Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Fine Whine: "Attacks on mainstream economics and reforming economics teaching"

I usually like Professor Wren-Lewis' thinking but this piece points up the fact that there is an awful lot of navel-gazing going on in the econ academy.
From Mainly Macro:
Mainstream (orthodox) economics is having a hard time in the pages of the Guardian. First Aditya Chakrabortty writesHow do elites remain in charge? If the tale of the economists is any guide, by clearing out the opposition and then blocking their ears to reality. The result is the one we're all paying for.” Then Seumas Milne adds “Any other profession that had proved so spectacularly wrong and caused such devastation would surely be in disgrace.” In this post I want to say why such attacks are wide of the mark, but also say something about how these attacks gain traction, and why they suggest changing the way the subject is taught.

One frequent accusation, very evident in Milne’s piece, and often repeated by heterodox economists, is that mainstream economics and neoliberal ideas are inextricably linked. Of course economics is used to support neoliberalism. Yet I find mainstream economics full of ideas and analysis that permits a wide ranging and deep critique of these same positions. The idea that the two live and die together is just silly.

The absurdity of linking mainstream economics to all our current problems is also obvious if you think about austerity. As I never tire of saying, the proposition that austerity was a crazy thing to try in this recession is prominent in the pages of undergraduate and graduate textbooks. It is what mainstream economics, as practiced in central banks, tells us. Now I agree that it is a great shame that some influential economists sometimes seem to ignore or have forgotten what is in these textbooks, or put their own textbooks aside to provide support for particular political parties. However it remains the case that the most effective critic of austerity is using totally orthodox economics.

Nearly all complaints about that mainstream start off with the economics profession’s failure to foresee the financial crisis. Again it’s important to make some fairly basic points. First economics is not just (or even mainly) about trying to forecast the future. The percentage of the profession that made this mistake is tiny. Another one of my favourite lines back from when I did forecasting is that macro forecasts are only slightly better than guesswork. We know that, both from past evidence and the models themselves. It is a difficult message to get across, because a very visible part of economics - making decisions about interest rates - necessarily involves forecasts, and the media loves simplistic messages, but institutions like central banks do their best to emphasise the uncertainty involved.

It is also obviously not true that mainstream economics is incapable of understanding what led to the crisis, and what needs to be done to avoid it happening again. I think it’s fair to say that much that is in Admati and Hellwig’s The Bankers New Clothes is pretty mainstream. Perhaps in the past economists have been rather narrow, and even politically naive, in issues from regulation to overseas aid, but that is clearly changing and has been changing for some time. 

Having said all this, it would also be a mistake of equal magnitude to think that everything is just fine in the land of academic economics. I am struck about how economists, while at least partially defending their own particular field, are quite happy to express grave concern about what some of their colleagues in other fields do. I’ve noted Andy Haldane and Diane Coyle’s criticisms of DSGE modelling before, and you will find plenty of economists who can be very rude about their colleagues doing finance. More generally I suspect slightly less shrill versions of the sentiments expressed by the two Guardian columnists would attract considerable sympathy from lots of very sensible people who know quite a lot about economics....MORE