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What’s the use of economics?

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What’s the use of economics? The simple question that was raised during a recent conference … was to what extent has — or should — the teaching of economics be modified … The simple answer is that the economics profession is unlikely to change. Why would economists be willing to give up much of their human capital, painstakingly nurtured for over two centuries? For macroeconomists in particular, the reaction has been to suggest that modifications of existing models to take account of ‘frictions’ or ‘imperfections’ will be enough to account for the current evolution of the world economy. The idea is that once students have understood the basics, they can be introduced to these modifications … I would go further; rather than making steady progress towards

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What’s the use of economics?

The simple question that was raised during a recent conference … was to what extent has — or should — the teaching of economics be modified … The simple answer is that the economics profession is unlikely to change. Why would economists be willing to give up much of their human capital, painstakingly nurtured for over two centuries? For macroeconomists in particular, the reaction has been to suggest that modifications of existing models to take account of ‘frictions’ or ‘imperfections’ will be enough to account for the current evolution of the world economy. The idea is that once students have understood the basics, they can be introduced to these modifications …

What’s the use of economics?I would go further; rather than making steady progress towards explaining economic phenomena professional economists have been locked into a narrow vision of the economy. We constantly make more and more sophisticated models within that vision until, as Bob Solow put it, “the uninitiated peasant is left wondering what planet he or she is on” …

Every student in economics is faced with the model of the isolated optimising individual who makes his choices within the constraints imposed by the market. Somehow, the axioms of rationality imposed on this individual are not very convincing, particularly to first-time students. But the student is told that the aim of the exercise is to show that there is an equilibrium, there can be prices that will clear all markets simultaneously. And, furthermore, the student is taught that such an equilibrium has desirable welfare properties. Importantly, the student is told that since the 1970s it has been known that whilst such a system of equilibrium prices may exist, we cannot show that the economy would ever reach an equilibrium nor that such an equilibrium is unique.

The student then moves on to macroeconomics and is told that the aggregate economy or market behaves just like the average individual she has just studied. She is not told that these general models in fact poorly reflect reality. For the macroeconomist, this is a boon since he can now analyse the aggregate allocations in an economy as though they were the result of the rational choices made by one individual. The student may find this even more difficult to swallow when she is aware that peoples’ preferences, choices and forecasts are often influenced by those of the other participants in the economy. Students take a long time to accept the idea that the economy’s choices can be assimilated to those of one individual.

Alan Kirman What’s the use of economics?

An economic theory that does not go beyond proving theorems and conditional ‘if-then’ statements — and does not make assertions and put forward hypotheses about real-world individuals and institutions — is of little consequence for anyone wanting to use theories to better understand, explain or predict real-world phenomena.

Building theories and models on patently ridiculous assumptions we know people never conform to, does not deliver real science. Real and reasonable people have no reason to believe in ‘as-if’ models of ‘rational’ robot imitations acting and deciding in a Walt Disney world characterised by ‘common knowledge,’ ‘full information,’ ‘rational expectations,’ zero transaction costs, given stochastic probability distributions, risk-reduced genuine uncertainty, and other laughable nonsense assumptions of the same ilk. Science fiction is not science.

For decades now, economics students have been complaining about the way economics is taught. Their complaints are justified. Force-feeding young and open-minded people with unverified and useless theories and models cannot be the right way to develop a relevant and realist economic science.

Much work done in mainstream theoretical economics is devoid of any explanatory interest. And not only that. Seen from a strictly scientific point of view, it has no value at all. It is a waste of time. And as so many have been experiencing in modern times of austerity policies and market fundamentalism — a very harmful waste of time.

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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