I like to question almost every aspect of economic orthodoxy. However, I am also interested in forming a coherent view of what is actually wrong with economics, rather than a caricature. So it pains me to see misguided criticisms such as Suzanne Moore’s piece a few weeks back, whose characterisations of economic theory will only serve to misguide the uninformed and elicit dismissive reactions from economists themselves. So here I present a list of things not to highlight when attacking neoclassical economics, in the hope of assisting would-be critics of the discipline.
Criticising early assumptions
Don’t get me wrong, criticising economist’s perversion of the use of assumptions is fair game. However, critics often go down the path of criticising ’pure rationality’ or ‘perfect information.’ Whilst these are elements of core models (and these models should be attacked because of this, but with the caveat that the core models are the target), they are generally not found in the higher echelons of economics. Many of these assume imperfect information, bounded rationality, and can also incorporate other biases.
Most specifically, idea that economic theory assumes everybody is a selfish, emotionless self-maximiser is common trope, but as Chris Dillow noted in the link above, it’s not entirely true. More importantly, it is also defensible as an assumption – a heuristic by which to approximate behaviour, at least until something better comes along. It is important to distinguish between good and bad assumptions from a scientific standpoint, rather than how absurd they appear to be at first glance.
Many critics of economics, including well-informed ones, make the mistake of arguing that economics always assumes the economy is in equilibrium, tending to equilibrium, oscillating closely around equilibrium, or something along these lines. It is true that many economic models do this; it is also true that economic models start from the assumption that the economy is in equilibrium, and see what happens from there. However, economists generally mean something very different to other scientists when they say equilibrium. From the horse’s mouth:
An equilibrium in an economic model is characterized by two basic conditions which hold in all of the model’s time periods: i) all agents in the model solve the maximization problems implied by their preferences, resource constraints, information sets, etc; and ii) markets for all goods in the model “clear.” An equilibrium is not a snapshot of the model economy at one point in time. Instead, it is the model’s entire time path.
Even on first inspection, this type of equilibrium clearly has problems of its own, but I will save them for another post. The important thing to remember is that this, rather than a stable state, is what economists often mean when they talk about equilibrium.
Economist’s Political Beliefs
Economists are not all free marketeers – in fact, they generally lean to the left. Neoclassical economics, broadly speaking, concludes that we should: regulate oligopolies, monopolies and banking; do more to protect the environment and intervene in the case of other externalities; have some public provision of health, education and welfare; and as that survey shows, economists are generally approving of things such as safety regulations.
As I have said before, I think economic theory as taught lends itself to being used by free marketeers, because of the way the ‘market’ is presented as natural and the government ‘intervenes.’ I also object to the fact that economics applies the same analysis to every market from apples to education to labour. And it is true that the market is presented as generally equilibrating and efficient, except in a few choice cases. However, the impact of these things is not that all economists support ‘right wing’ policy prescriptions, but that neoclassical theory can generally be coopted to provide justification for them.
Naturally, I sympathise with many who try to criticise economics, as they correctly notice that the field’s empirical record (at least in macro) is not great; that many of the policy prescriptions seem to favour the rich whilst hurting the poor; that some of the models taught in economics are unintuitive and perverse. Economists are also partly to blame for not communicating their discipline well to the public, seemingly preferring to dismiss critics as ignorant and revel in their mastery of (what I consider a wholly useless) field.
Having said this, it’s important that in order to engage economists properly, the right questions are asked – ones that economists find difficult to answer. Economists have stock responses to many of the ‘pop’ criticisms of their discipline, so using them will only serve to reinforce economist’s belief in their own knowledge and create further barriers to engagement.
Of course, failing all of this, you can just repeat ‘why didn’t you see the crisis coming?’ over and over.