What’s wrong – and right – with economics

I didn’t expect to enjoy Robert Skidelsky’s new book, What’s Wrong With Economics: A Primer for the Perplexed, for he has long been forthright about his low opinion of economics and economists; and so it proved.

He makes some good points, nevertheless. Indeed, some I strongly agree with, as do a lot of other economists. For example, many of us would agree about the importance of studying economic history; even some of the nerdiest econometricians and theorists I know devour the big new econ history books. Likewise about the importance of taking into account psychological realism – behavioural economics, hello! (Though standard rational calculation of self-interest often matches reality better – it’s all about the context.) Institutional economics is everywhere now, in the tradition of Coase, Williamson, et al. Lord Skidelsky approves of it (albeit preferring the old institutionalism to the new transactions-cost based approach); he just seems to be under the misapprehension that it’s a neglected part of the discipline.

In sum, there is indeed much here that I and many other economists of my acquaintance agree with. Big ticks to history, institutions, psychological realism, even to acquaintance with sociology or anthropology.

So why did I not enjoy the book? It talks about “the poverty of neoclassical economics under its carapace of techniques.” This is absurd. While certainly there is some excess ‘mathiness‘, technique is a vital thing in any discipline. Even historians have techniques, and models (‘the causes of the first world war’). Does this carapace consist of too much ‘theory’? As Beatrice Cherrier has blogged, there has been a significant shift to applied work in economics, even though its description as the ’empirical turn’ has been over-stated.

But above all, despite insisting on the importance on both economic history and the history of economic thought, the book is ahistorical in its approach to economics. It attacks an economics it labels as ‘mainstream’ or ‘neoclassical’. Whatever it means by mainstream, this isn’t what most economists do. As ever in such critiques, the book only talks about macroeconomics, doesn’t cite a single piece of applied microeconomics, but above all ignores the fact that economics has changed in the past 10, 20, 30 years.

I do think there are serious methodological issues in the present (‘mainstream’) economic paradigm – my next book, Cogs and Monsters, out around this time next year, will be about this.

Meanwhile, What’s Wrong With Economics is concise, clearly and elegantly written and spends half its length demonstrating that the other half is – well, about what’s right with economics.51FqQfM-ouL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_

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Coffee table economics

I’ve been enjoying paging through Steven Medema’s The Economics Book: from Xenophon to Cryptocurrency, 250 Milestones in the History of Economics, not least because it has lots of lovely pictures. It’s a history of economic concepts –  that starts in 700 BCE with Hesiod to cryptocurrencies in 2009. Each entry has a beautiful illustration, no mean feat when it comes to illustrating Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (a photo of the ECB), National Income Accounting (women washing dishes at home and hence not contributing to GDP), or Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham’s catalogue of the different sources of pleasure and pain). The pictures make it exactly the kind of book you’d be happy to have on the coffee table but it’s more than that: the selection of concepts and the capsule explanations do make it a useful starting point for people who’ve maybe read the terms or think they ought to know something about economics but have no idea where to start. They can start here without embarrassment (Hicks-Allen consumer theory, the School of Salamanca, the Shapley value….) and follow up elsewhere. It’s also a bargain – get the hardback, not the Kindle version.

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Going to extremes

Richard Davies obviously made the kind of road trip many of us only dream of to write Extreme Economies: from Akita in Japan to Santiago in Chile, from Glasgow to Kinshasa. The locations he chose illustrate one of three characteristics – survival (refugee camps in Jordan, post-tsunami Aceh, a US prison in Louisiana), failure (Panama’s Darien Gap, Kinshasa in DRC, and post-industrial Glasgow), and the future (ageing Japan, digital Estonia, unequal Chile. As the book sums it up: “The year 2030, for most people on earth, will be a cocktail of these three cities: an urban society that is old, technologically advanced, and economically unequal.”

The book is a great read – I tore through it. An economist who can write so well while at the same time explaining the economic principles so clearly is always a joy. I will admit to being rather envious of the opportunity he had to visit all these places. Getting out and visiting should be required for all economists, whether they are writing about development and progress as Davies is, or about industrial organisation or education. You always learn something not only relevant but also important. One of the things I did love about this book was the painless administering of some substantial chunks of economic research – it’s an ideal read for eager 6th form students or undergraduates. It might encourage them to appreciate that economics is not only important but also exciting.

The book also includes some important threads. One is the environment as an economic as well as intrinsically valuable asset. Darien’s economy depends on extraction from the jungle, living now on its future potential: “The puzzle is why, in a region where everyone knows the environment is being degraded, the people of Darien can’t manage the economy in a way that stops it happening.” This segues into a discussion of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Later, though, it’s Glasgow’s social capital, another overlooked asset, that’s pinpointed as one source of failure: “When an economic force is shared, unseen and hard to measure, you will do too little to protect it.” I couldn’t agree more. Social capital features in all the examples here, either as a source of resilience or a cause of failure. It isn’t a sufficient explanation of economic outcomes – for example, in the chapter on refugee camps in Jordan, one thrives and the other fails because of external forces shaping the structure of the camps and their economic potential – but it is a necessary element.

Davies picks this up in the conclusion: “The biggest gap in economics is the way it completely ignores social capital.” This is why our Bennett Institute Wealth Economy team is exploring the measurement of social capital. Economics doesn’t entirely ignore it – it gets lables such as ‘institutions’ or ‘goodwill’ – but is treated as a black box at best. So I agree with the book that economics will have more to offer the world if we measure and understand better the “subtler and more human aspects of income and wealth.”

Meanwhile, I recommend enjoying the tour through the rebuilt Aceh, refugee camps in Jordan, the market in Kinshasa, Lousiana’s Angola prison and all the other economies featured here. And I hope some TV producer will pick up the book and take its author round the world all over again to film it.

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Once upon a time

It’s very interesting the way interest in narratives is popping up in so many places. The Royal Society has been looking at narratives in AI and in science more generally. Now Robert Shiller of Irrational Exuberance (and Nobel Prize) fame has a new book called Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events. The book builds on a lecture he gave a couple of years ago. It begins: “This book offers the beginnings of a new theory of economic change that introduces an important new element to the usual list of economic factors: contagious popular stories that spread through word of mouth, the news media and social media.”

As the preface notes, the idea isn’t new; the 1894 Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy mentions narrative economics. Robert Merton’s well-known concept of self-fulfilling (or self-averting) prophecies covers much of the territory of narrative dynamics. But perhaps today’s economy is more vulnerable than ever to contagion. An early chart in the book illustrates the surge in the proportion of articles across several socal science and humanities disciplines that contain the word ‘narrative’. Economics and finance are well behind history (of course) but also anthropology, sociology and political science.

Anyway, the book is about how narrative contagion affects economic events. It has in mind epidemic models, as well as – well, narratives. Each chapter focuses on a number of examples. The first section starts with Bitcoin as an example of how narrative affected behaviour and outcomes, then introduces some of the concepts concerning how narratives ‘go viral’ and the psychology of contagion. Part 2 is a brief section setting out ‘seven propositions of narrative economics’ (including ‘truth is not enough to stop false narratives’. Quite.) Part 3 describes recurring economic narratives such as financial boom and bust, or automation and jobs. The final part of the book sets out questions for research.

The book is always interesting, but somewhat bitty, one example after another, lacking a grand theory of narrative framework. However, as Shiller points out in the final section, there is plenty of scope for quantitative approaches to understanding the economic role of narratives, particularly using recent text analysis tools. A cynic might paint this emphasis on narrative – also recently explored by George Akerlof and Dennis Snower – as classic economic imperialism. After all, she might say, sociology and anthropology have been onto this for years. Some economists might on the other hand dismiss the emphasis on narratives as a source of dynamics as woolly nonsense, merely anecdotal. But both responses would be too negative.

A move to extend the use of qualitative approaches in economics should be welcomed, and an extension of the also-welcome revival of economic history. Narrative Economics joins a couple of other recent books, such as Morson and Schapiro’s Cents and Sensibility and Uncertain Futures edited by Jens Beckert and Richard Bronk in restoring the humanity to economics.

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Better economic forecasting

The heading of this post is not an invitation for the usual jokes about economic forecasts. It’s clear that most people think forecasting is what economists do, by and large, and that they do it badly. Indeed, some forecasts are a tissue of nonsense – pretty much any UK economcy & trade forecast from Patrick Minford these days for example, although 20 or 30 years ago he was a serious forecaster. I spent a few years myself in the mid/late 1980s doing macro forecasts for the UK and a few other countries, and later, as Economics Editor of the Independent, awarded an annual Golden Guru trophy for the UK forecast of key macro variables closest to the published figures at the time of the award – a necessary qualification because many macroeconomic statistics, especially GDP, are significantly revised over a period of years.

The revisions are with us still, but the techniques of forecasting have greatly improved since then, although of course there is a wide quality range among economic forecasters. For a non-technical guide to economic forecasting, there could be nothing better than Forecasting: An Essential Introduction by Jennifer Castle, Michael Clements and David Hendry. It is a crystal clear and intuitive explanation of what macroeconomic forecasts can and can’t do. It explains the inherent difficulties in trying to forecast the future of a complex non- linear, non-stationary system in which behaviour can be affected by forecasts themselves, all from a limited amount of past data. Better still, it explains the empirical techniques this ace team have devised to tackle some of the challenges.

My only complaint about the book is that the charts are a bit too small for my middle-aged eyesight. Although non-technical, there are lots of charts and it probably won’t make the bestseller list. However, it should be read by any student about to do a time series economietrics course, and to anybody about to start a job as a forecaster. Economics students are proficient in all the relevant software, have ploughed through the statistical theory in their econometrics courses, but anybody starting out as a forecaster naturally lacks the wisdom that comes with the experience of handling the data and seeing your lovingly estimated model produce some dreadful out-of-sample forecasts.

This book represents a treasure trove of crystallised wisdom. It offers up practical insights in clear prose. For example: “This principle of differencing is a method to remove the deterministic components of a forecasting model, by which we mean intercepts and trends. Deterministic terms capture the underlying equilbrium and growth rate of a variable of interest, so are fundamental to modeling, but can be catastrophic for forecasting when either component changes. The differencng principle can be applied to any model with an inherent equilibrium to which it corrects. … But…. if the object needing to be forecast is the level, a good performance forecasting the differences is not necessarily sufficient, as cumulating those differences may lead to an increasing divergence from the level.”

The book ends with some reflections on the limits to forecasting. Some things are inherently unpredictable – including events like the financial crisis which hinged not only on prior macroeconomic trends able to be captured in a macroeconometric model but also on unexpected policy decisions like letting Lehman Brothers go bust. But  the book notes that the forecasting process is not just about numbers but also about the narrative, at least in any macro policy context. Hendry coined the term ‘forediction’ to capture this.

No doubt the public at large will continue to mock economists and their forecasts, but they will always be needed, and in that case should be as good as economists can make them.

41cwRNu7q7LForecasting: An Essential Introduction

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