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UnlearningEcon
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I suppose the question now becomes: when can a theory be entirely abandoned or refuted? Do we constantly expand our library of theories, as Dani Rodrik seems to want? Are theories basically never refutable, which is something a paper called 'economic models as analogies' seemed to argue? I'm not saying you're arguing this but it seems to be the way economics is heading. I've never seen a single theory completely abandoned, while research pushes the basic framework in all sorts of (sometimes contradictory) directions. Personally I find that this is clumsy and creates model selection problems, and am not sure how it is advancing our understanding of the world. Anyway, I don't disagree with most of your post and I think we may be talking about slightly different things. So I'll stop rambling now.
Toggle Commented Jan 23, 2016 on Against laws & "facts" at Stumbling and Mumbling
Luis, Maths is useful when things can be quantified. The problem is that econ is full of mathematisations of things which cannot be quantified, such as effort, utility and countless random parameters that have no obvious interpretation (please don't force me to find an example). I've never been against modelling - just against modelling the wrong things. "That involves writing down clearly articulated models, seeing how well they are supported by data, trying to think of ways to test them. This is what economists do." This is what economists like to think they do. What I've been learning is that in practice, it's more like 'economists write down clearly articulated but unnecessarily complicated models, impose arbitrary assumptions on them to reach a conclusion they could have come to in a sentence, then look for broad, stylised patterns in the data that are loosely consistent with their conclusions.' I'm not saying all econ is like this - that's a worst case scenario. But in general econ is nowhere near rigorous empirical testing of models and I don't know if it ever can be. Obviously, Murray's paper is not the same as his blog post. He doesn't just use thought experiment examples; he refers to a lot of evidence on return-maximising firms to support his case. He also comes to a number of non-standard conclusions with his framework. Off the top of my head these include that perfect competition is not necessarily the most efficient and that firms will not produce unless there are decreasing returns to scale to start. I don't see how renting capital is the same as having it in the denominator in the maximisation decision, either. It's another annoying habit of economists to respond to any new idea by insisting it's in their model if you interpret this way or that way. It's like a particular sub-category of Romer's 'mathiness'. sam, I've not actually said anything about equilibrium or economic history, but I'll bite. No equilibrium critique has ever concluded "...and therefore, there should be large surpluses and shortages in a capitalist economy". You are not referring to 'equilibrium' as a modelling tool but to an implication of standard demand-supply. Advocating non-equilibrium tools does not mean that you think every conclusion of every equilibrium model is wrong. Although supermarkets do throw away a lot of food and firms tend to keep spare inventories precisely due to dynamic considerations that are absent from this model. History is simply not a staple part of most economists' training. Individual economists are aware of history; there are fields devoted to studying it; but in general research, education and policymaking is a lot more concerned with modelling than with learning from history. I think this is a sad state of affairs.
Toggle Commented Jan 23, 2016 on Against anti-economics at Stumbling and Mumbling
Chris, I don't believe that assuming people are not rational, as defined by economics, is tantamount to assuming they are stupid. Investors are dealing with a remarkably complicated situation and, being human, have no choice but to use heuristics and cognitive shortcuts. I also think my mum would say that the market is hard to beat and she would have no idea how to invest! But of course there are those who consistently beat the market, which contradicts the EMH. One thing I forgot to mention is the fact that we have multiple theories leading to the same prediction in economics. So EMH implies the market is unpredictable but so does the theory of fractal markets, albeit for different reasons. How does Dani Rodrik choose between these two in any sort of rigorous way? Luis, because the use of maths does not just require the maths itself to be precise; it requires you to be precise about what you are mathematising. You can write any mathematical model, attach economicsy-sounding labels to the variables and claim it says something about the world, but ultimately if you have no clearly defined links between the theory and the maths then it's not clear why and when the maths is relevant. Economics doesn't use maths in this way; it uses it in a more vague, intuitive way and tries to defend every model as potentially valid, depending on the judgement of the economist. But there are two crucial questions missing: (a) What does this model add over the basic insight it is supposed to represent (behavioural econ is a repeat offender here); (b) How do I know when to use this model over some other model? Without well defined domains and boundary conditions, it's difficult to answer (b), particularly if two models yield similar predictions. It's almost as if economics is celebrating having an n=k problem, where n is real world situations and k is models. If you want evidence economists are resistant to non-standard ideas then how about Cameron Murray's theory of return seeking firms: http://www.fresheconomicthinking.com/2015/08/the-confused-economic-orthodoxy.html To me, these seems pretty well substantiated empirically, novel and interesting. But some of the referee's responses are pretty pathetic if you ask me.
Toggle Commented Jan 21, 2016 on Against anti-economics at Stumbling and Mumbling
While I agree with your point that attacks on economics should in general not be ideologically motivated, I disagree with your choice of theory to defend economics (the EMH) and even more strongly with this new 'economics is about choosing models' fad. Firstly, economics has a habit of using extremely unrealistic models to make wrong predictions, then describing the disconnect between the unrealistic model and the world as a 'puzzle'. Then, after some time and with a lot of mathematical tinkering, the 'puzzle' may be solved in any number of ways. The problem is that these 'puzzles' are only 'puzzles' if you believe the ridiculously unrealistic models in the first place. In the case of the EMH, one of the puzzles might be 'excess volatility'. The type of papers you link to have discovered that investors tend to herd, follow rules of thumb, act on wrong/imperfect information etc. Well, surprise surprise! My mum could have told you that. So how has economic theory advanced our knowledge here? To be sure, there's benefit to testing and sometimes formalising our intuitions. But when formalising theory takes centre stage, even when the theory contradicts the knowledge we have and does not have evidence to support it, it pushes our understanding backwards rather than forwards. Going on to shoehorn things we already knew into this theoretical framework only gets us back to where we were before - unless the theory can make another clear, sound, nontrivial prediction. Similar examples are the equity premium, life cycle hypothesis, allais 'paradox' etc. Secondly, and in partial reply to Luis' first comment, heterodox economists do not claim to have the one true theory at all. What we would prefer is that (a) our theories get a hearing alongside neoclassical ones and (b) there are clear conditions for using theories, including some conditions for when we simply do not have a good enough theory! Economists are ultimately in a state of dissarray about their use of models and as a result they are producing mutually conflicting assertions: - The claim that maths adds rigour and precision to theory; - The claim that they should choose between these theories based on vague, arbitrary and unstated hunches; - The dismissal of heterodox theories outright. Do I really have to detail why any 2 of these 3 are contradictory?
Toggle Commented Jan 20, 2016 on Against anti-economics at Stumbling and Mumbling
"Autonomy is not something that can be given to you in any meaningful sense, you have to achieve it." But it can be taken away from you by coercion by e.g. your employer. That's one of Chris' points.
Toggle Commented Jan 9, 2016 on The paradox of plenty at Stumbling and Mumbling
If I remember correctly, did Keynes not make the prediction with the proviso that there wouldn't be another war?
Toggle Commented Nov 18, 2015 on Keynes' error at Stumbling and Mumbling
Not sure how clear the intelligence was about Iraq - in many cases it contradicted Bush/Blair's narrative, but they went ahead anyway...
Toggle Commented Oct 28, 2015 on Two Blairs, or one? at Stumbling and Mumbling
I would go one step further and suggest that nuclear catastrophe is not something to which we can attach a probability. And it could be that trident increases some risks by making *us* more aggressive.
@britonomist ""Value" is subjective, it's that simple." It really isn't. Subjectivists and Marxists mean two different things when they say 'value'. For Marxists, 'value' is the phenomenon underlying production and surplus under capitalism. For subjectivists, it means personal preferences. It's incredible that two different uses of the same word has caused so much confusion for so long. @luis "Does Marx say that once profits are sufficiently low, they no longer qualify as exploitation but as a fair return on capital? I am thinking of an analogue of "the cost needed to bring that factor into production" as this wiki definition of economic rents puts it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_rent" No - exploitation does not depend on the amount of profit the capitalist gets; it simply depends on the labour-capital relationship. Capitalists pay workers wages below the value that they produce, the difference being exploitation. I suppose you're asking whether a capitalist could feasibly pay a worker more than the value they produced, and hypothetically I guess this could happen. But it couldn't be widespread, as such as business would be sucking up surplus from elsewhere, resulting in no profits -> no capitalism. And even this would still retain the owner's control over what was produced, which is for me the essence of the relationship in qualitative terms. "And if so, if the rate of profit is supposed to fall over time, does that mean capitalism gets less exploitative until, perhaps, it is no longer exploitative at all?" Well, the point is that as the RoP falls it generates crises which reset it to a higher level (or prompt some sort of social revolution/disintegration). Capitalism can't continue existing with a low rate of profit for reasons that aren't necessarily marxist (no growth, unemployment etc). @Matt Moore "I can work for years on an invention or artwork but if no one wants it, it's worthless." This is true, and something Marx also believed, but commented: "What has this to do with my theory of value? To the degree that corn is sold above its value, other commodities...are, to the same degree, sold below their value. The sum of values remains the same." The point is that the LTV concerns aggregate, economy-wide trends rather than individual prices. There is disagreement among Marxists about this, but IMO @Brett is right to note that the empirical evidence Chris presented is partly tautological. Investigations into the LTV should concern aggregate rather than micro tendencies.
"It's possible to argue that wages depend upon social forces because those forces affect the position of supply and demand curves." You could, but this would render the concepts even more unfalsifiable than they are already. Why must we assume demand-supply 'underlies' everything? Is there any scope for abandoning it? The rest of your post is fine without any appeals to demand or supply.
A couple of quick objections: 1. Regardless of how efficient you believe markets are at predicting, they can't predict base don information which isn't there. You just gave a number of ways in which young people face fundamental uncertainty - how exactly can markets deal with this better than individuals if it depends on things which are completely unpredictable? 2. I would worry about speculation here. Hedge funds decide to short, I don't know, cleaners - will this have no effect on the profession? You seem to believe markets can be benign and only reflect fundamentals, rather than influencing them.
@luis See, someone from a discipline which was more secure about its empirical record wouldn't have responded with a petty dig; they'd have (a) given some examples and (b) asked themselves exactly how someone could complete an economics degree without having the usefulness of utility demonstrated to them. By the way, I'm now half way through a Master's, and it still hasn't happened. If anything, the more I learn the sillier utility becomes.
Toggle Commented Jan 9, 2015 on Endogenous preferences at Stumbling and Mumbling
@ luis The problem with the "we don't really believe that but it's useful" refrain is that it just becomes an empty catch-all that you can use whenever utility is questioned. The question is *how* utility is useful (making theory mathematically tractable doesn't qualify because that says nothing about its realism).
Toggle Commented Jan 7, 2015 on Endogenous preferences at Stumbling and Mumbling
"required the leap of faith that the whole was somehow more than the sum of its parts." ...a leap of faith that is made in virtually every other field, including many which have far better empirical records than anything in economics. http://robotics.cs.tamu.edu/dshell/cs689/papers/anderson72more_is_different.pdf
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@luis I'm more like you than Chris - I'll spend a long time on a post (not actually working on it, but from when I first get an idea to when I actually finish is often around a month), trying to make it read well and anticipating objections. But ultimately anything can be criticised, you will never spot every typo, and you will make mistakes. Best just to accept this and get over yourself (I'm not directing that last part specifically at you).
Toggle Commented Apr 13, 2014 on In praise of brevity at Stumbling and Mumbling
You really should read Andrew Kliman on this. He uses similar measures of the profit rate and comes to the same conclusion, but he points out that the increasing rate of "moral depreciation" (technical obsolescence) in the computer age is not often accounted for in the data. Once you remove this the 'rebounds' in the rate of profit fall to nothing and it may even have fallen further.
Toggle Commented Dec 19, 2013 on Profits & investment at Stumbling and Mumbling
OK I think we may have two different definitions (or at least applications) of accounting here. You mean it as relationships like S=I, which help us to think but ultimately are tautologies and not "economics". I agree with that. However, when I say 'accounting' I mean something more like the actual accounting behaviour and practices of businesses, particularly banks (but let's not go there!) and how that helps us to understand their actions or 'microfoundations'.
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1. Well, this is kind of circular. You're defining economics as what you want to do then telling me what I want to do isn't economics. If economics is defined more broadly as 'the study of the economy', it seems obvious that accounting relationships help us understand the economy and are therefore a part of economics. In fact, you basically go on to acknowledge this so I'm a bit confused. 2. OK, you didn't necessarily mean mathematical microfoundations. That's cool, but I felt like your post was defending microfoundations in modern macro or some such. My bad.
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Two quick thoughts spring to mind: (1) It's admirable, in a sense, to want to understand the human foundations of economics. However, sometimes they simply may not be relevant for the matter at hand. All models abstract from things, as economists like to say, and some might abstract from individual actions and motives and look instead at, say, accounting relationships and flows of funds. (2) What you consider 'microfoundations' could easily be considered just another set of arbitrary mathematical relationships that don't really help us achieve your stated goal. Most economists will happily say "no, people don't really maximise some metaphysical concept called 'utility', but it helps us build models that make predictions etc etc." Now, we can argue about whether this is useful from a modelling perspective until the cows come home, but it does seem that it demonstrably fails to help us understand real people, which is what you want to do. In fact, I think if you really want to understand people's relationship to the economy you're probably better off steering clear of mathematical microfounded models. That's not an outright dismissal of maths for this purpose, but I certainly think things like *asking* people about the economy are a better way to understand their motives and actions, even though economists have historically steered clear of such methods.
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@luis Capitalism may 'deliver the goods', but the marxist argument is that they are unevenly distributed and often wasted, while production is often focused on superfluous things.
OK, left the wrong comment on the wrong post. Let's try again: @chris OK, but there is circularity in the statement "economics predicts the crash couldn't be predicted, and economists didn't predict the crash, so this proves economics is right!" We first have to prove the first part eg defend the EMH. I think that this proposition as at least questionable. @andrewlilco, OK, OK, I hear you. I wrote that comment in a somewhat jaded state (does it show?) In any case, I'll leave a comment on your blog.
Toggle Commented Nov 2, 2013 on Economics, good and bad at Stumbling and Mumbling
@luis Capitalism may 'deliver the goods', but the marxist argument is that they are unevenly distributed and often wasted, while production is often focused on superfluous things.
Toggle Commented Nov 2, 2013 on Economics, good and bad at Stumbling and Mumbling
Chris I am surprised you endorsed the idea that since the EMH says things are unpredictable, it accounts for the 2008 crash. This just seems to me to be hand waving, and given the other problems with the EMH, I'm not sure why anyone would consider it an explanation at all. Lilco also goes on to repeat some standard right-wing talking points...moral hazard means the gummut done it, regulation somehow caused the crisis, and it was an example of creative destruction. But none of these really make any sense, I really can't be bothered to repeat why. In any case, the problem is that macroeconomic models simply didn't predict it. Regardless of whether economists have some key lessons correct, such as moral hazard, the discipline as a whole was blind to the systemic problems faced by financial institutions, and by the link this could have to the economy as a whole. You can claim the discipline has changed, but to claim it predicted and accounted for the crisis is beyond the pale.
Toggle Commented Oct 30, 2013 on Economics, good and bad at Stumbling and Mumbling
Eh, I suppose I should be glad that I've bothered somebody enough for them to link to a completely irrelevant debate - in which I was apparently skewered - just because my name was mentioned. However, I think chad_sexington should reread Harrison's post, my comment, as well as my original post on the matter. Such a reading would reveal that all Harrison really did was restate the history of existing communism with incredulity and in more detail, as well as make some questionable but in any care largely peripheral points. At no point did Harrison discuss the history of capitalism, or mention by survivorship bias argument. Anyway, sorry for the OT rant. Maybe chad should instead just investigate which debate he has actually stumbled into.
Toggle Commented Oct 25, 2013 on Economics as science at Stumbling and Mumbling
"For me, all this means that BI is like land value tax or open borders. It's an idea whose merits far exceed its popularity." We might add to that: reforming patent law (eg having far fewer patents) and decriminalising/legalising certain drugs. And probably some others I haven't thought of.
Toggle Commented Oct 16, 2013 on Why not a basic income? at Stumbling and Mumbling