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Lars P. Syll — Economics — too important to be left to economists

Summary:
The problem with economics as a discipline, and this generally includes all forms of economics including heterodox economics to some extent, is "economics." That is is to say, economists assume that economics is chiefly or exclusively about economic behavior when economic behavior is embedded in social and political behavior and includes the entire "human condition." The only "economist" that really grasped this in depth was Karl Marx, and he was a philosopher coming from a Hegelian background rather than being an "economist" in today's terminology. He understood and emphasized social embeddedness, as do the economic anthropologists, economic sociologists and institutionalists that followed. Even Keynes approached economics in terms of the existing neoclassical paradigm that

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The problem with economics as a discipline, and this generally includes all forms of economics including heterodox economics to some extent, is "economics." That is is to say, economists assume that economics is chiefly or exclusively about economic behavior when economic behavior is embedded in social and political behavior and includes the entire "human condition."

The only "economist" that really grasped this in depth was Karl Marx, and he was a philosopher coming from a Hegelian background rather than being an "economist" in today's terminology. He understood and emphasized social embeddedness, as do the economic anthropologists, economic sociologists and institutionalists that followed. Even Keynes approached economics in terms of the existing neoclassical paradigm that prevailed, and he did it as a mathematician would since his background was it mathematics and his principle work was the Treatise on Probability.

Conversely, almost as a reaction to Marx, the economic profession got sidetracked by Alfred Marshall's emphasis on formalizing economics in an attempt to make it "scientific." This led to the presumption (hidden assumption) that economics is chiefly or even solely about economic behavior. The result was the assumption of homo economicus as a homogenous agent behaving "rationally" to maximize self-interest in economic dealings, principally in markets, which act as calculating machines to maintain economic equilibrium through adjustments in price based on supply and demand.

The problem is that this model is based on a generalizing from economic behavior at a micro level, irrespective of social embedding. Therefore the scope of application is limited by the extremely narrow scale. Unfortunately, most economists ignore this limitation of scope and the significance of scale.

Macroeconomics cannot be scaled up microeconomics because behavior at the individual level is not the foundation of behavior at the macro level as is conventionally assumed by those promoting microfoundations; for the simple reason that most people's behavior is not exclusively economic but includes social and political factors as will as ideological presumptions that differ temporally, geographically, by class and according to affiliation and personal disposition.

Economics is embedded in society just as are individuals and their behavior. Social networks (systems) are comprised of individuals as elements but networks (systems) also influence individuals that are related to them, either as members or those affected peripherally. A social system is not an aggregation of individuals acting independently but rather a system in which relationships are highly influential. Therefore, economic aggregates cannot tell the whole tale.

Individuals often have conflicting interests as well. People do not always prioritize their economic interest over their social and political interests as the assumption of homo economicus posits. Their choices are influenced by personal disposition, knowledge base, and cognitive-affective biases. At a most evident level, people that belong to different political parties and their factions think, feel, and act differently, including with respect to economic affairs and interests. For example, traditionalists regularly set tradition and traditional values above economic interests such that they act "irrationally" from the economic point of view while not being actually irrational. They view themselves as acting on the basis of higher reasons.

While homo economicus may have a place in the study of microeconomics, at the scale of macroeconomics and political economy, the agent is not homo economicus but homo socialis, and homo socialis is non-homogenous and not necessarily economically "rational." So game theory does not apply in this case.

The fact that societies are complex adaptive systems, especially at the national and international levels, means that model-building is challenged by tractability. Many conventional approaches are based on introducing conventions for inducing tractability at the expense of realism, which effects the usefulness of such models in pragmatic application.

This can result in social and political disarray that is serious enough to lead to conflict. But even if it does not, it can produce in anti-social consequences instead of the pro-social result that free markets, free trade and free capital flows promise based on the erroneous assumptions.

Many economist do not stay abreast of developments in economic anthropology, economic sociology, social science in general, evolutionary theory, and other fields that impact economics. Many do not even consider institutionalism as important, and even deprecate accounting, money & banking, and finance as relevant. Even in economic matters per se, many economists dismiss or deprecate externality, market imperfection, distributional factors, etc. as relevant to their field. Moreover, the insist that the methodological debate is over and they won it — end of discussion.

Economics needs to expand its horizon to remain relevant. 

Lars P. Syll’s Blog
Economics — too important to be left to economists
Lars P. Syll | Professor, Malmo University
Mike Norman
Mike Norman is an economist and veteran trader whose career has spanned over 30 years on Wall Street. He is a former member and trader on the CME, NYMEX, COMEX and NYFE and he managed money for one of the largest hedge funds and ran a prop trading desk for Credit Suisse.

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