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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

Why philosophy and methodology matter for economics

4 days ago

From Lars Syll
A critique yours truly sometimes encounters is that as long as I cannot come up with some own alternative to the failing mainstream theory, I shouldn’t expect people to pay attention.
This is, however, to totally and utterly misunderstand the role of philosophy and methodology of economics!
As John Locke wrote in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:
The Commonwealth of Learning is not at this time without Master-Builders, whose mighty Designs, in advancing the Sciences, will leave lasting Monuments to the Admiration of Posterity; But every one must not hope to be a Boyle, or a Sydenham; and in an Age that produces such Masters, as the Great-Huygenius, and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some other of that Strain; ’tis Ambition enough to be employed as an

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The essence of neoliberalism

8 days ago

From Lars Syll
The neoliberal utopia evokes powerful belief – the free trade faith – not only among those who live off it, such as financiers, the owners and managers of large corporations, etc., but also among those, such as high-level government officials and politicians, who derive their justification for existing from it. For they sanctify the power of markets in the name of economic efficiency, which requires the elimination of administrative or political barriers capable of inconveniencing the owners of capital in their individual quest for the maximisation of individual profit, which has been turned into a model of rationality. They want independent central banks. And they preach the subordination of nation-states to the requirements of economic freedom for the masters of the

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Why validating assumptions is so important in science

10 days ago

From Lars Syll
An ongoing concern is that excessive focus on formal modeling and statistics can lead to neglect of practical issues and to overconfidence in formal results … Analysis interpretation depends on contextual judgments about how reality is to be mapped onto the model, and how the formal analysis results are to be mapped back into reality. But overconfidence in formal outputs is only to be expected when much labor has gone into deductive reasoning. First, there is a need to feel the labor was justified, and one way to do so is to believe the formal deduction produced important conclusions. Second, there seems to be a pervasive human aversion to uncertainty, and one way to reduce feelings of uncertainty is to invest faith in deduction as a sufficient guide to truth.

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Confusing statistics and research

12 days ago

From Lars Syll
Coupled with downright incompetence in statistics, we often find the syndrome that I have come to call statisticism: the notion that computing is synonymous with doing research, the naïve faith that statistics is a complete or sufficient basis for scientific methodology, the superstition that statistical formulas exist for evaluating such things as the relative merits of different substantive theories or the “importance” of  the causes of a “dependent variable”; and the delusion that decomposing the covariations of some arbitrary and haphazardly assembled collection of variables can somehow justify not only a “causal model” but also, praise a mark, a “measurement model.” There would be no point in deploring such caricatures of the scientific enterprise if there were a

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Game theory — a scientific cul-de-sac

14 days ago

From Lars Syll
Back in 1991, when yours truly earned his first PhD​ with a dissertation on decision-making and rationality in social choice theory and game theory, I concluded that “repeatedly it seems as though mathematical tractability and elegance — rather than realism and relevance — have been the most applied guidelines for the behavioural assumptions being made. On a political and social level, ​it is doubtful if the methodological individualism, ahistoricity and formalism those guidelines imply are especially valid for explaining real-world decision-making.”
This, of course, was like swearing in church. My mainstream colleagues were — to say the least — not exactly überjoyed.
Half a century ago there were widespread hopes game theory would provide a unified theory of social

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The experimental dilemma

16 days ago

From Lars Syll
We can either let theory guide us in our attempt to estimate causal relationships from data … or we don’t let theory guide us. If we let theory guide us, our causal inferences will be ‘incredible’ because our theoretical knowledge is itself not certain … If we do not let theory guide us, we have no good reason to believe that our causal conclusions are true either of the experimental population or of other populations because we have no understanding of the mechanisms that are responsible for a causal relationship to hold in the first place, and it is difficult to see how we could generalize an experimental result to other settings if this understanding doesn’t exist. Either way, then, causal inference seems to be a cul-de-sac.
Nowadays many mainstream economists

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Where economics went wrong

19 days ago

From Lars Syll
David Colander and Craig Freedman’s Where Economics Went Wrong is a provocative book designed to inspire economists to serious reflection on the nature of economics and how it is practiced. It is a book to that seeks to stimulate discussion about the current state of the discipline; it should be read by anyone who categorizes what they do as applied policy work. I agree with much – though not all – of what Colander and Freedman’s write … Reliance on mathematics has obscured much of the assumed structure that economists work from, leaving us unable to clearly articulate assumptions or identify our often normative precepts. Adoption of the scientific method has resulted in the belief that economic theory can deliver useful, practical knowledge. However, this belief has not

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The pitfalls of econometrics

20 days ago

From Lars Syll
Ed Leamer’s Tantalus on the Road to Asymptopia is one of my favourite critiques of econometrics, and for the benefit of those who are not versed in the econometric jargon, this handy summary gives the gist of it in plain English:

Most work in econometrics and regression analysis is 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 to good to be true, they usually aren’t. And that goes for econometric wet dreams too. The snag is, as Leamer convincingly argues, that there is pretty little to support the perfect

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Paul Krugman — finally — admits he was wrong!

23 days ago

From Lars Syll
Paul Krugman has never suffered fools gladly. The Nobel Prize-winning economist rose to international fame—and a coveted space on the New York Times op-ed page—by lacerating his intellectual opponents in the most withering way. In a series of books and articles beginning in the 1990s, Krugman branded just about everybody who questioned the rapid pace of globalization a fool who didn’t understand economics very well. “Silly” was a word Krugman used a lot to describe pundits who raised fears of economic competition from other nations, especially China. Don’t worry about it, he said: Free trade will have only minor impact on your prosperity.
Now Krugman has come out and admitted, offhandedly, that his own understanding of economics has been seriously deficient as well. In a

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Econometrics — the danger of calling your pet cat a dog

24 days ago

From Lars Syll
Since econometrics doesn’t content itself with only making optimal predictions, but also aspires to explain things in terms of causes and effects, econometricians need loads of assumptions — most important of these are additivity and linearity. Important, simply because if they are not true, your model is invalid and descriptively incorrect.  And when the model is wrong — well, then it’s wrong.
The assumption of additivity and linearity means that the outcome variable is, in reality, linearly related to any predictors … and that if you have several predictors then their combined effect is best described by adding their effects together …
This assumption is the most important because if it is not true then even if all other assumptions are met, your model is invalid

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Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!

25 days ago

From Lars Syll
In the postwar period, it has become increasingly clear that economic growth has not only brought greater prosperity. The other side of growth, in the form of pollution, contamination, wastage of resources, and climate change, has emerged as perhaps the greatest challenge of our time.
Against the mainstream theory’s view on the economy as a balanced and harmonious system, where growth and the environment go hand in hand, ecological economists object that it can rather be characterized as an unstable system that at an accelerating pace consumes energy and matter, and thereby pose a threat against the very basis for its survival.
The Romanian-American economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994) argued in The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) that the economy

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‘Nobel prize’ winners Duflo and Banerjee do not tackle the real root causes of poverty

26 days ago

From Lars Syll
Some go so far as to insist that development interventions should be subjected to the same kind of randomised control trials used in medicine, with “treatment” groups assessed against control groups. Such trials are being rolled out to evaluate the impact of a wide variety of projects – everything from water purification tablets to microcredit schemes, financial literacy classes to teachers’ performance bonuses …
The real problem with the “aid effectiveness” craze is that it narrows our focus down to micro-interventions at a local level that yield results that can be observed in the short term. At first glance this approach might seem reasonable and even beguiling. But it tends to ignore the broader macroeconomic, political and institutional drivers of impoverishment and

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Econometrics — junk science with no relevance whatsoever to real-world economics

27 days ago

From Lars Syll
Do you believe that 10 to 20% of the decline in crime in the 1990s was caused by an increase in abortions in the 1970s? Or that the murder rate would have increased by 250% since 1974 if the United States had not built so many new prisons? Did you believe predictions that the welfare reform of the 1990s would force 1,100,000 children into poverty?
If you were misled by any of these studies, you may have fallen for a pernicious form of junk science: the use of mathematical modeling to evaluate the impact of social policies. These studies are superficially impressive. Produced by reputable social scientists from prestigious institutions, they are often published in peer reviewed scientific journals. They are filled with statistical calculations too complex for anyone but

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On the limited applicability of game theory

October 17, 2019

From Lars Syll
Many mainstream economists – still — think that game theory is useful and can be applied to real-life and give important and interesting results. That, however, is a rather unsubstantiated view. What game theory does is, strictly seen, nothing more than investigating the logic of behaviour among non-existant robot-imitations of humans. Knowing how those ‘rational fools’ play games do not help us to decide and act when interacting with real people. Knowing some game theory may actually make us behave in a way that hurts both ourselves and others. Decision-making and social interaction are always embedded in socio-cultural contexts. Not taking account of that, game theory will remain an analytical cul-de-sac that never will be able to come up with useful and relevant

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The limits of extrapolation in economics

October 15, 2019

From Lars Syll
There are two basic challenges that confront any account of extrapolation that seeks to resolve the shortcomings of simple induction. One challenge, which I call extrapolator’s circle, arises from the fact that extrapolation is worthwhile only when there are important limitations on what one can learn about the target by studying it directly. The challenge, then, is to explain how the suitability of the model as a basis for extrapolation can be established given only limited, partial information about the target … The second challenge is a direct consequence of the heterogeneity of populations studied in biology and social sciences. Because of this heterogeneity, it is inevitable there will be causally relevant differences between the model and the target population.
In

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Do economic models actually explain anything?

October 11, 2019

From Lars Syll
One of the limitations with economics is the restricted possibility to perform experiments, forcing it to mainly rely on observational studies for knowledge of real-world economies.
But still — the idea of performing laboratory experiments holds a firm grip of our wish to discover (causal) relationships between economic ‘variables.’ If we only could isolate and manipulate variables in controlled environments, we would probably find ourselves in a situation where we with greater ‘rigour’ and ‘precision’ could describe, predict, or explain economic happenings in terms of ‘structural’ causes, ‘parameter’ values of relevant variables, and economic ‘laws.’
Galileo Galilei’s experiments are often held as exemplary for how to perform experiments to learn something about the

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Teflon economics

October 10, 2019

From Lars Syll
At least since the time of Keynes’s famous critique of Tinbergen’s econometric methods, those of us in the social science community who have been impolite enough to dare to question the preferred methods and models applied in quantitative research in general and economics more specifically, are as a rule met with disapproval. Although people seem to get very agitated and upset by the critique — just read the commentaries on this blog if you don’t believe me — defenders of received theory always say that the critique is ‘nothing new’, that they have always been ‘well aware’ of the problems, and so on, and so on.
So, for the benefit of all mindless practitioners of economics — who don’t want to be disturbed in their doings — eminent mathematical statistician David

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The primary problem with mainstream economics

October 5, 2019

From Lars Syll
Jamie Morgan: To a member of the public it must seem weird that it is possible to state, as you do, such fundamental criticism of an entire field of study. The perplexing issue from a third party point of view is how do we reconcile good intention (or at least legitimate sense of self as a scholar), and power and influence in the world with error, failure and falsity in some primary sense; given that the primary problem is methodological, the issues seem to extend in different ways from Milton Friedman to Robert Lucas Jr, from Paul Krugman to Joseph Stiglitz. Do such observations give you pause? My question (invitation) I suppose, is how does one reconcile (explain or account for) the direction of travel of mainstream economics: the degree of commonality identified in

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What’s wrong with Krugman’s economics?

October 2, 2019

From Lars Syll
Krugman writes: “So how do you do useful economics? In general, what we really do is combine maximization-and-equilibrium as a first cut with a variety of ad hoc modifications reflecting what seem to be empirical regularities about how both individual behavior and markets depart from this idealized case.”
But if you ask the New Classical economists, they’ll say, this is exactly what we do—combine maximizing-and-equilibrium with empirical regularities. And they’d go on to say it’s because Krugman’s Keynesian models don’t do this or don’t do enough of it, they are not “useful” for prediction or explanation …
The trouble is that the macroeconomic evidence can’t tell us when and where maximization-and-equilibrium goes wrong, and there seems no immediate prospect for

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The ‘rational expectations’ hoax

September 26, 2019

From Lars Syll
It can be said without great controversy that no other theoretical approach in this century has ever enjoyed the same level of ubiquity throughout the social sciences as the rational choice approach enjoys today. Despite this ubiquity, the success of the approach has been very tenuous. Its advance has been accompanied by an intense debate over its relative merit. The approach has been subject to the usual criticism of blatant inaccuracy given by outsiders to any would-be theoretical hegemon and to a predictable fuzzying of its assumptions as it is adapted to a wider and wider range of empirical phenomena. More notably, however, some of the most virulent mere criticisms of the rational choice approach have come from within its own ranks.
Despite the absence of any

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Why policy design without theory is useless

September 23, 2019

From Lars Syll
Taking into account the methodologies that support some policy practices that favour inductive reasoning and randomized control trials of impact evaluation (RCTs), there is a controversy around the utilization of these attempts to build experimental programmes or policy intervention …
As the decision-making policy process in the real world relies on institutional factors that may be different elsewhere, the methodology based on RCTs does not provide a credible basis for policy making. In short, the outcomes of inductive investigation can never be completely transported across time and space …
In fact, the methodology of RCTs runs the risk of considering worthless casual relationships as relevant causalities in the attempt to develop policy recommendations. In short, the

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Do models make economics a science?

September 22, 2019

From Lars Syll
Well, if we are to believe most mainstream economists, models are what make economics a science.
In a Journal of Economic Literature review of Dani Rodrik’s Economics Rules, renowned game theorist Ariel Rubinstein discusses Rodrik’s justifications for the view that “models make economics a science.” Although Rubinstein has some doubts about those justifications — models are not indispensable for telling good stories or clarifying things in general; logical consistency does not determine whether economic models are right or wrong; and being able to expand our set of ‘plausible explanations’ doesn’t make economics more of a science than good fiction does — he still largely subscribes to the scientific image of economics as a result of using formal models that help us

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Nordhaus dangerous gamble for humanity’s future

September 21, 2019

From Lars Syll
Nordhaus’s transgressions are immense. His ‘damage function’ which he uses to estimate global warming damage is incorrect and uses data that has nothing to do with climate change. Despite this, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses his model to advise governments about the economic impact of global warming.
Nordhaus and other mainstream climate economists certainly have a lot to answer for. Their thinking has seriously delayed action to avert damage done from climate change.
The central problem with Nordhaus’s model is the “damage function”, which is a mathematical fiction that has little to do the real world. Using a spurious method, he calculates that 2°C of warming will only reduce global economic output – GDP – by 0.9 percent, and 4°C would cut

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The lack of positive results in econometrics

September 16, 2019

From Lars Syll
For the sake of balancing the overly rosy picture of econometric achievements given in the usual econometrics textbooks today, it may be interesting to see how Trygve Haavelmo — with the completion (in 1958) of the twenty-fifth volume of Econometrica — assessed the role of econometrics in the advancement of economics.
We have found certain general principles which would seem to make good sense. Essentially, these principles are based on the reasonable idea that, if an economic model is in fact “correct” or “true,” we can say something a priori about the way in which the data emerging from it must behave. We can say something, a priori, about whether it is theoretically possible to estimate the parameters involved. And we can decide, a priori, what the proper estimation

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Central bank independence — institutionalizing monetary handcuffs

September 14, 2019

From Lars Syll
Imposing a hard target can bind the central bank, but the government must then act on failures to hit the target. Why would it if it is self-interested? If it does, that amounts to saying it is not selfish, which undermines the argument that independence is needed. The same argument can be used to deconstruct independence itself. Suppose independence is a solution to time inconsistency. Why would a selfish politician ever agree to independence in the first place? If they did, that would be tantamount to saying they are not selfish, in which case independence is not needed. In other words, only non-self-interested politicians choose independence, making independence redundant …
Even if the banker is honest, there still remains the fundamental question of why would selfish

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Kitchen sink econometrics

September 11, 2019

From Lars Syll
When I present this argument … one or more scholars say, “But shouldn’t I control for everything I can in my regressions? If not, aren’t my coefficients biased due to excluded variables?” This argument is not as persuasive as it may seem initially. First of all, if what you are doing is misspecified 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 variables included. But no one can know that with more than a handful of explanatory variables.Still more importantly, big, mushy linear regression and probit equations seem to need a great many control variables precisely because they are jamming together all

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Necessary inventions …

September 10, 2019

From Lars Syll

The quasi-peaceable gentleman of leisure, then, not only consumes of the staff of life beyond the minimum required for subsistence and physical efficiency, but his consumption also undergoes a specialisation as regards the quality of the goods consumed. He consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, and idols or divinities.
Thorstein Veblen

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The pretense-of-knowledge syndrome in economics

September 8, 2019

From Lars Syll
What does concern me about my discipline … is that its current core — by which I mainly mean the so-called dynamic stochastic general equilibrium approach — has become so mesmerized with its own internal logic that it has begun to confuse the precision it has achieved about its own world with the precision that it has about the real one …
While it often makes sense to assume rational expectations for a limited application to isolate a particular mechanism that is distinct from the role of expectations formation, this assumption no longer makes sense once we assemble the whole model. Agents could be fully rational with respect to their local environments and everyday activities, but they are most probably nearly clueless with respect to the statistics about which current

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A guide to econometrics

September 6, 2019

From Lars Syll
1. Thou shalt use common sense and economic theory.
2. Thou shalt ask the right question.
3. Thou shalt know the context.
4. Thou shalt inspect the data.
5. Thou shalt not worship complexity.
6. Thou shalt look long and hard at thy results.
7. Thou shalt beware the costs of data mining.
8. Thou shalt be willing to compromise.
9. Thou shalt not confuse statistical significance with substance.
10. Thou shalt confess in the presence of sensitivity.

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On the irrelevance of economics

September 4, 2019

From Lars Syll
I believe that as an economic theorist, I have very little to say about the real world and that there are very few models in economic theory that can be used to provide serious advice. However, economic theory has real effects. I cannot ignore the fact that our work as teachers and researchers influences students’ minds and does so in a way with which I am not comfortable. Can we find a way to be relevant without being charlatans?
As economic theorists, we organize our thoughts using what we call models.
The word “model” sounds more scientific than “fable” or “fairy tale” although I do not see much difference between them. The author of a fable draws a parallel to a situation in real life. He has some moral he wishes to impart to the reader … Being something between

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