The Crisis & Economics, Part 4: Masters of the Universe?

This is part 4 in my series on economics and the crisis, which asks whether economics is really responsible for policy, and if so, how these policies may have contributed to the financial crisis. Here are parts 1, 2 & 3.

Argument #4: “Mainstream economics cannot be blamed for politicians inflating housing bubbles/pursuing austerity/deregulating the financial sector; our models generally go against this. Clearly, we do not have that much influence over policy.”

This defence really raises two questions. The first is whether or not economic theory has had a major influence on policy. The second is whether or not this influence, if it exists, is culpable in creating the financial crisis.

The first is, in my opinion, easily answered in the affirmative. While it’s entirely understandable that the majority of academic economists would scoff at the idea that they effect policy, this doesn’t have to be the case for economic theory itself to hold sway among governments. After all, economics graduates are highly sought after and employed in policymaking positions. Famous economists lunch with the president; textbooks and macroeconomic papers are full of policy discussions; prize-winning economists such as Bob Shiller acknowledge that a “problem with economics is that it is necessarily focused on policy, rather than discovery of fundamentals.” It’s hard to imagine powerful institutions such as Central Banks, the World Bank or the IMF functioning with advice from any but economists, and government organisations are even set up based on new ideas coming out of economics. Economics is the language in which the media discuss policy: demand, stimulus, markets, etcetera. I could go on.

However, as economists like to remind us, there’s no reason to believe that advice based on mainstream economic theory should have led to the types of ‘free market’ policies typically implicated in the financial crisis and its aftermath. Even a basic economics education will leave you with an awareness of things like information asymmetry, moral hazard and externalities, and few economists support wanton deregulation of the financial sector. Modern macroeconomics is loosely pro-stimulus,  not pro-austerity. So what’s going on?

First, it should be noted that not only ‘free market’ thinking was implicated in the crisis. Central Banks around the world used inflation targeting, based on the New Keynesian idea that this would be sufficient to achieve macroeconomic stability, which blinded them to problems brewing in the financial sector. What’s more, the approach to regulation favoured by economics was, not atypically, quite narrow and didn’t favour systemic thinking. For example, I have previously spoken about Value at Risk (VaR) regulation, which forces firms to sell off assets when markets are volatile and hence increase their insurance against risk. However, while this looks good from the perspective of individual firms, it worsens systemic risk because the asset sell-offs result in increased volatility. Overall, the reductionist nature of economic theory tended to blind policymakers to systemic problems and made them focus on the wrong variables, things they might not have done if they’d been familiar with more holistic viewpoints.

Having said this, it’s clear that at the heart of the financial crisis were lax regulatory policies, justified by a belief in the self-stabilising power of financial markets. And while a majority of individual economists may not endorse such a view, theoretical frameworks or ‘ways of thinking‘ came out of economics which were used to justify this deregulation. Whether or not efficient markets, perfect competition, rational expectations and other theories which imply financial markets will run smoothly are endorsed by most economists, the fact that they are common knowledge in economics (and usually the benchmark for more complex analysis) is significant. As I’ve argued before, familiarity with economic theory lends itself to a pro-market view, even if a lot of modern work is done pushing the core framework away from this. And as I’ve argued before, the nuances of this work are often lost in popular translation, as the elegance of the most Panglossian theories proves too tempting when economists speak to the public. Alternative theories which use different starting points for analysis, such as input-output matrices, sectoral balances, or class struggle, would help to combat the deeply ingrained nature of the neoclassical theories.

This issue does not necessarily fit into a narrow ‘government versus market’ policy perspective. Instead, the point is that acknowledging different approaches in economic theory can give us a different way of thinking about policy, illuminating rather than obfuscating debates. A key complaint about economics graduates is that they have overly narrow, abstract tools, so the enemy is not so much any particular approach as it is one sided thinking. Providing both economics students and professional economists with an awareness of  different theories, as well as making economics more politically, historically and ethically engaged, would hopefully at least temper the zeal and enthusiasm with which pet policies are recommended, and partially dislodge whatever pedestal economics currently sits on as a rationale for policy.

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  1. #1 by gail bradbrook on July 7, 2014 - 11:00 am

    I find it common to hear politicians blaming the finance sector or vice versa *as if there is a difference between the two* when we know these folks are all mates and revolving doors exist between the corporate sector and government. Can I recommend the Finance Curse book / analysis from John Christensen and Nick Shaxson of Tax Justice Network covering this and a much wider economic theory analogous to the resource curse,
    Gail

    • #2 by Unlearningecon on July 16, 2014 - 10:55 am

      Thanks for the suggestion – I’ve read Shaxson’s ‘Tax Havens’ and thought it was excellent. The finance curse sounds like an interesting analogy.

  2. #3 by Boatwright on July 8, 2014 - 12:30 pm

    “Overall, the reductionist nature of economic theory tended to blind policymakers to systemic problems and made them focus on the wrong variables, things they might not have done if they’d been familiar with more holistic viewpoints.”

    “Alternative theories which use different starting points for analysis, such as input-output matrices, sectoral balances, or class struggle, would help to combat the deeply ingrained nature of the neoclassical theories.” !!

    Very well said and a most cogent criticism. I would add ecology and resource flows, as well as psychology, anthropology, and history to the areas that need to be included in the orbit of economic analysis.

    Considering the “reductionist nature of economic theory”, It would be more honest, perhaps more helpful to politicians and citizens, as well as better science, if economists described their work as economic hypotheses rather than theory. We are a long way from any economic model that qualifies as a true theory. Considering the complexity of human interactions, it is unlikely that any model will ever be complete. For the present, any model that claims completeness is inevitably reductionist.

    • #4 by Unlearningecon on July 16, 2014 - 10:51 am

      Yeah, the word ‘theory’ carries a lot of weight that isn’t often acknowledged by the public or economists. Having said that, it is also used in philosophy/politics with an inevitably weaker definition. Perhaps the abuse of the word extends outside economics and we should use something else in social science?

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