Economic History and Krugman’s Crib Sheet
One of the positive things about reading blogs is that sometimes you see connections in apparently diverse offerings. So here are two seemingly unconnected posts: Paul Krugman’s discussion of how he came to do his path breaking research in international trade and economic geography, and Kevin O’Rourke’s post on why economics needs economic history.
I remember many years ago being in a large interdisciplinary forum, where Krugman’s research on economic geography came up. The economists in the room were of course very positive, but the geographer there could not hide his disdain. There is nothing in this work that geographers have not actively discussed for the past 50 years, he said. I have no reason to doubt that he was right, but it kind of missed the point. What Krugman and others did was manage to formalise these earlier thoughts in a particularly tractable and useful way.
What is so great about formalism, you might ask. The trouble with just talking and writing about the way the world works is that it is quite easy to become confused or to make mistakes. Macro, because it deals with a highly interconnected system, is full of these pitfalls. The example I use with undergrads when they first come to IS/LM is as follows. Cutting taxes may appear to boost the economy, but if it is financed by more government borrowing, to persuade people to lend more will probably push up interest rates. These higher interest rates reduce output, so as a result tax cuts could end up reducing output. Sounds reasonable, but the reasoning is incorrect. The worst that can happen with a tax cut is that people save it all, in which case output does not change, and neither do interest rates. IS/LM shows us that if interest rates rise it is because output has increased.
Attacks on mainstream economics and reforming economics teaching
Mainstream (orthodox) economics is having a hard time in the pages of the Guardian. First Aditya Chakrabortty writes “How do elites remain in charge? If the tale of the economists is any guide, by clearing out the opposition and then blocking their ears to reality. The result is the one we're all paying for.” Then Seumas Milne adds “Any other profession that had proved so spectacularly wrong and caused such devastation would surely be in disgrace.” In this post I want to say why such attacks are wide of the mark, but also say something about how these attacks gain traction, and why they suggest changing the way the subject is taught.
One frequent accusation, very evident in Milne’s piece, and often repeated by heterodox economists, is that mainstream economics and neoliberal ideas are inextricably linked. Of course economics is used to support neoliberalism. Yet I find mainstream economics full of ideas and analysis that permits a wide ranging and deep critique of these same positions. The idea that the two live and die together is just silly.
The absurdity of linking mainstream economics to all our current problems is also obvious if you think about austerity. As I never tire of saying, the proposition that austerity was a crazy thing to try in this recession is prominent in the pages of undergraduate and graduate textbooks. It is what mainstream economics, as practiced in central banks, tells us. Now I agree that it is a great shame that some influential economists sometimes seem to ignore or have forgotten what is in these textbooks, or put their own textbooks aside to provide support for particular political parties. However it remains the case that the most effective critic of austerity is using totally orthodox economics.
Nearly all complaints about that mainstream start off with the economics profession’s failure to foresee the financial crisis. Again it’s important to make some fairly basic points. First economics is not just (or even mainly) about trying to forecast the future. The percentage of the profession that made this mistake is tiny. Another one of my favourite lines back from when I did forecasting is that macro forecasts are only slightly better than guesswork. We know that, both from past evidence and the models themselves. It is a difficult message to get across, because a very visible part of economics - making decisions about interest rates - necessarily involves forecasts, and the media loves simplistic messages, but institutions like central banks do their best to emphasise the uncertainty involved.
It is also obviously not true that mainstream economics is incapable of understanding what led to the crisis, and what needs to be done to avoid it happening again. I think it’s fair to say that much that is in Admati and Hellwig’s The Bankers New Clothes is pretty mainstream. Perhaps in the past economists have been rather narrow, and even politically naive, in issues from regulation to overseas aid, but that is clearly changing and has been changing for some time.