vrijdag 23 mei 2014

Burn the schools down

I guess it's a tradition that every once in a while students revolt against the economics they are being taught. When I was doing my PhD it was a movement calling itself "post-autistic economics", which was mainly active in France, but also got support elsewhere. I agreed with some of their complaints, although the argumentation was not always that strong and sometimes outright politically motivated ("Capitalism boo! Neo-feminist post-constructionalism yay!"). Later on they changed the name to "Real-World Economics", perhaps not to offend people suffering from autism. Looking at their review I still don't get the impression that they're making much of a dent in the economics debate. Neither am I convinced by what they write, to put it politely.

But now a new revolt has emerged in Manchester. As far as I can see it is more constructive, and more well-argued than the post-autist movement. I agree with some of their points, but not all.

I agree with their proposition that economics teaching should take heed of insights from such fields as psychology, law, and policy science. I don't know the Manchester program, but I find it curious that such subjects receive as little attention as the Manchester economics students claim. Besides microeconomics, macroeconomics, and econometrics, students in our BSc Economics and Governance program take courses and lectures on history, policy science, institutional economics, and behavioral economics. I guess it's a question of discussing one particular model or theory very thoroughly, or discussing several different models or theories in a more shallow manner. Our Economics and Governance BSc chooses to be broad, and I agree with that, especially for a problem-oriented university as Wageningen.

I also agree with the Manchester students' call for a more evidence-based economics, and more attention for the conditions under which different theories and models have more explanatory power than others.

But that's also where my main objection lies: the call for "pluralism" is translated into more attention to other "schools of thought" than just neoclassical economics. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a school of thought is
a group sharing a common point of view in respect to some matter (e.g. "she belongs to the liberal school of thought"); also: a point of view recognized as held but not necessarily accepted (e.g. "there are two schools of thought about this question")
An economist can be "of" a particular school of thought: for example, Paul Krugman is generally considered a Keynesian; Milton Friedman was a monetarist; Herman Daly is an ecological economist; John Kenneth Galbraith was an institutional economist. The natural scientists I work with can only shake their heads when I tell them this. In their fields, there are different theories that compete or need to be reconciled (e.g. general relativity versus quantum mechanics). Or there are different models for different situations, based on simplifying assumptions, and usually developed for a selection of cases but not for all (e.g. metapopulation theory, or the Beverton-Holt stock recruitment model). In that sense, economics is close to ecology: both deal with complex systems that cannot always be experimented on to test competing hypotheses, so we use models that describe a subset of the mechanisms at work. The difference, however, is that whereas even Ilkka Hanski will acknowledge that not all populations can be approached as metapopulations, economists argue as if either Krugman or Friedman is right. On the other hand, schools of thought also have a danger of being politically motivated: if schools of thought are just "points of view", then you can pick and choose whichever one fits your political preferences. So if you like bow ties, become a Hayekian; if you want to keep your really cool Che Guevara t-shirt, declare yourself a Marxist. (If you're looking for a steady job in economic policy, follow Keynes.)

In my humble opinion economists must get rid of schools. We should treat our theories like ecologists treat their models: to paraphrase George Box, our models are always wrong in some respect, but they may be useful in some cases. The challenge is to identify the conditions under which they can be useful.

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