All-powerful economists?

There are really two separate books rubbing shoulders in Economists and the Powerful: Convenient Theories, Distorted Facts, Ample Rewards by Norbert Häring and Niall Douglas.

One of them is a clear and well-made case that modern economics has been in error in ignoring the part played by institutions, politics and power relations in actual economies. It has chapters covering the acquisition and abuse of power by the financial services industry, the distortion of business in the interests of executives rather than customers, employees or shareholders, and the increasing concentration of the US economy through merger waves. Although many or most professional economists who work in business or regulators or consultancy have always been well aware of institutional detail, I think it is fair comment that academic economics overlooked the reality of markets and economies for too long. I’d also add that this has been changing quickly, with the rise over 20 years of institutional economics, behavioural economics etc (see The Soulful Science) – but there is further to go.

The second book within this set of covers is more tendentious. It is a history of economic methodology in the first chapter (I must say, I’d have put this at the end if I’d been the author). While the authors land some punches, and make some good points about the way theory shapes reality (see my Tanner Lectures on this question of performativity), they are too conspiracy theorist about it. The original spin-meister Edward Bernays is wheeled out, along with the Inside Job accusations that the financial crisis came about because some economists were paid to write a report by the Icelandic government. Although many economists in universities do paid consulting work – and should certainly declare it when they publish their work – I don’t believe there is signficant distortion of what gets published as there seems to be in the case of pharma companies and medical research. The economists simply have a much wider choice of options, and are not beholden to one set of powerful business interests. There would be something interesting to say, nevertheless, about the narrowing of economic research as published in mainstream journals – I just don’t believe it’s as crudely marxist as suggested here. Similarly, the way economic theory and practice developed from the 1940s to 1980s was certainly bound up with the wider ideological/political climate (like any social science discipline is sure to be), but not in such a purposive way. I think the messy sociological reality of the profession would be far more interesting to understand than the ideological, top-down assertions presented in this book.

Still, it’s an interesting read. The argument that marginalism, the refusal to compare individuals’ utility and rational choice added up to the inevitable demotion of interest in economic institutions is quite interesting. Besides, I’m all in favour of economists continuing to introspect for at least as long as the world economy remains in such a fragile state.

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