Many economists will admit that their models are not, and do not resemble, the real world. Nevertheless, when pushed on this obvious problem, they will assert that reality behaves as if their theories are true. I’m not sure where this puts their theories in terms of falsifiability, but there you have it. The problem I want to highlight here is that, in many ways, the conditions in which economic assumptions are fulfilled are not interesting at all and therefore unworthy of study.
To illustrate this, consider Milton Friedman’s famous exposition of the as if argument. He used the analogy of a snooker player who does not know the geometry of the shots they make, but behaves in close approximation to how they would if they did make the appropriate calculations. We could therefore model the snooker player’s game by using such equations, even though this wouldn’t strictly describe the mechanics of the game.
There is an obvious problem with Friedman’s snooker player analogy: the only reason a snooker game is interesting (in the loosest sense of the word, to be sure) is that players play imperfectly. Were snooker players to calculate everything perfectly, there would be no game; the person who went first would pot every ball and win. Hence, the imperfections are what makes the game interesting, and we must examine the actual processes the player uses to make decisions if we want a realistic model of their play. Something similar could be said for social sciences. The only time someone’s – or society’s – behaviour is really interesting is when it is degenerative, self destructive, irrational. If everyone followed utility functions and maximised their happiness making perfectly fungible trade offs between options on which they had all available information, there would be no economic problem to speak of. The ‘deviations’ are in many ways what makes the study of economics worthwhile.
I am not the first person to recognise the flaw in Friedman’s snooker player analogy. Paul Krugman makes a similar argument in his book Peddling Prosperity. He argues that tiny deviations from rationality – say, a family not bothering to maximise their expenditure after a small tax cut because it’s not worth the time and effort – can lead to massive deviations from an economic theory. The aforementioned example completely invalidates Ricardian Equivalence. Similarly, within standard economic theory, downward wage stickiness opens up a role for monetary and fiscal policy where before there was none.
If such small ‘deviations’ from the ‘ideal’ create such significant effects, what is to be said of other, more significant ‘deviations’? Ones such as how the banking system works; how firms price; behavioural quirks; the fact that marginal products cannot be well-defined; the fact that capital can move across borders, etc etc. These completely undermine the theories upon which economists base their proclamations against the minimum wage, or for NGDP targeting, or for free trade. (Fun homework: match up the policy prescriptions mentioned with the relevant faulty assumptions).
I’ll grant that a lot of contemporary economics involves investigating areas where an assumption – rationality, perfect information, homogeneous agents - is violated. But usually this is only done one at a time, preserving the other assumptions. However, if almost every assumption is always violated, and if each violation has surprisingly large consequences, then practically any theory which retains any of the faulty assumptions will be wildly off track. Consequently, I would suggest that rather than modelling one ‘friction’ at a time, the ‘ideal’ should be dropped completely. Theories could be built from basic empirical observations instead of false assumptions.
I’m actually not entirely happy with this argument, because it implies that the economy would behave ‘well’ if everyone behaved according to economist’s ideals. All too often this can mean economists end up disparaging real people for not conforming to their theories, as Giles Saint-Paul did in his defence of economics post-crisis. The fact is that even if the world did behave according to the (impossible) neoclassical ‘ideal’, there would still be problems, such as business cycles, due to emergent properties of individually optimal behaviour. In any case, economists should be wary of the as if argument even without accepting my crazy heterodox position.
The fact is that reality doesn’t behave ‘as if’ it is economic theory. Reality behaves how reality behaves, and science is supposed to be geared toward modelling this as closely as possible. Insofar as we might rest on a counterfactual, it is only intended when we don’t know how the system actually works. Once we do know how the system works – and in economics, we do, as I outlined above – economists who resist altering their long-outdated heuristics risk avoiding important questions about the economy.