Economists Dissing Economics

For whatever reason, I found myself compiling a list of 20 or so quotes, mostly from well known economists, criticising mainstream economics. What’s most interesting is that although the quotes come from a wide range of economists, with different political views and from different times, they seem to have a lot in common.

The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.

― Joan Robinson

Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists.

― John Kenneth Galbraith

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.

― John Kenneth Galbraith

…the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences.

― Thomas Piketty

Too large a proportion of recent “mathematical” economics are mere concoctions, as imprecise as the initial assumptions they rest on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze of pretentious and unhelpful symbols.

― John Maynard Keynes

We move from more or less plausible but really arbitrary assumptions, to elegantly demonstrated but irrelevant conclusions.

― Wassily Leontief

Existing economics is a theoretical system which floats in the air and which bears little relation to what happens in the real world.

― Ronald Coase

The economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.

― Paul Krugman

Economics has become increasingly an arcane branch of mathematics rather than dealing with real economic problems.

― Milton Friedman

Modern economics is sick. Economics has increasingly become an intellectual game played for its own sake and not for its practical consequences for understanding the economic world. Economists have converted the subject into a sort of social mathematics in which analytical rigour is everything and practical relevance is nothing.

― Mark Blaug

Economics has never been a science – and it is even less now than a few years ago.

― Paul Samuelson

For far too long economists have sought to define themselves in terms of their supposedly scientific methods. In fact, those methods rely on an immoderate use of mathematical models, which are frequently no more than an excuse for occupying the terrain and masking the vacuity of the content.

― Thomas Piketty

In my youth it was said that what was too silly to be said may be sung. In modern economics it may be put into mathematics.

― Ronald Coase

If economists wished to study the horse, they wouldn’t go and look at horses. They’d sit in their studies and say to themselves, “what would I do if I were a horse?

― Ronald Coase

Any man who is only an economist is unlikely to be a good one.

― F. A. Hayek

The study of economics has been again and again led astray by the vain idea that economics must proceed according to the pattern of other sciences.

― Ludwig von Mises

The use of mathematics has brought rigor to economics. Unfortunately, it has also brought mortis.

― Robert Heilbroner

An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today.

― Laurence J. Peter

When an economist says the evidence is “mixed,” he or she means that theory says one thing and data says the opposite.

― Richard Thaler

The First Law of Economists: For every economist, there exists an equal and opposite economist.

The Second Law of Economists: They’re both wrong.

― David Wildasin

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  1. #1 by Hi on August 23, 2014 - 6:18 pm

    It would be very useful to have the year in which each quote was given. It would provide some much needed context.

    • #2 by Unlearningecon on September 3, 2014 - 6:11 pm

      Yes, sorry – I threw this together on a whim and didn’t expect it to get as many views as it did. If I did it again, I’d source them all fully, but the ship has sailed now.

  2. #3 by john anderson (@huzzahmpls) on August 23, 2014 - 6:27 pm

    These are great. I remember an interview I read with the British film maker Adam Curtis where he referred to economics as, “a failed pseudoscience.” Remember thinking “come on Adam, that’s a bit harsh” but maybe he was on to something after all.

    He did make a funny documentary in the early 90’s about the history of post-war British economists trying to manage the national economy and not doing so well. I really like the part about how Bill Philips built a big machine that pumps water around to show how the economy “works” and the LSE grad students who rebuilt it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VR50UpdPRiA

  3. #6 by andrewdsmith on August 23, 2014 - 6:48 pm

    Reblogged this on The Past Speaks and commented:
    Some amusing one-liners here.

  4. #7 by LINUS FERNANDES on August 23, 2014 - 6:55 pm

    Reblogged this on Rubber Tyres –> Smooth Rides.

  5. #8 by Mathieu Bédard on August 24, 2014 - 12:10 am

  6. #9 by Rob Rawlings on August 24, 2014 - 4:20 am

    Nice selection.

    But to look at this more positively – doesn’t this show (at least in some of quotes) that economists have a sense of humor and the ability for self-parody ? Does such a culture exists in (say) physics where some of the theory (string theory etc) is equally dubious ?

    • #10 by Unlearningecon on August 25, 2014 - 5:59 pm

      I’ve long been of the opinion that the edifice of economics is far more rigid and unreflective than economists themselves. Not that there aren’t some bad individuals – Prescott, Lucas, Williamson – but you might say the whole is worse than the sum of its parts.

    • #11 by Bill Morrison on September 16, 2014 - 2:22 am

      But string theorist point out that until experimental evidence comes to light, it’s a theory (in the coloquial sense), plus, there’s that point that you don’t get a real nobel prize in physics for wrongly predicting the fall of an apple.

  7. #12 by Derek R on August 24, 2014 - 5:57 am

    Excellent! And Heilbroner is the winner!

  8. #13 by tosinfad on August 24, 2014 - 3:06 pm

    Reblogged this on Ramblings of Doctoral scholar and commented:
    These are funny, yet touching on a concerns I’ve had for a few years now as a PhD, especially since I’m not as mathematically inclined, and have a general preference for conceptual understanding over mathematical shenanigans..

    • #14 by llenten on August 26, 2014 - 3:36 am

      I agree – most of them amusing, but rigour and mortis takes the chocoloates

  9. #15 by thedaner on August 24, 2014 - 3:39 pm

    Reblogged this on Scourge of Progressivism and commented:
    The entire “discipline” of macroeconomics, with its over reliance on math, equations, aggregates and equilibria, is essentially a farce.

  10. #16 by 6scans on August 24, 2014 - 9:35 pm

    odd that Paul Samuelson is on this list.

  11. #18 by Jonathan on August 25, 2014 - 3:11 am

    Ronald Reagan once said that an economist was someone who watched something work in practice and “wondered if it would work in theory.”

    • #19 by Unlearningecon on August 25, 2014 - 5:53 pm

      I’ve seen that saying reproduced at various places and with various other groups in place of “economist”, even including “Frenchman”. Are you sure it originates from Reagan?

  12. #20 by AgroEcoDoc on August 25, 2014 - 5:25 pm

    Reblogged this on AgroEcoPeople.

  13. #21 by Jono on August 28, 2014 - 3:41 pm

    Physics envy, enough said. The irony being that the scientific method went completely against the philosophical ideas of the time, because it insisted on going out into the real world and observing what actually happens. Many of the quotes above highlight that economics based on actually going out into the field to research how businesses, banks etc. actually work is seen as lesser research to the work of arm chair economists who come up with elegant theories, and display them in mathematical models. The latter is the Aristotlesque way of learning about the world, which science overthrew during the enlightenment.

  14. #22 by rjw on September 1, 2014 - 10:32 am

    You missed out a favourite of mine.

    “Economics is the science of confusing stocks and flows” (Michael Kalecki)

    I may be paraphrasing slightly, but he said this, apparently, with reference discussion of the quantity theory of money.

    • #23 by Unlearningecon on September 3, 2014 - 6:09 pm

      Yes, love that one. Left it out on the joint grounds that (a) I’ve used it in a previous pot and (b) it wasn’t as much of a straight-up diss of existing economics as the others.

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