Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Why does economics get so much stick?

Because the advice of economists is so hopeless, you may say. Well think about the following thought experiment. After the financial crisis. suppose people had done the opposite of what the majority of economists said they should do. We do not need to imagine over Brexit, because most of the 52% who voted for Brexit chose to ignore, or more likely did not hear, the advice of 90+% of economists that Brexit would make them worse off. For those who work that belief was quickly shattered as their real wages fell as a direct result of Brexit.

Immediately after the financial crisis interest rates would not have been cut and austerity would have started in 2009, not 2010. Banks would have gone bust because economists said we needed to bail them out. In which case the Great Recession would have become the second Great Depression. Because the majority of economists did not support austerity you would have had continuing cuts in spending during this new depression.

So comparing this thought experiment with reality, we can see that economists have prevented a rerun of the 1930s depression, and if their majority advice had been taken we would have had a stronger recovery and the UK would not have left the EU. Sounds pretty good to me. But, as I’m sure you are now saying, what about the financial crisis the economists failed to warn of?

That was a mistake, but what are the consequences? Do you really think that if most economists had warned about how fragile the sector was anything would have happened? Banks would have continued to lend because they were making money and they had a guaranteed bail out from the state. Their campaign contributions would have weighed far more heavily in politicians’ minds than warnings from economists. So yes, not warning about the financial crisis was a mistake, but it would not have changed anything if the mistake had not happened. Economists are often told to stop being naive about politics, but the same needs to be said to their critics.

Despite such a strong record in macroeconomics since the crisis, why does economics get so much stick? I think there are three reasons. The first is simple: when the economy goes wrong, economists are easy to blame, particularly because of those forecasts that never predict downturns. In reality virtually no academic macroeconomists are involved in forecasting because they know that kind of unconditional forecasting is a mugs game [1], and furthermore most economists are not macroeconomists, but for some that kind of detail is irrelevant. (There are also plenty of highly successful pieces of microeconomics, but most critics act as if economics was just macroeconomics.)

The second reason is politics. Carlyle in 1849 called economics the dismal science because economists did not support his idea of reintroducing slavery. Ever since then economics has annoyed politicians and their supporters of various colours by pointing out the problems with various political programmes or schemes.

Politics is also at the heart of the third reason for criticism: politicians and ideologies of the right use the aspects of economics that suits their cause. Want to promote markets? Just take the idea from economics that an ideal market is an optimal way of exchanging goods, and ignore all the ways that real markets deviate from this ideal (ways which, incidentally, a great many economists spend a lot of their time studying). Some heterodox economists of the left, rather than use mainstream economics to point out how the right plays fast and loose with economic ideas, prefer to suggest that mainstream economics is much closer to the right wing caricature than it is in reality. It is why, as Noah Smith observes, so much of this criticism can be found in the pages of the Guardian.

This misrepresentation of mainstream economics is either deliberate or reflects ignorance. Ignorance about the fact that a lot of economics has become more empirical and therefore more eclectic in its use of theory over the last few decades, perhaps in part because of the influence of behavioural economics. Ignorance that even in macroeconomics, where ideological influences can be strong, there is more consensus around New Keynesian economics than some mainstream Keynesian economists imagine. (See my survey with André Moreira of post graduate teaching at the top schools here.) Nowadays you will find that in most areas of economics (alas not yet macro so much) there is nothing limiting the analysis to selfish individualistic behaviour. The idea that economics is like a religion is absurd.

But sometimes it is hard not to believe that popular criticisms of economics choose to ignore how far economics deviates from the neoliberal characterture. There is no excuse for ignoring that, for example, the best arguments against health care being left to the market can be found in a paper by Nobel prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow written decades ago. As the recent book by Colin Crouch suggests, the best critiques of neoliberalism come from within economics.

Another ridiculous charge against economics is that economics has a natural bias against state intervention. Indeed it is possible to argue the opposite. In my own field it is typical to assume the existence of a benevolent policy maker, who maximises social welfare. It is essentially just a useful analytical device, but you could argue if you wished to that this device biases those that use it to favour state intervention.

Judging by recent conversations I have had, many heterodox economists attack the mainstream because it uses the distinction between positive (value free) and normative economics. An example of positive economics would be me saying a temporary cut in government spending when interest rates are stuck at their lower bound reduces output. A normative statement would be that austerity is unfair. Heterodox economists like Sheila Dow seem to suggest that everything is value laden, and the positive/normative distinction allows economists to avoid being “morally implicated in the advice they give.”

I think this criticism is either trivial (yes, of course there may be normative reasons for choosing particular research topics) or dangerous. It is dangerous if it suggests that economists should be encouraged to base their analysis on assumptions that reflect their values. Economics, even though it is a social science, should conform to the scientific method: it should be as much like a science as medicine. Indeed I think it would greatly improve the public debate if both economists and their critics realised that economics, even though it is a unique and inexact science, is more like medicine than any of the hard sciences.

Dow writes “Getting policy-makers or the general public onside over a particular argument is therefore, critically, a matter of persuasion rather than demonstrable proof (since that proof is impossible).” But surely the best way of trying to persuade a policymaker not to impose austerity is to say that most models, including the consensus theoretical model, and nearly all the evidence suggests austerity will reduce output. In contrast it is far too easy to persuade a politician of things they want to hear. We do not want politicians to pick advice only if it is given by ‘one of us’ (by those who share their values), or as a result of the rhetorical skills of the academic.

The danger in encouraging plurality is that you make it much easier for politicians to select the advice they like, because there is almost certain to be a school of thought that gives the ‘right’ answers from the politicians point of view. The point is obvious once you make the comparison to medicine. Don’t like the idea of vaccination? Pick an expert from the anti-vaccination medical school. The lesson of the last seven years, in the UK in particular, is that we want mainstream economists to have more influence on politicians and the public, and not to dilute this influence through a plurality of schools of thought.

All this does not mean that economists are beyond criticism. As my last post pointed out, I have fundamental criticisms about current macroeconomic methodology. An important point to note about the microfoundations methodology is that it excludes economists who are not prepared to sign up to what is currently considered (by macroeconomists) acceptable microeconomics, or who do not think microfoundations is where you have to start in doing macro. But this critique has nothing to do with values. The mistake macroeconomics made in the 1980s was not in their desire to look for microfoundations, but in deciding that models that had internally consistent microfoundations were the only admissible models.

The big problem with most criticisms of economics you see in the media is not that economics is beyond criticism: as the paragraph above suggests it in many cases should be criticised, and there are plenty more interesting criticisms of economics available. The problem is that these more important criticisms are not those you find in the pages of the Guardian. The typical criticisms you see in the press are just not very good, and I fear reflect either ignorance or ideological antipathy.

[1] A lot of the criticisms of forecasters are themselves spurious. Someone who writes “economists should not need to pretend that we can predict things that do not really matter to several decimal places” are themselves pretending that there are any serious forecasters who do pretend this.


  1. A fundamentally sound criticism, which you haven't mentioned, is the overwhelming reliance on mathematical models which make unrealistic assumptions (and on whose assumptions the entire edifice depends).

    So IS-LM, DSGE etc which are fundamental aspects of New Keynesian economics, and on which much analysis depends, are fundamentally flawed and the analysis and conclusions they present have no real-world application, even if the mathematics adds up internally.

  2. Economists design and build the car, but sadly it is the politicians who drive it blindly in the direction of their particular ideology. Then the economists are blamed when the car crashes.

    Ask the public to name a politician and they will manage it but very few will be able to name a single economist. Consequently, politicians become the authority on the economy in the public's mind.

    We need the equivalent of Prof Brian Cox or Stephen Hawking, that the public recognise and listen to and trust. Someone who can offer objective criticism of the government policy du jour.

    I nominate LSE alumni Martin Lewis.

  3. Love your column, Simon, but what is going on with the word 'characterture'? Did you dictate this into a speech recognition programme?

  4. A major part of the problem is lack of education. The only people I know who received any kind of formal education in economics went to private school.

    When I was a teenager during and post the financial crisis the only "education" came from politicians and the news media. When they are all pushing austerity and you instinctively react against that narrative, you get the impression economists are on the side of the Tories, especially when respectable media outlets like the BBC just reinforce the narrative that the Tories are the economically competent party. Therefore economists must back the Tories.

    This pushed me into left wing politics, which obviously meant I was getting a left bias.

  5. "Do you really think that if most economists had warned about how fragile the sector was anything would have happened?"

    So what's the point of economists then. Politicians ignore you if you say things they don't like, but use you for Project Fear when you say things they do like.

    It seems you're just a way for politicians to claim independent authority for positions they have arrived at entirely independently.

  6. Important that you insist economics is like medicine. And yet, the impression economists give to non-economists while talking their discipline is that it's like engineering, making others feel as if economists were still afflicted with what in another age was termed "physics envy".

  7. Economics is still suffering from the massive propaganda push that ran from the 1960s into the 1980s and changed public attitudes towards economics and led to increased public approval of the right wing policies of Reagan and Thatcher. There were books, television series, tracts and presentations. There was a pavilion at the 1964-1965 World's Fair in New York, for example. Many of the public advocates were, in fact, economists arguing against state intervention, against regulation, against taxation and so on. Their message resonated with that of right wing politicians whose fortunes rose with this concerted campaign.

    The campaign was successful. We are in a fine mess, as most economists expected we would be. The public remembers that propaganda push and the economists behind it. Just as they expect a scientist to wear glasses, they expect an economist to spout what most economists would consider right wing nonsense.

    The only answer I can think of is a counter-propaganda push, but it would be hard to fund this given our modern corporate overlords.

  8. One reason that Economics get stick is because many Economists massively over-estimate their ability to predict the future and get confused between their personal agendas and their discipline as demonstrated in the fiasco of the doom-laden prophesies about what would happen immediately after a vote to Leave the EU.

    The Economists who had most weight when I worked in the City were ones who explained rather than predicted, who told you what numbers you should be looking at and why, rather than where they were going. For example, productivity is now a key variable for the UK economy, and explaining how the number has unfolded and whether the measure is a correct one is valuable analysis, but predicting where it goes from here is a mug's game. Best not to try.

  9. The Guardian’s continued assault on economics is a tragedy.

    By denigrating expertise they are playing into the right wing tabloids’ hands.

  10. I agree many criticisms of economics is unjustified. At the risk of adding yet another unjustified criticism, I think economists on the whole pay insufficient attention to distributional concerns. I did a whole undergraduate degree in economics without having learnt any of the work (of Atkinson, Sen, etc) about distributional concerns and social justice. In the postgraduate courses (not PhD), there were no courses offered that covered distributional issues and social justice. One gets the impression that distributional issues are not a matter for economics.

    Economists ought to include distributional issues and social justice in their programs, particularly if they go on to become involved in policy making.

  11. Economics may be most influential because of its performative picture of social reality (hidden agenda), NOT its advice (overt agenda).
    - “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood.
    Indeed the world is ruled by little else.” (John Maynard Keynes)
    - “I don’t care who writes a nation's laws,
    if I can write its economics textbooks.” (Paul Samuelson)
    That implies that most of the normativity & political responsibility of economics may be due to that performativity (its picture of reality making itself true).
    Claiming economics is like medicine disempowers people (it pictures them and thus makes them into 'unaware cells' when they behave accordingly because they are told on the authority of economists and those that lend their ideas that they have no alternative).

  12. Interesting article. Though it strikes me that another reason economists get so much stick is not that they didn't forecast the financial crisis but that they don't appear to offer any rationale, or remedies for, the implications of it. Why is productivity so poor in the UK? Why are real wages growing slowly when unemployment is so low? Many of these answers may lie in the austerity question but focussing on the economic rationale for austerity rather than its implication is perhaps where economists are going wrong?

  13. Say I'm a math major, but I take an econ class in college. I'm taught the labor supply curve is monotonically upward sloping and linear, and a price floor will lead to needless unemployment.

    Years later I'm in a cigar lounge watching CNBC, and a guy calling himself "an Austrian" is talking about how eliminating the minimum wage is "basic economics."

    BUT then, months later, I'm in a near-empty restaurant watching the waiter, and it occurs to me that if a guy is barely scraping by on $8/hr. but his boss cut his pay to $6/hr., the guy might need to work 60 hours/week instead of 40 hours/week -- get a 2nd job.

    I shouldn't be pissed off at the guy who tried to fill my head with garbage back in college?

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  15. The reason economist take such stick is the media and politicians can hide there ideology behind economic theory even when its been proven wrong! the assumption economist make aren't always true (take pricing) and the maths is bad ie 1% pay 27% of all tax is taken completely out of context because it only uses a part of the equation not all of it, 1% own about 90% of the wealth and pay 27% of the tax on that wealth,so 105 of the wealth,99% of the population pay 73% of the tax burden! to attack this deliberate narrative to hoodwink the population,you don't just have to destroy the messenger or those that impose such silly narratives which we the people see everyday without undermining the theory because ,we the public don't get to actually see economist like you on question time or daily politics to put the record straight,you need a platform on McDonell gave you economist to be at the heart of influencing policy making and one that was deliberately destroy,you still need a platform to distance yourselves from quack quack flat earth interpretation of economic theory and work to create capitalism in equilibrium because the IEA,ASI,TPA are destroying you're credibility quicker than you can build it!

  16. Seems like a consensus could be reached somewhere around the idea that, in our present circumstance, powerful economists are useless, and useful economists are powerless.

  17. "It is dangerous if it suggests that economists should be encouraged to base their analysis on assumptions that reflect their values. Economics, even though it is a social science, should conform to the scientific method: it should be as much like a science as medicine."

    The word "should" is often the primary clue that one using normative rather than non-normative descriptive language. The use of normative language implies normative evaluations in the minds of the language-users. It is exceptionally difficult to do science or any other endeavor without performing evaluations that are normative. The question is whether consensus is reached in those evaluations by a large group of earnest practitioners or whether reasonable minds would disagree when making personal evaluations?

    For example in law homicide is defined as the act of killing another person. To prove murder the prosecution must convince the jury that the defendant did, indeed, commit an act of homicide, as an element of the case. If the process of evaluating facts and evidence itself normative or can it be considered as a non-normative evaluation process involving mere factual reasoning? In any event homicide is not considered a crime in itself because, as a normative rule, society does not punish someone for events beyond his or her control (e.g., having an unpredictable seizure while driving that results in homicide) or certain acts in defense of self or others (called justifiable homicide). Murder is defined by the intent to kill another with malice and we even punish the act of planning a murder if intent can be proven.

    So my question is "should" the soft or social scientists pretend to be more scientific than they really can be? The answer is "no" because to say the "should" is really just saying that social scientists want to be like the more empirical sciences that they imitate in much the same way that a child might want to be like a parent or authority figure they admire and who gains prestige in society. Thomas Szasz, who wrote The Myth of Mental Illness, says that there is no such thing as mental disease except in the normative judgment of the community of mental health workers, just as there is no such thing as murder except in the normative judgment of the human community, but there is such a thing as natural disease or medical disability which doctors can learn to recognize and treat via non-normative reasoning. Of course the desire to recognize and treat medical disease (or mental disorders or political-economic problems) occurs in a web of normative evaluations (health and well-being are good, disease, disability, and death are bad).

  18. An indulgent post. Really mainstream economists had a role in the financial crisis, Brexit, trump, and continued and growing instability in Africa and the Middle East. You had your eyes off the ball during what you called the Great Moderation when there were deep problems with capitalism. And we are seeing the political fallout. Rather than look at what was going on, and perhaps build on the work of Kalecki, Polanyi, Schumpeter and Keynes, you chose to mess around with DSGE, RBC, ISLM, and stochastic tests. The response to the crisis was a partial success and gave us a temporary respite - but these unconventional monetary policies and there design were no thanks to anything in that anybody came up with in post-Samuelson economics.

    The behaviour of economists is rather like bankers, who were fooled by their models (or perhaps they weren't - but they thought there would be too much at stake to abandon them).


  19. The EU Commission, using information from economists, warned the Irish repeatedly in advance of the collapse of the Irish banks that the economy was overheating and that it needed to rein in pro-cyclical policies. It was robustly advised what to do with its advice by then finance minister, Charlie McCreevy, famous for his "when I have it, I spend it" approach and for narrowing the tax base to depend on unsustainable revenues from the property bubble. He was loudly cheered by a public drunk on illusory wealth.

    Then the day of reckoning came and the EU and the economists were vindicated and people learned some lessons the hard way, because they had insisted on it. Of course, the government was to blame for having guaranteed the bank debts without having known, truly, the scale of them. And that mattered considerably more than who was right.

    Awareness of the counterfactuals is one thing (and the public has been assailed by a media which delights in finding experts who disagree, leading it to skepticism about expertise generally instead of vested interests), social memory another. The German memories of inflation and the Irish of hunger had lasted and remain consequential, affecting attitudes to what is right (Ireland spends more of its GDP on social transfers than any other OECD country).

    The UK hasn't had to face traumatic adversity and has been free to believe that that is the natural order of things. A complacent public that can be lied to with impunity by, e.g., David Cameron going to town with Liam Byrne's "no money left note", is hardly going to critically assess and keep score of the work of economists. In a world where the 0.001% rule we are all disgraced by our inability to hold them to account, not just the economists who do not perform for loose change (see the introductory part of the film "An inside job" for some choice examples).

    Worrying about the credibility of economists now is like someone with heart disease being concerned with a minor injury. Our societies face threats far more important than the business cycle's unpredictability. We have to deal with information pollution and the financing of politics with some of the rigour applied to airline safety (economies, democracies and peace matter even more). I can't recommend enough the article on Facebook in the latest Washington Monthly. When people can't distinguish truth in a market rigged for lies we are all lost, economists, good and bad, included.

  20. "Economics, even though it is a social science, should conform to the scientific method"

    Talk about the "scientific method" generates nothing but useless verbiage. There isn't anything special about reasoning in science except that it's more careful than is usual in ordinary conversation.

    There is an extensive literature in Philosophy of Science about this. You might want to start with the essay "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" by W.V.O. Quine. Depressingly, this was first published in 1951.

    What's done in science is to argue tightly and to try hard to be correct. This is excellent practice.

    Before dismissing criticisms of economics for being intrinsically value-laden you might wish to read "The End of Value-Free Economics" by Hillary Putnam. Putnam is famous in philosophical circles, although not anywhere else. (Parenthetically, the criticisms of economics you cite are in my experience perhaps even more wrong-headed than claims of clear separation between the positive and the normative). At least after that you'll be clearer on the real philosophical issues involved.

    I should add that I very much like your blog. The quoted phrase just pushed one of my buttons.

  21. Simon,
    I enjoy your column immensely. But I do think that on this topic you ignore the public face of economics.
    After the Global Financial Crisis, which was predicted by very few economists of note, the highest-profile advice came from pro-austerity economists.
    In the public sphere, there was a notorious letter to The Times, signed by (among others) Tim Besley, London School of Economics; Sir Howard Davies, London School of Economics; Charles Goodhart, London School of Economics; Lord Turnbull, London School of Economics; Sir John Vickers, Oxford University; Ken Rogoff, Harvard University; and Roger Bootle, Capital Economics.
    The two highest-profile academic at the time papers were Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes Versus Spending by Alberto F. Alesina & Silvia Ardagna which supported spending cuts and tax cuts as fiscal stimulation rather than public spending increases, and Growth in a Time of Debt by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff which claimed that countries with debt to GDP ratio over 90% were likely to experience significantly reduced long-term growth.
    Unless my recollection is distorted, this letter – even though contradicted by a later letter in The Financial Times – and these two papers dominated policy discussions. If the economics profession was not in favour of austerity, it did not come across to the public.

  22. Dear Simon,

    Indeed, plenty of criticism of economics is rather misplaced, and uninformed and much of the best critical literature in economics comes from inside the profession. But:

    (1) There remains a remarkable degree of dogma amongst (some) macroeconomists. Indeed, you make the point yourself with your remarks about the microfoundational ayatollahs. I well remember the dogmas I came across as a student. Robert Lucas claiming that only macro models based on rational maximising agents could constitute science. Or Friedman’s 1953 essay on positive economics, which so many economists seem to have taken to heart (who cares if your assumptions are wildy at odds with reality, if you can adequately replicate your chosen data). Or the dogma that economics is a science, when so many conclusions in economics are contingent, there are no immutable laws, and predictive power is often poor.

    (2) You equate “pluralism” with “picking your own conclusions”. Looks like a strawman to me. The point is surely that pluralism in methods can be valuable. Different schools frequently adopt differing underlying views on methodological issues, this leads to different approaches, which can generate different insights.

    For example, there is a splendid review essay by Mark Setterfield where he reviews the (now fairly old) Grossman/Helpman book on endogenous growth and innovation, and compares the approach taken with that in a book by business historican Bill Lazonick. It is available online. I personally think both books contain approaches that are perfectly valid research strategies, and may lead to different insights. Yet I suspect many would dismiss the Lazonick material as “not economics” (no formal model, you see).

    (3) You accept that economists “made a mistake” in the 1980s by limiting the choice of acceptable models. Indeed. And they still do. Maybe it is unfair to point too much to textbooks, but frankly, many are little better than brainwashing.If you doubt me, have a look at the Blanchard/ Giavazzi book on European Macroeconomics. The chapter on growth theory basically says that the Solow framework is how economists (implicitly ALL economists) analyze growth. No discussion of Smith, Schumpeter, Lewis, Hirschman or anyone else.

    At a rather different level, take a look at the BIS working paper by Borio and Disayat on the current account (working paper 525). They make a completely convincing case that many macroeconomists continue to confuse saving and financing, and that this underlies the persistence of several so called paradoxes in economics ( eg the Lucas paradox, the Feldstein Horioka problem). In short, the conventional wisdom can be flat wrong.

    Or consider the way trade unions and industrial relations fit into economic literature. I struggled as an undergraduate to square the widespread view in economic texts that unions are a “market distortion” with the rather obvious fact that some countries with remarkably strong trade unions seemed to manage very well indeed. It was only sociologists like Alan Fox, or Wolfgang Streeck, or the literature on development of firms (Penrose, Best etc), that I understood what was missing from the standard textbook models.

    (4) In essence, I really do not see economics as a science in the sense that we edge closer to the immutable truth. We can edge towards “right” answers to quite specific questions, but those truths may not be consistent in time or place. I prefer to see it as a toolkit for analysis - a set of models, theories and literature that we can apply to specific questions. But what models or approaches are relevant or useful depends on the precise question being asked. This is why economists need to be exposed to different perspectives - to learn to compare, contrast, and think deeply about implicit assumptions. That is also why I call myself a pluralist (but would strongly dispute that I am a relativist)


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