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Lars Syll

Lars Syll

Lars Jörgen Pålsson Syll (born November 5, 1957) is a Swedish economist who is a Professor of Social Studies and Associate professor of Economic History at Malmö University College. Pålsson Syll has been a prominent contributor to the economic debate in Sweden over the global financial crisis that began in 2008.

Articles by Lars Syll

MMT perspective on Biden’s $1.9-trillion big spend

3 days ago

From Lars Syll
MMT is about identifying the untapped potential in our economy, what we call our fiscal space … How we choose to utilize that fiscal space is a political matter …
The point is that we run our economy like a six-foot-tall guy who wanders around perpetually hunched over in a house with eight-foot ceilings because someone convinced him that if he tries to stand up tall he’ll suffer a massive head trauma. For too many years, we’ve been crouching down when we could have been standing strong. Irrational fears about government debt and fiscal deficits caused policy makers in the US, Japan, the UK, and elsewhere to pivot away from fiscal stimulus toward austerity in the years following the global financial crisis. This forced immeasurable pain on tens, if not hundreds, of

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Keynes on models and economics

4 days ago

From Lars Syll
Economics is a science of thinking in terms of models joined to the art of choosing models which are relevant to the contemporary world. It is compelled to be this, because, unlike the typical natural science, the material to which it is applied is, in too many respects, not homogeneous through time … I also want to emphasise strongly the point about economics being a moral science. I mentioned before that it deals with introspection and with values. I might have added that it deals with motives, expectations, psychological uncertainties. One has to be constantly on guard against treating the material as constant and homogeneous. It is as though the fall of the apple to the ground depended on the apple’s motives, on whether it is worth while falling to the ground, and

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Chicago economics — the triumph of empty formalism

6 days ago

From Lars Syll
Vielleicht ist diese Grundperspektive der radikalen Trennung von Form und Gehalt hilfreich, einige zunächst überaus paradoxe Äußerungen von Lucas etwas zu erhellen. Erinnert man sich der Forderungen von Lucas, die Makroökonomik zwingend auf Basis der klassischen Postulate, die Lucas und Sargent (1978) als (a) „Markträumung“ und (b) „Eigennutz“ umrissen hatten, zu errichten, so erstaunt man doch angesichts Passagen wie der folgenden:
“In recent years, the meaning of the term “equilibrium” has undergone such dramatic development that a theorist of the 1930s would not recognize it. It is now routine to describe an economy following a multivariate stochastic process as being “in equilibrium,” by which is meant nothing more than that at each point in time, postulates (a)

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The leap of generalization

10 days ago

From Lars Syll
Statistician Andrew Gelman has an interesting blogpost up on what inference in science really means:
I like Don Rubin’s take on this, which is that if you want to go from association to causation, state very clearly what the assumptions are for this step to work. The clear statement of these assumptions can be helpful in moving forward …
Another way to say this is that all inference is about generalizing from sample to population, to predicting the outcomes of hypothetical interventions on new cases. You can’t escape the leap of generalization. Even a perfectly clean randomized experiment is typically of interest only to the extent that it generalizes to new people not included in the original study.
I agree — but that’s also why we so often fail (even when having the

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Keynes on the methodology of econometrics

12 days ago

From Lars Syll
There is first of all the central question of methodology — the logic of applying the method of multiple correlation to unanalysed economic material, which we know to be non-homogeneous through time. If we are dealing with the action of numerically measurable, independent forces, adequately analysed so that we were dealing with independent atomic factors and between them completely comprehensive, acting with fluctuating relative strength on material constant and homogeneous through time, we might be able to use the method of multiple correlation with some confidence for disentangling the laws of their action … In fact we know that every one of these conditions is far from being satisfied by the economic material under investigation.
Letter from John Maynard Keynes to

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Say ‘consistent’ one more time and I …

16 days ago

From Lars Syll
Being able to model a credible world, a world that somehow could be considered ‘similar’ to the real world is not the same as investigating the real world. The minimalist demand on models in terms of ‘credibility’ and ‘consistency’ has to give away to stronger epistemic demands. Claims in a ‘consistent’ model do not per se give a warrant for exporting the claims to real-world target systems.
Questions of external validity are important more specifically also when it comes to microfounded macro models. It can never be enough that these models somehow are regarded as internally consistent. One always also has to pose questions of consistency with the data. Internal consistency without external validity is worth nothing.
Yours truly has for many years been urging economists

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Beyond mathematical modelling

18 days ago

From Lars Syll
Mathematical modelling has now dominated the economics academy for so long that younger people that emerge from economic studies who are dissatisfied with what they are taught, cannot think beyond the modelling. They have been immersed in it so long that it is a kind of common sense to them. The idea that modelling is bound to be almost always irrelevant just does not compute for many. Yet they recognize that modern academic economics mostly does not provide any insights. So, they assume that the fault lies in the sorts of topics covered, or conclusions drawn etc. with the solution to be found by way of doing the modelling differently. It is all quite dire …
The only diversity the mainstream advocate is that which remains consistent with the mathematical modelling

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MMT basics

20 days ago

From Lars Syll
We have already shown that deficit spending increases our collective savings. But what happens if Uncle Sam borrows when he runs a deficit? Is that wht eats up savings and forces interest rates higher? The answer is no.
The financial crowding-out story asks us to imagine that there’s a fixed supply of savings from which anyone can attempt to borrow …
MMT rejects the loanable funds story, which is rooted in the idea that borrowing is limited by access to scarce financial resources …
Government deficits always lead to a dollar-for-dollar increase in the supply of net financial assets held in the nongovernment bucket. That’s not a theory. That’s not an opinion. It’s just the cold hard reality of stock-flow consistent accounting.
So fiscal deficits — even with government

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Does it — really — take a model to beat a model? No!

23 days ago

From Lars Syll
Many economists respond to criticism by saying that ‘all models are wrong’ … But the observation that ‘all models are wrong’ requires qualification by the second part of George Box’s famous aphorism — ‘but some are useful’ … The relevant  criticism of models in macroeconomics and finance is not that they are ‘wrong’ but that they have not proved useful in macroeconomics and have proved misleading in finance.
When we provide such a critique, we often hear another mantra to which many economists subscribe: ‘It takes a model to beat a model.’ On the contrary, we believe that it takes facts and observations to beat a model … If a model fails to answer the problem to which it is addressed, it should be put back in the toolbox … It is not necessary to have an alternative tool

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Hans Albert turns 100

24 days ago

From Lars Syll
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

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Thinking about thinking

25 days ago

From Lars Syll
Unfortunately, the greater part of economic controversies arise from confronting dogmas. The style of argument is that of theology, not of science … In economics, new ideas are treated, in theological style, as heresies and as far as possible kept out of the schools by drilling students in the habit of repeating the old dogmas, so as to prevent established orthodoxy from being undermined …
On the plane of academic theory, the importance of the Keynesian revolution was to show that all the familiar dogmas are set in a world without time and cannot survive the simple observation that decisions, in economic life, are necessarily taken in the light of uncertain expectations about their future consequences.
Orthodox theory reacted to this challenge, in true theological style,

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The future of macroeconomics

28 days ago

From Lars Syll
But why are DSGE models still in the mix at all, and in a key position? Given all the criticisms, what can such models tell us, even as a ‘first pass at important questions’? Multiple equilibria do allow for discussion of a wider range of scenarios, but any discussion of a particular scenario is still constrained by the requirements of general equilibrium theory. These requirements are at the root of the more fundamental critiques of DSGE. While Vines and Wills set out an impressive research agenda to flesh out this multiple-equilibrium approach, we need to reflect on the constraints imposed by general equilibrium theorising itself.
We therefore need to revisit the fundamental problems with general equilibrium theory and the restrictions it imposes on what is admissible.

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Teaching heterodox microeconomics

February 4, 2021

From Lars Syll
Clearly, neoclassical economists believe that neoclassical microeconomic theory is theoretically coherent and provides the best explanation of economic activity; therefore there is no good reason to not teach it, if not exclusively. Many heterodox economists also broadly agree with this position, although not with all the particulars. However, sufficient evidence exists showing that as a whole neoclassical microeconomic theory is theoretically incoherent and without empirical support (see Lee and Keen, 2004; and Keen, 2001). Moreover, the methodological underpinning of neoclassical microeconomics is open to criticisms. The methodological approach of neoclassical economics is based on a pre-vision of supply and demand and/or a Walrasian general equilibrium all combined

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Best advice to an aspiring economist — don’t be an economist

February 1, 2021

From Lars Syll
And still, amidst all this tumult, many economists are disinclined to rethink the foundations of their field. It reminds me of the closing joke in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall. A guy has a crazy brother who thinks he is a chicken.  The doctor asks, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy replies, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ ”
Why is the free-market discourse so perdurable despite so many social, ecological, and political realities that call its logic and categories of thought into question?  Because the whole field, despite its flaws, is functional enough and entrenched. It needs the eggs — the certitude of quantitative analysis aping the hard sciences, the credentialed expertise always in demand by powerful institutions, the prestige that comes with proximity to

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It’s time to tax the Wall Street casino!

January 30, 2021

From Lars Syll
Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation. When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.The measure of success attained by Wall Street, regarded as an institution of which the proper social purpose is to direct new investment into the most profitable channels in terms of future yield, cannot be claimed as one of the outstanding triumphs of laissez-faire capitalism — which is not surprising, if I am right in thinking that the best brains of Wall Street have been in fact directed towards a different object.
These tendencies are a scarcely avoidable outcome of our having

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Mainstream economics — a waste of time on a staggering scale

January 26, 2021

From Lars Syll
Though an enthusiast of reason, I believe that rational choice theory has failed abysmally, and it saddens me that this failure has brought discredit upon the very enterprise of serious theorizing in the field of social study …
Rational choice theory is far too ambitious. In fact, it claims to explain everything social in terms of just three assumptions that would hold for all individuals in all social groups and in every historical period. But a Theory of Everything does not explain anything in particular … And being unable to account for differences among individuals and for the variety of social interactions, systems, processes, and institutions, the theory is bound to be unrealistic, i. e., false …
The reader may feel that my criticism is excessive: that I am

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The Keynes-Ramsey-Savage debate on probability

January 24, 2021

From Lars Syll
Mainstream economics nowadays usually assumes that agents that have to make choices under conditions of uncertainty behave according to Bayesian rules, axiomatized by Ramsey (1931) and Savage (1954) — that is, they maximize expected utility with respect to some subjective probability measure that is continually updated according to Bayes theorem. If not, they are supposed to be irrational, and ultimately – via some “Dutch book” or “money pump”argument – susceptible to being ruined by some clever “bookie”.
Bayesianism reduces questions of rationality to questions of internal consistency (coherence) of beliefs, but – even granted this questionable reductionism – do rational agents really have to be Bayesian? As I have been arguing elsewhere (e. g. here, here and here)

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On the difference between econometrics and data science

January 22, 2021

From Lars Syll
Causality in social sciences can never solely be a question of statistical inference. Causality entails more than predictability, and to really in depth explain social phenomena require theory. The analysis of variation can never in itself reveal how these variations are brought about. First when we are able to tie actions, processes or structures to the statistical relations detected, can we say that we are getting at relevant explanations of causation.
Most facts have many different, possible, alternative explanations, but we want to find the best of all contrastive (since all real explanation takes place relative to a set of alternatives) explanations. So which is the best explanation? Many scientists, influenced by statistical reasoning, think that the likeliest

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Leontief’s devastating critique of econom(etr)ics

January 19, 2021

From Lars Syll
Much of current academic teaching and research has been criticized for its lack of relevance, that is, of immediate practical impact … I submit that the consistently indifferent performance in practical applications is in fact a symptom of a fundamental imbalance in the present state of our discipline. The weak and all too slowly growing empirical foundation clearly cannot support the proliferating superstructure of pure, or should I say, speculative economic theory …
Uncritical enthusiasm for mathematical formulation tends often to conceal the ephemeral substantive content of the argument behind the formidable front of algebraic signs … In the presentation of a new model, attention nowadays is usually centered on a step-by-step derivation of its formal properties. But

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Fooled by randomness

January 16, 2021

From Lars Syll
A non-trivial part of teaching statistics to social science students is made up of learning them to perform significance testing. A problem yours truly has noticed repeatedly over the years, however, is that no matter how careful you try to be in explicating what the probabilities generated by these statistical tests — p-values — really are, still most students misinterpret them.
A couple of years ago I gave a statistics course for the Swedish National Research School in History, and at the exam I asked the students to explain how one should correctly interpret p-values. Although the correct definition is p(data|null hypothesis), a majority of the students either misinterpreted the p-value as being the likelihood of a sampling error (which of course is wrong, since the

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Garbage-can econometrics

January 14, 2021

From Lars Syll

When no formal theory is available, as is often the case, then the analyst needs to justify statistical specifications by showing that they fit the data. That means more than just “running things.” It means careful graphical and crosstabular analysis …
When I present this argument … one or more scholars say, “But shouldn’t I control for every-thing I can? If not, aren’t my regression coefficients biased due to excluded variables?” But this argument is not as persuasive as it may seem initially.
First of all, if what you are doing is mis-specified already, then adding or excluding other variables has no tendency to make things consistently better or worse. The excluded variable argument only works if you are sure your specification is precisely correct with all

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Econometrics and the challenge of regression specification

January 11, 2021

From Lars Syll
Most work in econometrics and regression analysis is — still — made on the assumption that the researcher has a theoretical model that is ‘true.’ Based on this belief of having a correct specification for an econometric model or running a regression, one proceeds as if the only problem remaining to solve have to do with measurement and observation.
When things sound too good to be true, they usually aren’t. And that goes for econometric wet dreams too. The snag is, of course, that there is pretty little to support the perfect specification assumption. Looking around in social science and economics we don’t find a single regression or econometric model that lives up to the standards set by the ‘true’ theoretical model — and there is pretty little that gives us reason to

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Overconfident economists

January 9, 2021

From Lars Syll
Worst of all, when we feel pumped up with our progress, a tectonic shift can occur, like the Panic of 2008, making it seem as though our long journey has left us disappointingly close to the State of Complete Ignorance whence we began …
It often takes years down the Path, but sooner or later, someone articulates the concerns that gnaw away in each of us and asks if the Assumptions are valid …
It would be much healthier for all of us if we could accept our fate, recognize that perfect knowledge will be forever beyond our reach and find happiness with what we have …
Can we economists agree that it is extremely hard work to squeeze truths from our data sets and what we genuinely understand will remain uncomfortably limited? We need words in our methodological vocabulary to

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NAIRU — closer to religion than science

January 5, 2021

From Lars Syll
Once we see how weak the foundations for the natural rate of unemployment are, other arguments for pursuing rates of unemployment economists once thought impossible become more clear. Wages can increase at the expense of corporate profits without causing inflation …
The harder we push on improving output and employment, the more we learn how much we can achieve on those two fronts. That hopeful idea is the polar opposite of a natural, unalterable rate of unemployment. And it’s an idea and attitude that we need to embrace if we’re to have a shot at fully recovering from the wreckage of the Great Recession.
Mike Konczal / Vox
NAIRU does not hold water simply because it has not existed for the last 50 years. But still today ‘New Keynesian’ macroeconomists use it — and its

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Econometrics — the art of pulling a rabbit out of a hat

December 26, 2020

From Lars Syll
In econometrics one often gets the feeling that many of its practitioners think of it as a kind of automatic inferential machine: input data and out comes causal knowledge. This is — as Joan Robinson once had it — like pulling a rabbit from a hat. Great — but first you have to put the rabbit in the hat. And this is where assumptions come in to the picture.
The assumption of imaginary ‘superpopulations’ is one of the many dubious assumptions used in modern econometrics, and as Clint Ballinger highlights, this is a particularly questionable rabbit pulling assumption:
Inferential statistics are based on taking a random sample from a larger population … and attempting to draw conclusions about a) the larger population from that data and b) the probability that the relations

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Why everything we know about modern economics is wrong

December 24, 2020

From Lars Syll
The proposition is about as outlandish as it sounds: Everything we know about modern economics is wrong. And the man who says he can prove it doesn’t have a degree in economics. But Ole Peters is no ordinary crank. A physicist by training, his theory draws on research done in close collaboration with the late Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann, father of the quark …
His beef is that all too often, economic models assume something called “ergodicity.” That is, the average of all possible outcomes of a given situation informs how any one person might experience it. But that’s often not the case, which Peters says renders much of the field’s predictions irrelevant in real life. In those instances, his solution is to borrow math commonly used in thermodynamics to model outcomes

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What can RCTs tell us?

December 23, 2020

From Lars Syll
We seek to promote an approach to RCTs that is tentative in its claims and that avoids simplistic generalisations about causality and replaces these with more nuanced and grounded accounts that acknowledge uncertainty, plausibility and statistical probability …
Whilst promoting the use of RCTs in education we also need to be acutely aware of their limitations … Whilst the strength of an RCT rests on strong internal validity, the Achilles heel of the RCT is external validity … Within education and the social sciences a range of cultural conditions is likely to influence the external validity of trial results across different contexts. It is precisely​ for this reason that qualitative components of an evaluation, and particularly the development of plausible accounts of

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MMT perspectives on rising interest rates

December 21, 2020

From Lars Syll
The Bank of England is today wholly-owned by the UK government, and no other body is allowed to create UK pounds. It can create digital pounds in the payments system that it runs, thus marking up and down the accounts of banks, the government and other public institutions. It also acts as the bank of the government, facilitating its payments. The Bank of England also determines the bank rate, which is the interest rate it pays to commercial banks that hold money (reserves) at the Bank of England …
The interest rate that the UK government pays is a policy variable determined by the Bank of England. Furthermore, it is not the Bank of England’s remit to bankrupt the government that owns it. The institutional setup ensures that the Bank of England supports the liquidity and

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