[No taker for this yet. The number of outlets for seriously non-mainstream thinking seems to be shrinking.]
This year’s Nobel prize in economics spotlights a core deficiency in mainstream ‘neoclassical’ economics, one of many. It is pseudo-science. It needs to be banished from government, universities and our thinking. Defensible alternatives are available, but marginalised.
The prize was awarded for showing that higher pay can increase employment. This is a direct contradiction of the simplistic ‘law’ of supply and demand, a core concept of the dominant ‘neoclassical’ school of economics.
Supposedly, if the price of cabbages increases then fewer cabbages will be purchased. Similarly, if the price of hiring someone goes up, then fewer people will be hired. Well, not always.
[Published in Real World Economic Review #95, Davies, Geoff (2021) “A modest proposal for generating useful analyses of economies: a brief note.” real-world economics review, issue no. 95, 22 March, pp. 118-123, http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue95/Davies95.pdf. Some other comments are at https://rwer.wordpress.com/comments-on-rwer-issue-no-95/ and https://rwer.wordpress.com/2021/03/25/a-modest-proposal-for-generating-useful-analyses-of-economies/.
This is written for ‘heterodox’ economists, those who recognise mainstream (neoclassical) economics is nonsense, but who seem to flounder around not knowing what to do instead. It is a little more technical than my usual posts, but the message does not depend on the details.]
I propose that economists leave philosophy alone for a while and instead try analysing some actual economic observations.
I have observed much discussion among heterodox economists about what science comprises, whether one could do “scientific” economics, and what ontology, epistemology, etc, etc, might be involved. If, for example, economies are historically contingent, how could one hope to do a rigorous analysis. I have also observed much concern about the complications of people and societies and the resulting alleged need for elaborate statistical analyses to extract an object of interest, followed by the construction of an elaborate mathematical model that includes many nuances of human behaviour.
I think the challenge is not nearly so daunting. An economic analysis does not have to emulate the precision of (some) laboratory physics to be useful. It does not have to yield a literal prediction. If one steps out of the equilibrium mindset of the neoclassical mainstream one can find obvious phenomena crying out for explanation, a financial market crash for example.
[I wrote this for an essay competition a year or so ago. It was not short-listed or otherwise noted. I thought it was not bad. You can see the winning essay here ($) or message me and I’ll email it. I wasn’t that impressed, but I wouldn’t be, would I? You can judge for yourself.]
Is there, at bottom, any real distinction between esthetics and economics?—Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Other Writings
For a week or so when I was a kid my father came home from the farm every evening stinking of rotten potatoes. There was a glut and much of the previous season’s crop had not been sold. It was rotting in storage and he was digging it out and dumping it. We kids complained about how he smelt, thoughtless of his day-long immersion in the stench and disgusting sludge and oblivious to the bitter reality of another season’s hard labour gone for little return.
The false nostrums of the pseudo-science of neoclassical economics have been used to create a system that promotes endlessly increasing consumption of resources and endless elaboration of technology. This system already operates far beyond the needs of people. Our survival requires that we rein in the machine and return to proven and durable, social and moral forms of organisation.
Growth has a fundamental place in the biological world, of which we humans are a part. Unchecked growth has no place, outside of the microbial world. Unchecked growth is called a plague, an epidemic or a cancer.
Growth, among mainstream economists, has become a reflexive, mindless goal, specifically growth of the Gross Domestic Product. Growth of the GDP is the dominant global criterion for allegedly successful management of an economy. GDP is an indiscriminate measure of what we spend money on: some things good, some useless, some bad and, increasingly, some attempting to repair damage from previous spending. GDP is not a useful measure of our quality of life, whose improvement should be the real goal, but it does correlate with resource use and resource waste, also known as pollution.
Neoclassical economics is without scholarly integrity. It does not belong in universities. It certainly should not be the dominant source of policy advice to governments.
Most scholarly disciplines, be they history, physics or ecology, have a conception of appropriate standards by which the evidential basis of an argument is presented and the reasoning leading to conclusions is explained. The goal is to shed light on the workings of the world, and a criterion for a successful study is that observations or records are consistent with the study’s conclusions.
Neoclassical economics, the strand of economics that has dominated world policies for several decades, fails these criteria. Its conclusions are regularly contradicted by developments in the real world. A dominant criterion for a successful study is that its logic is internally consistent; it thus confuses mathematics with the science it claims to be. It is variously claimed that assumptions on which a theory is based don’t matter, or that the better the theory the more unrealistic the assumptions, or that all theories are wrong. It imagines its theories are useful approximations to reality, and fails to appreciate that more reasonable assumptions can lead to radically different conclusions, so its theories may be deeply misleading.
Analyses of the economic effects of global warming by prominent economists are based on patently invalid arguments, profound ignorance of the global response to solar energy and basic misrepresentation of scientific sources. Their conclusion that the effects are minor is egregiously in error and use of their analyses to advise governments has placed the world in peril.
Economist Steve Keen has published a critique (and summary) of analyses by William Nordhaus and others of the effects of global warming on the global economy. Those analyses, incorporated into official IPCC reports, suggest the effects of global warming are minor. Keen’s critique reveals the analyses to be absurdly deficient, reflecting not only profound ignorance but patently invalid arguments and a lack of scholarly integrity.
As Menzies foresaw, we have had economic anarchy, and both security and progress have disappeared.
A spirited contest of ideas has already started regarding how we emerge from the coronavirus shutdown. The Prime Minister is talking about ‘snapping back’ to what we were before. Some would like to use the crisis to jump to essentially an authoritarian corporate hegemony. Others would like to see a more sharing society with a more active government and embedded in a healthy natural world.
We are highly unlikely to just snap back, but if we want a more caring, equitable and durable society then we need to get clear about what needs to be done. Some are allowing that neoliberalism is dead, but few seem to be clear about what might replace it. Going back to something like our postwar system might be a good start, but we can do better.
Why would the Government buy bonds as it sells bonds? Why would it borrow money when it has its own money?
Various explanations have been appearing lately that purport to explain how the Government is raising the money it is suddenly splashing around to support (some) people through the Covid-19 shutdown. There are also explanations of how the Reserve Bank of Australia is engaging in ‘quantitative easing’ (QE) to support the economy through the shutdown and beyond.
It seems there may be at least three things happening: the RBA is buying bonds in order to inject extra money (‘liquidity’) into the financial sector and keep interest rates low; the RBA is funding some spending by the Government; the Government is borrowing money from the private sector by selling bonds.
We can’t allow growth to continue forever, simply because the Earth is finite. But can we stop it? And if so how? And anyway, growth of what?
Not only do many people agree we need to change our economic system, many are already doing really good things, like forming cooperatives or firms with a social purpose, promoting repair and recycling, growing healthy local food, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and so on. But all these good efforts struggle against the ever-rising tide of ‘growth’. What if our economic system supported the good things instead of subverting them? Could that be possible?