Subventionen.

ZEIT ONLINE: Können die europäischen Volkswirtschaften denn so große Defizite verkraften?

Blanchard: Eindeutig ja! … Haben wir den finanzpolitischen Spielraum dafür? Ja. Das Risiko einer Schuldenkrise besteht, ist aber gering. Diese Wette müssen wir eingehen, weil die Alternative noch schlimmer wäre.

Marlies Uken & Lorenzo Barrio / Die Zeit

Interpreting economic theory

30 Oct, 2020 at 13:50 | Posted in Economics | Comments Off on Interpreting economic theory

2019 George Staller Lecture: Ariel Rubinstein | Department of Economics  Cornell Arts & SciencesThe issue of interpreting economic theory is, in my opinion, the most serious problem now facing economic theorists. The feeling among many of us can be summarized as follows. Economic theory should deal with the real world. It is not a branch of abstract mathematics even though it utilizes mathematical tools. Since it is about the real world, people expect the theory to prove useful in achieving practical goals. But economic theory
has not delivered the goods. Predictions from economic theory are not nearly as accurate as those offered by the natural sciences, and the link between economic theory and practical problems … is tenuous at best. Economic theory lacks a consensus as to its purpose and interpretation. Again and again, we find ourselves asking the question “where does it lead?”

Ariel Rubinstein

Is economics value-free?

28 Oct, 2020 at 07:15 | Posted in Economics | 6 Comments

jp-imgresI’ve subsequently stayed away from the minimum wage literature for a number of reasons. First, it cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole.

David Card

Back in 1992, New Jersey raised the minimum wage by 18 per cent while its neighbour state, Pennsylvania, left its minimum wage unchanged. Unemployment in New Jersey should — according to mainstream economics textbooks — have increased relative to Pennsylvania. However, when economists David Card and Alan Krueger gathered information on fast food restaurants in the two states, it turned out that unemployment had actually decreased in New Jersey relative to that in Pennsylvania. Counter to mainstream demand theory we had an anomalous case of a backward-sloping supply curve.

Lo and behold!

But of course — when facts and theory don’t agree, it’s the facts that have to be wrong …

buchC6The inverse relationship between quantity demanded and price is the core proposition in economic science, which embodies the pre-supposition that human choice behavior is sufficiently rational to allow predictions to be made. Just as no physicist would claim that “water runs uphill,” no self-respecting economist would claim that increases in the minimum wage increase employment. Such a claim, if seriously advanced, becomes equivalent to a denial that there is even minimal scientific content in economics, and that, in consequence, economists can do nothing but write as advocates for ideological interests. Fortunately, only a handful of economists are willing to throw over the teaching of two centuries; we have not yet become a bevy of camp-following whores.

James M. Buchanan in Wall Street Journal (April 25, 1996)

Economics — non-ideological and value-free? I’ll be dipped!

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