The Crisis & Economics, Part 6: “Oh, You Just Mean Macro”

This is part 6 in my series on how the financial crisis is relevant for economics (here are parts 1, 2, 34 & 5). Each part explores an argument economists have made against the charge that the crisis exposed fundamental failings of their discipline. This post discusses the argument that the ‘crisis in economics’ is confined only to macroeconomics, which is actually minority, so attacking all of economics is wrongheaded.

Argument #6: “Sure, modern macroeconomics is pretty weak. But most economists don’t even work on macro, so they are unaffected.”

Quite a lot of economists consider the debate about the financial crisis irrelevant to what they do. After all, why should a crisis at the macro level invalidate econometrics, game theory or auction theory? Attacking these fields and others for the recession is like blaming mechanical engineers for a bridge collapse. In fact, many economists hold macro in the same (low) esteem as the public: Daniel Hamermesh goes so far as to claim that “most of what the macro guys do in academia is just worthless rubbish”, but adds that the kind of field he works in “has contributed tremendously and continues to contribute”. Even the discipline’s most vehement defenders are willing to concede macroeconomics is bunk.

There is a considerable amount of truth to this view. While there may be critiques of all areas in economics, the claim that the financial crisis is what’s thrown them into disrepute is a non sequitur. Critics should therefore be careful to distinguish macroeconomists from their colleagues when (rightly) dismissing the former’s failure to deal with the crisis. Nevertheless, there are two major ways in which the failings of macroeconomics are symptomatic of more general problems with economic theory, so the discipline as a whole cannot be let off the hook.

The first is a lack of holism. A large amount of economic theories are built in an abstract theoretical vacuum, with little reference to what is happening around the individual agent. But the importance of the macroeconomy for behaviour in specific sectors or by specific actors cannot be ignored. For example, if you drop the macroeconomic assumption of full employment, this affects theories in areas from public goods provision to labour markets to Walrasian equilibrium. Consumers’ and firms’ expectations are strongly informed by the macroeconomic and political environment around them. Considering the effects of political institutions such as unions on the labour market, but ignoring their broader political role, can create narrow and misguided conclusions about their efficacy. New Institutional economics often takes ‘institutions’ as exogenous, failing to consider to two-way interaction between institutions and agents. The in-vogue ‘Randomised Control Trial’ restricts the economic environment to such a degree that it’s questionable whether one can generalise the results at all. And so forth.

Don’t get me wrong: there is an obvious case for different areas of economics being separate from one another: taking certain parameters as exogenous to look at a certain area, and using different tools for different areas. But even the most specialised fields should never forget the broader scope and context of their ideas, and this should be reflected in the theoretical approach. Thomas Piketty’s Capital is a shining example of how to intertwine theory, history, statistics and politics to build a better understanding of capitalism. Another is the attempt by ecological economists to place the economy in its environmental context, rather than simply taking resource endowments as a given and assuming pollution just sort of…disappears, save for its monetary cost. Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis shows one way to make an effective link between the behaviour of investors and broader economic performance, integrating finance and macroeconomics. Overspecialisation may cause economists to miss these key insights.

The second issue is that many of the problems with macroeconomics can be applied to, or are relevant for, other areas of the discipline. One of the key complaints about macroeconomics – that it relies on microfoundations – is a problem precisely because it imports unrealistic assumptions about economic behaviour from microeconomics. The problem of having an abundance of abstract models, each seeking to explain one or two ‘things’, but with no real way to tell which model is applicable and when, applies not just to macroeconomics but also to behavioural economics, microeconomics, oligopoly theory. Endogenous money, which is central to macroeconomists’ lack of understanding of the crisis, also has major implications for finance. To reuse my above analogy, you might well be concerned about mechanical engineers after a bridge collapse if they largely relied on the same methods used by the civil engineers.

Your average economist is probably right to point out that the public’s ire should be focused not on them, but on macroeconomics. However, this doesn’t mean that they are immune from the serious questions the crisis raised about the methodology, assumptions and ethics of the field. It’s a case-by-case matter which areas are impacted and by how much, but any attempt to box off macroeconomic theory entirely should be resisted. There’s plenty of room for fruitful debate about all areas of economic theory, much of which will benefit from being informed by the shortcomings of economic theory as exposed by the financial crisis.

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  1. #1 by Roman Plotnikov on August 4, 2014 - 8:34 pm

    From what I gather of the field (I am not an economist), one of the main problems is this disconnection between the work of various economists. Compare with, say, physics. In physics there are a lot of very narrow topics nowadays, with some stuff in theoretical physics not being really solid yet. But physicists have common knowledge of basic education and the methodology and ontology of this science are not in dispute and tie everything together. You do not have to worry that some bloke’s article about semiconductors violates the laws of conservation.
    When you take economics, there is even no agreement on the very basic methodological conventions. Austrians want to deduce everything from some a priori statements. Friedman seriously thought that predictions justify bad theories. Excuse me? Why? Even a highschooler can conclude this is stupid. From this stems everything that is bad with economics. Theories are built on some ideas from dusty 1870-s tomes and nobody cares how they fit together or with reality at all. Because of some cruel fate the textbooks (and standard education as well) pretty much amalgamate the worst of the worst of neoclassical economics, to the point where the brightest minds of profession can solve Mass-Colell cover to cover, but cannot understand they shouldn’t even be doing so.
    Overall, neoclassical economics is not even that bad, it’s the extreme fragmentation of knowledge that is killing the field. Post-Keynesian economics, from what I glimpsed in old journals, also has a lot of obscure articles on mechanics of macroparameters no one even is caring about now. How many will care about those newer articles about theory of firm based on maximizing rate of returns? How many gems are hidden out there by the piles of shit? I do not imagine I will care about economics say ten years from now. Your articles are, frankly, also becoming more and more apathetic.

    • #2 by Unlearningecon on August 9, 2014 - 10:34 am

      It’s an open question whether economics should actually exist in the form it currently does – perhaps the reason there are “piles of shit” is precisely because that’s all we can manage in economics.

      Your articles are, frankly, also becoming more and more apathetic.

      Well, it’s difficult to get as excited about the hundred-and-twenty-fifth critique of neoclassical economics you think of as the first one :)

  2. #3 by Cameron Murray (@Rumplestatskin) on August 5, 2014 - 12:09 pm

    Great points. Your first, about lack of holism, is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. The way I see it economic analysis often fuses (and confuses) many layers of concepts that are distinct, without acknowledging the links. Economists often jump from modelling things as quantities of real resources (physical capital and goods), then maybe interpret them as measures of welfare (utility), or sometimes interpret them as a property rights, or even money. I think you’ve discusses this before, but if we carried through units of measurement in modelling, then we could overcome a great deal of nonsense that gets concealed in grandiose equations. That might even help to connect the concepts together better.

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