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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

Public debt — how much is too much?

23 hours ago

From Lars Syll.                                                                                                                              [embedded content]
Public debt is normally nothing to fear, especially if it is financed within the country itself (but even foreign loans can be beneficent for the economy if invested in the right way). Some members of society hold bonds and earn interest on them, while others pay taxes that ultimately pay the interest on the debt. The debt is not a net burden for society as a whole since the debt ‘cancels’ itself out between the two groups. If the state issues bonds at a low-interest rate, unemployment can be reduced without necessarily resulting in strong inflationary pressure. And the inter-generational burden is also not a real burden since —

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Truth and science

4 days ago

From Lars Syll
 In my view, scientific theories are not to be considered ‘true’ or ‘false.’ In constructing such a theory, we are not trying to get at the truth, or even to approximate to it: rather, we are trying to organize our thoughts and observations in a useful manner.
Robert Aumann
What a handy view of science.
How reassuring for all of you who have always thought that believing in the tooth fairy make you understand what happens to kids’ teeth. Now a ‘Nobel prize’ winning economist tells you that if there are such things as tooth fairies or not doesn’t really matter. Scientific theories are not about what is true or false, but whether ‘they enable us to organize and understand our observations’ …
Mirabile dictu!
What Aumann and other defenders of scientific storytelling

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Studying economics — a total waste of time

6 days ago

From Lars Syll
One may perhaps, distinguish between obscure writers and obscurantist writers. The former aim at truth, but do not respect the norms for arriving at truth, such as focusing on causality, acting as the Devil’s Advocate, and generating falsifiable hypotheses. The latter do not aim at truth, and often scorn the very idea that there is such a thing as the truth …
These writings have in common a somewhat uncanny combination of mathematical sophistication on the one hand and conceptual naiveté and empirical sloppiness on the other. The mathematics, which could have been a tool, is little more than toy … Hard obscurantist models, too, may have some value as tools, but mostly they are toys.
Jon Elster
It’s hard not to agree with Elster’s critique of mainstream economics and its

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Economics education needs a revolution

7 days ago

From Lars Syll
You ask me what all idiosyncrasy is in philosophers? … For instance their lack of the historical sense, their hatred even of the idea of Becoming, their Egyptianism. They imagine that they do honour to a thing by divorcing it from history sub specie æterni—when they make a mummy of it.
Friedrich Nietzsche
Nowadays there is almost no place whatsoever in economics education for courses in the history of economic thought and economic methodology. This is deeply worrying. History and methodology matter! A science that doesn’t self-reflect on its own history and asks important methodological and science-theoretical questions about the own activity, is a science in dire straits.
How did we end up in this sad state?
Already back in 1991, a commission chaired by Anne Krueger

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Modern macroeconomics — theory based on misleading illusions

11 days ago

From Lars Syll
Standard new Keynesian macroeconomics essentially abstracts away from most of what is important in macroeconomics. To an even greater extent, this is true of the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models that are the workhorse of central bank staffs and much practically oriented academic work.
Why? New Keynesian models imply that stabilization policies cannot affect the average level of output over time and that the only effect policy can have is on the amplitude of economic fluctuations, not on the level of output. This assumption is problematic at a number of levels …
As macroeconomics was transformed in response to the Depression of the 1930s and the inflation of the 1970s, another 40 years later it should again be transformed in response to stagnation in

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Revealed preference theory — much ado about almost nothing

14 days ago

From Lars Syll
Twenty-seven years ago yours truly wrote an article on revealed preference theory that got published in History of Political Economy (no. 25, 1993).
Paul Samuelson wrote a kind letter and informed me that he was the one who had recommended it for publication. But although he liked a lot in it, he also wrote a comment — published in the same volume of HOPE — saying:
Between 1938 and 1947, and since then as Pålsson Syll points out, I have been scrupulously careful not to claim for revealed preference theory novelties and advantages it does not merit. But Pålsson Syll’s readers must not believe that it was all redundant fuss about not very much.
Notwithstanding Samuelson’s comment, I do still think it basically was much fuss about ‘not very much.’
In 1938 Paul Samuelson

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Game theory — theory with little substantive content

16 days ago

From Lars Syll
I don’t see that we are even entitled to assume that reality accords to some model that humans are able to envisage … To say that Pandora knows what decision model she is facing can therefore be taken as meaning no more than that she is committed to proceeding as though her model were true …
The price of abandoning psychology for revealed-preference theory is therefore high. We have to give up any pretension to be offering a causal explanation of Pandora’s choice behavior in favour of an account that is merely a description of the choice behavior of someone who chooses consistently. Our reward [sic!] is that we end up with a theory that is hard to criticise because it has little substantive content.
Back in 1991, when yours truly earned his first PhD​ with a dissertation

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Why game theory fails to live up to its promise

18 days ago

From Lars Syll

Why, it might be objected, should the goal of social science be mere causal explanations of particular events? Isn’t such an attitude more the province of the historian? Social science should instead be concentrating on systematic knowledge. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, this objection concludes, is a laudable example of exactly that – a piece of theory that sheds light over many different cases.
In reply, we certainly agree that regularities or models that explain or that give heuristic value over many different cases are highly desirable. But ones that do neither are not – especially if they use up huge resources along the way. When looking at the details, the Prisoner’s Dilemma’s explanatory record so far is poor and its heuristic record mixed at best. The only way to

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What’s the use of economic models?

23 days ago

From Lars Syll
One can generally develop a theoretical model to produce any result within a wide range. Do you want a model that produces the result that banks should be 100% funded by deposits? Here is a set of assumptions and an argument that will give you that result. That such a model exists tells us very little …
Being logically correct may earn a place for a theoretical model on the bookshelf, but when a theoretical model is taken off the shelf and applied to the real world, it is important to question whether the model’s assumptions are in accord with what we know about the world. To be taken seriously models should pass through the real world filter.
Chameleons are models that are offered up as saying something significant about the real world even though they do not pass

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Evidence-based policies

27 days ago

From Lars Syll
Evidence-based theories and policies are highly valued nowadays. Randomization is supposed to control for bias from unknown confounders. The received opinion is that evidence based on randomized experiments, therefore, is the best.
More and more economists have also lately come to advocate randomization as the principal method for ensuring being able to make valid causal inferences.
Yours truly would, however, rather argue that randomization, just as econometrics, promises more than it can deliver, basically because it requires assumptions that in practice are not possible to maintain. Just as econometrics, randomization is basically a deductive method. Given the assumptions (such as manipulability, transitivity, separability, additivity, linearity, etc.) these methods

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Expected utility theory — an ex-parrot

September 20, 2020

From Lars Syll
If a friend of yours offered you a gamble on the toss of a coin where you could lose €100 or win €200, would you accept it? Many of us probably wouldn’t. But if you were offered to make one hundred such bets, you would probably be willing to accept it, since most of us see that the aggregated gamble of one hundred 50–50 lose €100/gain €200 bets has an expected return of €5000 (and making our probabilistic calculations we find out that there is only a 0.04% ‘risk’ of losing any money).
Unfortunately – at least if you want to adhere to the standard mainstream expected utility theory – you are then considered irrational! A mainstream utility maximizer that rejects the single gamble should also reject the aggregate offer.
Expected utility theory does not explain actual

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The value of economics — a cost-benefit analysis

September 17, 2020

From Lars Syll
Economists cannot simply dismiss as “absurd” or “impossible” the possibility that our profession has imposed total costs that exceed total benefits. And no, building a model which shows that it is logically possible for economists to make a positive net contribution is not going to make questions about our actual effect go away. Why don’t we just stipulate that economists are now so clever at building models that they can use a model to show that almost anything is logically possible. Then we could move on to making estimates and doing the math.
In the 19th century, when it became clear that the net effect of having a doctor assist a woman in child-birth was to increase the probability that she would die, western society faced a choice:
– Get rid of doctors; or
– Insist

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Friedman-Savage and Keynesian uncertainty

September 16, 2020

From Lars Syll

An objection to the hypothesis just
presented that is likely to be raised by
many … is that it conflicts with the way human beings actually behave and choose. … Is it not patently unrealistic to suppose that individuals … base their decision on the size of the
expected utility?
While entirely natural and under-
standable, this objection is not strictly relevant … The hypothesis asserts rather that, in making a particular class of decisions, individuals behave as if they calculated and compared expected utility and as if they knew the odds. The validity of this assertion … depend  solely on whether it yields sufficiently accurate predictions about the class of decisions
with which the hypothesis deals.
M Friedman & L J Savage
‘Modern’ macroeconomics — Dynamic Stochastic

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

September 13, 2020

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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Michael Woodford on models

September 10, 2020

From Lars Syll
But I do not believe that the route to sounder economic reasoning will involve an abandonment of economists’ penchant for reasoning with the use of models. Models allow the internal consistency of a proposed argument to be checked with greater precision; they allow more finely-grained differentiation among alternative hypotheses, and they allow longer and more subtle chains of reasoning to be deployed without both author and reader becoming hopelessly tangled in them. Nor do I believe it is true that economists who are more given to the use of formal mathematical analysis are generally more dogmatic in their conclusions than those who customarily rely upon more informal styles of argument. Often, reasoning from formal models makes it easier to see how strong are the

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Do ‘small-world’ models help us understand ‘large-world’ problems?

September 8, 2020

From Lars Syll
In L. J. Savage’s seminal The Foundations of Satistics the reader is invited to tackle the problem of an uncertain future using the concept of ‘lottery tickets’ and the principle of ‘look before you leap.’
Carried to its logical extreme, the ‘Look before you leap’ principle demands that one envisage every conceivable policy for the government of his whole life (at least from now on) in its most minute details, in the light of the vast number of unknown states of the world, and decide here and now on one policy. This is utterly ridiculous … because the task implied in making such a decision is not even remotely resembled by human possibility. It is even utterly beyond our power to plan a picnic or to play a game of chess in accordance with the principle, even when the

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The pseudo-scientific use of small-world models in a large world

September 4, 2020

From Lars Syll
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 …
The 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

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The capital controversy

September 2, 2020

From Lars Syll
As every mainstream textbook on growth theory, most mainstream economists choose to turn a blind eye to the concept of capital and the Cambridge controversy over it and pretend it’s much fuss about nothing. But they are wrong!

The production function has been a powerful instrument of miseducation. The student of economic theory is taught to write Q = f(L, K) where L is a quantity of labor, K a quantity of capital and Q a rate of output of commodities. He is instructed to assume all workers alike, and to measure L in man-hours of labor; he is told something about the index-number problem in choosing a unit of output; and then he is hurried on to the next question, in the hope that he will forget to ask in what units K is measured. Before he ever does ask, he has become

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Rethinking public debt

August 30, 2020

From Lars Syll
Public debt is normally — as emphasized again and again by MMT economists — nothing to fear, especially if it is financed within the country itself (but even foreign loans can be beneficent for the economy if invested in the right way). Some members of society hold bonds and earn interest on them, while others pay taxes that ultimately pay the interest on the debt. The debt is not a net burden for society as a whole since the debt ‘cancels’ itself out between the two groups. If the state issues bonds at a low-interest rate, unemployment can be reduced without necessarily resulting in strong inflationary pressure. And the inter-generational burden is also not a real burden since — if used in a suitable way — the debt, through its effects on investments and employment,

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Uncertainty, learning, and rational expectations

August 27, 2020

From Lars Syll
The rational expectations hypothesis presupposes — basically for reasons of consistency — that agents have complete knowledge of all of the relevant probability distribution functions. And when trying to incorporate learning in these models — trying to take the heat of some off the criticism launched against it up to date — it is always a very restricted kind of learning that is considered. A learning where truly unanticipated, surprising, new things never take place, but only rather mechanical updatings — increasing the precision of already existing information sets – of existing probability functions.
Nothing really new happens in these ergodic models, where the statistical representation of learning and information is nothing more than a caricature of what takes place

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MMT’s inflationary bias

August 26, 2020

From Lars Syll
A view yours truly often encounters when debating MMT is that there is an inflationary bias in MMT and that its framework ignores expectations.
Hmm …
It is extremely difficult to recognize that description. Given its roots in the writings of Keynes, Lerner, and Minsky, it is, to say the least, rather amazing to attribute those views to MMT. Let me just quote one source to show how ill-founded the critique is on this issue:
MMT recommends a different approach to the federal budgeting process, one that integrates inflation risk into the decision-making process so that lawmakers are forced to stop and think about whether they have taken the necessary steps to guard against inflation risk before approving any new spending. MMT would make us safer in this respect because it

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MMT — debunking the deficit myth

August 22, 2020

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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How to use models in economics

August 21, 2020

From Lars Syll
The reason you study an issue at all is usually that you care about it, that there’s something you want to achieve or see happen. Motivation is always there; the trick is to do all you can to avoid motivated reasoning that validates what you want to hear.
In my experience, modeling is a helpful tool (among others) in avoiding that trap, in being self-aware when you’re starting to let your desired conclusions dictate your analysis. Why? Because when you try to write down a model, it often seems to lead some place you weren’t expecting or wanting to go. And if you catch yourself fiddling with the model to get something else out of it, that should set off a little alarm in your brain.
Paul Krugman 
Hmm …
So when Krugman and other ‘modern’ mainstream economists use their

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Macroeconomics and reality

August 18, 2020

From Lars Syll
Why would an academic profession sanction the use of theories based on crassly unrealistic assumptions? It is not an intuitively attractive idea. One suspects that the underlying reason is: economists are, in the main, committed to the defense of propositions that cannot be generated by models based on realistic assumptions. For example, a long string of unrealistic assumptions are necessary to generate the desired conclusion that unregulated financial markets perform optimally …
Milton Friedman was not only an economist; he was an energetic conservative political activist as well. His positivist methodology made it possible for conservative economists to use an absurd set of assumptions that no one would accept as a reasonable description of real- world capitalism to

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Epistemic humility — an intellectual virtue

August 10, 2020

From Lars Syll
Being a true expert involves not only knowing stuff about the world but also knowing the limits of your knowledge and expertise. It requires, as psychologists say, both cognitive and metacognitive skills. The point is not that true experts should withhold their beliefs or that they should never speak with conviction. Some beliefs are better supported by the evidence than others, after all, and we should not hesitate to say so. The point is that true experts express themselves with the proper degree of confidence—meaning with a degree of confidence that’s justified given the evidence …
Epistemic humility is an intellectual virtue. It is grounded in the realization that our knowledge is always provisional and incomplete—and that it might require revision in light of new

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Why economics is an impossible science

July 28, 2020

From Lars Syll
In a word, Economics is an Impossible Science because by its own definition the determining conditions of the economy are not economic: they are “exogenous.” Supposedly a science of things, it is by definition without substance, being rather a mode of behavior: the application of scarce means to alternative ends so as to achieve the greatest possible satisfaction—neither means, ends, nor satisfaction substantially specified. Exogenous, however, is the culture, all those meanings, values, institutions, and structures, from gender roles, race relations, food preferences, and ethnicities, to technical inventions, legal regulations, political parties, etc., etc. The effect is a never-ending series of new theoretical breakthroughs, each an Economics du jour worthy of a Nobel

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Radical uncertainty

July 26, 2020

From Lars Syll

In Radical Uncertainty, John Kay and Mervyn King, two well-known British economists, state that rather than trying to understand the ever-changing, uncertain and ambiguous environment by trying to understand “what’s going on here”, the economics profession has become dominated by an approach to uncertainty that requires a comprehensive list of possible outcomes with well-defined numerical probabilities attached to them. Drawing widely on philosophy, anthropology, economics, cognitive science, and strategic management and organisation scholarship, the authors present an argument that probabilistic thinking gives us a false understanding of our power to make predictions and a false illusion of utility-maximising behaviour. Instead of trying to produce probability

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MMT = Keynes 2.0

July 24, 2020

From Lars Syll
As time goes on, and 2020 turns into 2021, the long-held idea that governments are like households and businesses that have to repay their debts, or even that government deficits must be financed by debt at all, will increasingly be exposed as a mistake.
It will be more or less a return to Keynes, except with the twist that the Keynesian aim of balancing the budget over the course of the cycle – deficits in bad times, surpluses in good times – doesn’t matter, not that anybody has actually achieved that lately anyway.
In future 2020 will be seen as the year when Keynes 2.0 got underway – when monetary and fiscal policy merged and a more sophisticated theory of government took hold, in which spending has no limit apart from the capacity of the economy.
As debt continues to

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Keynesian vs Newtonian economics

July 19, 2020

From Lars Syll
To complete his theory, Keynes tied these elements together. The market for money determined interest. Interest (and the state of business confidence) determined investment. Investment, alongside consumption, determined effective demand for output. Demand for output determined output and employment. Consumption out of incomes determined savings. Employment determined the real wage.
In this world, a change in monetary policy, such as a cut in interest rates leading to an increase in bank credit, now had fundamental real consequences. The classical dichotomy, in economics as in physics, had been broken. And with the deconstruction of labor and capital markets, the reductionist idea of microfoundations had also to be abandoned. Workers, Keynes pointed out, bargain for money

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Rethinking public debt

July 16, 2020

From Lars Syll
Public debt is normally nothing to fear, especially if it is financed within the country itself (but even foreign loans can be beneficent for the economy if invested in the right way). Some members of society hold bonds and earn interest on them, while others pay taxes that ultimately pay the interest on the debt. The debt is not a net burden for society as a whole since the debt ‘cancels’ itself out between the two groups. If the state issues bonds at a low-interest rate, unemployment can be reduced without necessarily resulting in strong inflationary pressure. And the inter-generational burden is also not a real burden since — if used in a suitable way — the debt, through its effects on investments and employment, actually makes future generations net winners. There

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