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The problem with economics — too much maths, too little history

Summary:
From Lars Syll Mainstream economists have always wanted to use their hammer, and so have decided to pretend that the world looks like a nail. Pretending that uncertainty can be reduced to risk and that all activities, relations, processes, and events can be adequately converted to pure numbers, have only contributed to making economics irrelevant and powerless when confronting real-world financial crises and economic havoc. How do we put an end to this intellectual cataclysm? How do we re-establish credence and trust in economics as a science? Five changes are absolutely decisive. (1) Stop pretending that we have exact and rigorous answers to everything. Because we don’t. We build models and theories and tell people that we can calculate and foresee the future. But we do this based on

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Lars Pålsson Syll writes Cutting-edge macroeconomics …

from Lars Syll

Mainstream economists have always wanted to use their hammer, and so have decided to pretend that the world looks like a nail. Pretending that uncertainty can be reduced to risk and that all activities, relations, processes, and events can be adequately converted to pure numbers, have only contributed to making economics irrelevant and powerless when confronting real-world financial crises and economic havoc.

How do we put an end to this intellectual cataclysm? How do we re-establish credence and trust in economics as a science? Five changes are absolutely decisive.

(1) Stop pretending that we have exact and rigorous answers to everything. Because we don’t. We build models and theories and tell people that we can calculate and foresee the future. But we do this based on mathematical and statistical assumptions that often have little or nothing to do with reality. By pretending that there is no really important difference between model and reality we lull people into thinking that we have things under control. We haven’t! This false feeling of security was one of the factors that contributed to the financial crisis of 2008.

(2) Stop the childish and exaggerated belief in mathematics giving answers to important economic questions. Mathematics gives exact answers to exact questions. But the relevant and interesting questions we face in the economic realm are rarely of that kind. Questions like “Is 2 + 2 = 4?” are never posed in real economies. Instead of a fundamentally misplaced reliance on abstract mathematical-deductive-axiomatic models having anything of substance to contribute to our knowledge of real economies, it would be far better if we pursued “thicker” models and relevant empirical studies and observations.

(3) Stop pretending that there are laws in economics. There are no universal laws in economics. Economies are not like planetary systems or physics labs. The most we can aspire to in real economies is establishing possible tendencies with varying degrees of generalizability.

(4) Stop treating other social sciences as poor relations. Economics has long suffered from hubris. A more broad-minded and multifarious science would enrich today’s altogether quixotic economics.

(5) Stop building models and making forecasts of the future based on totally unreal micro-founded macro models with intertemporally optimizing robot-like representative actors equipped with rational expectations. This is pure nonsense. We have to build our models on assumptions that are not so blatantly in contradiction to reality. Assuming that people are green and come from Mars is not good – not even as a ‘successive approximation’ – modelling strategy.

Mainstream economic theory today is still in the story-telling business whereby economic theorists create mathematical make-believe analogue models of the target system – usually conceived as the real economic system. This mathematical modelling activity is considered useful and essential. To understand and explain relations between different entities in the real economy the predominant strategy is to build mathematical models and make things happen in these ‘analog-economy models’ rather than engineering things happening in real economies.

Without strong evidence, all kinds of absurd claims and nonsense may pretend to be science. Let us not forget what Paul Romer said  in his attack on ‘post-real’ economics some years ago:

Math cannot establish the truth value of a fact. Never has. Never will.

We have to demand more of a justification than rather watered-down versions of ‘anything goes’ when it comes to the main postulates on which mainstream economics is founded. If one proposes ‘efficient markets’ or ‘rational expectations’ one also has to support their underlying assumptions. As a rule, none is given, which makes it rather puzzling how things like ‘efficient markets’ and ‘rational expectations’ have become standard modelling assumptions made in much of modern macroeconomics. The reason for this sad state of ‘modern’ economics is that economists often mistake mathematical beauty for truth.

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

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