Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Economics still needs better critics

I just got back from the meeting of the Economic and Business History Society in Montreal, and I was going to blog about that, but then someone tweeted about this stupid essay at Evonomics. Eric Beinhocker writes about the problems with traditional economics and the benefits of the new economics. The primary problem with his essay is that his description of traditional economics is what would generally be referred to as bullshit.  He conveniently provides a table from his book, The Origin of Wealth, which I was fortunate enough to have never heard of before.

Pick any element you want. For instance the first one declares that traditional economics assumes that everyone has perfect information. Really? Even principles textbooks cover imperfect information and uncertainty. For Dynamics, he states that traditional economics assumes that the “The Economy automatically goes to equilibrium where social welfare is maximized.” Find me a principles textbook that doesn’t cover externalities, public goods, and monopoly. I like his description of the New Economics even better. “Economy is a highly dynamic system that can go far from equilibrium and become trapped in a suboptimal state.” It can become trapped in a state that is far from equilibrium? Does this guy not know what equilibrium means? Stability is the essential characteristic of equilibrium. In the absence of some sort of shock the situation won’t change. Later he refers to market failures, but he does so at the same time that he declares traditional economics assumes a natural tendency toward efficiency. Market failure is a situation in which the market equilibrium is inefficient. Moreover, equilibrium is a property of models, not reality. Reality is never stable. Equilibrium is nevertheless useful for helping us to consider the direction of change and possible unintended consequences.  In the case of innovation, what he ascribes to new economics is a feature of traditional economics and what he ascribes to traditional economics is not. Traditional economists have long studied the factors that are likely to encourage or impede innovation.

He describes one of the implications of new economic thinking for policy as follows:

Regulators take an action to address a perceived problem, that changes the perceptions and actions of market participants, which in turn creates a new set of problems triggering further regulator actions, and so on. Over time this infinite chase between fallible regulators and equally fallible market participants leaves a trail of rules, structures, and institutions that has a major effect on shaping the evolution of the economy.

Ironically, this is pretty much a description of my paper "LearningTo Tax: The Political Economy of the Opium Trade in Iran, 1921-1941," Journal of Economic History 61(March 2001):95-113. It is ironic because I regard myself as a pretty traditional economist. I see this paper, and most of my work on history and institutions, as building on traditional economics not refuting it.

I have taught pretty traditional principles of microeconomics for more than a quarter century, and I still believe that those simple models provide a great deal of value to students. 

I'll try to write about EBHS and Montreal later today.

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