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Yanis Varoufakis on the irrelevance of mainstream economics

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From Lars Syll [embedded content] Varoufakis is undoubtedly right — there is indeed something about the way mainstream economists construct their models that obviously doesn’t sit right. One might have hoped that humbled by the manifest failure of its theoretical pretences during the latest economic-financial crises, the one-sided, almost religious, insistence on axiomatic-deductivist modelling as the only scientific activity worthy of pursuing in economics would give way to methodological pluralism based on ontological considerations rather than formalistic tractability. But — empirical evidence still only plays a minor role in mainstream economic theory, where models largely function as a substitute for empirical evidence. If macroeconomic models — no matter of what ilk — build on

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from Lars Syll

Varoufakis is undoubtedly right — there is indeed something about the way mainstream economists construct their models that obviously doesn’t sit right.

One might have hoped that humbled by the manifest failure of its theoretical pretences during the latest economic-financial crises, the one-sided, almost religious, insistence on axiomatic-deductivist modelling as the only scientific activity worthy of pursuing in economics would give way to methodological pluralism based on ontological considerations rather than formalistic tractability. But — empirical evidence still only plays a minor role in mainstream economic theory, where models largely function as a substitute for empirical evidence.

If macroeconomic models — no matter of what ilk — build on microfoundational assumptions of representative actors, rational expectations, market clearing, and equilibrium, and we know that real people and markets cannot be expected to obey these assumptions, the warrants for supposing that conclusions or hypotheses of causally relevant mechanisms or regularities can be bridged, are obviously non-justifiable. Incompatibility between actual behaviour and the behaviour in macroeconomic models building on representative actors and rational expectations microfoundations is not a symptom of ‘irrationality.’ It rather shows the futility of trying to represent real-world target systems with models flagrantly at odds with reality.

A gadget is just a gadget — no matter how many brilliantly silly mathematical models you come up with, they do not help us work with the fundamental issues of modern economies. The mainstream economics project is — mostly because of its irrelevance — seriously harmful to most people, but also seriously harmless for those who benefit from the present status quo of our societies.

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

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