1995.Current economics supports careers, not insight

provocation # 128. Current economics supports careers,  not insight

When I was studying physics and working half-time in the physics labs at Caltech I was hit almost daily with news about new experiments and theories. News traveled fast. If it was really exciting, an afternoon physics colloquium would be called and a few hundred, some obviously from other departments, would gather to hear  the story and examine the details as much as they were accessible.  The whole field felt like a living organism, each part of the periphery aware of the other parts. There was a broad agreement as to what had been achieved, and what remained as serious or interesting problems. 

There is a very interesting article about Keyes and his critique of economics, which  is devastating, and solid.  The article  asks, why do we keep making the same mistakes  ( in this case assuming  that a few variables can adequately describe the infinite variety of economic causes.). Why is there no accountability in economics and we continue of a disproven path? 

(Keynes’ critique of econometrics — still valid after all these years,  rwer.wordpress.com · by Lars Syll · March 30, 2018

Since I do a lot of reading I discover, over and over,  that there is (almost) no thought  about the current state of society and economics which isn’t already in print. The range and quality is amazing. But we don’t make use of it, we don’t harvest it,  and move on. Economics more than most fields, stays in a narrow band of readings and writings. 

If we don;’t step outside the narrow  lines, how can we expect to be creative? Two examples.

Bernard Harcourt writes The Illusion of fFee Markets, looking in  exquisite detail of the policing of the early markets in Paris (think of Stendhal’s novels)  show that regulation of markets and law started as merged, operating around private property. “If you don’t use the right font on your tomatoes sign three days in jail.” He discovers that markets arise through regulations. 

Second, the idea that capitalism starts with capital which is the output of breeding cattle could give rise to rethinking what capital is, who owns it and how society relates to it.

Most economics papers will not use a single word that moves outside the normal boundaries of mainstream economics, using  no vocabulary that cross the lines of conventional economic writing . “The impact of land tax policy on productivity in the upper Niger delta.”  No mention of the impact on people, on the land, on corruption, on climate. 

If we don’t read and think out of the normal lines of a field,  creativity is thwarted just as we seriously need it.

Like writing about climate change: which most people assume by now  is a serious problem, yet most papers and books coming from social thought (sociology, history, politics) are written that ignore it, staying stuck in the narrow band in which the researcher normally operates. Even papers that deal directly with climate are long on policy proposals, short on implementation.The same seems true in economics. A whole issue of many current economics journals often have not a single article that relates the content to larger issues of climate, corruption,  or future jobs, to say nothing about the lack of insight into the impact of economics on quality of lives. Considering both economics and climate change as two examples of the same thing, helps clarify the dynamics (or lack of them).

For climate, people are afraid to change because thy cannot imagine the consequences on income and life circumstances. “It is not crazy to stay in a leaky canoe if you don’t have an alternative canoe.”

For climate that means inability to imagine a successful outcome as to how changes  would affect  jobs and living conditions. 

For economics it is the same.  A researcher taking the state of the standard economic  literature  and moving it a tiny notch toward rigor and data can get you through graduate school and into the major journals and a tiny step toward tenure. Writing about the recognized main issues of our time does not. 

Economics can’t  see interesting things outside as we only look for the past that created the present, not the pasts that could create other presents – when we need them like now.  We are  more afraid of change than driving over the cliff.

A recent article on  history of economics (The Return of Economic History?

booksandideas.net · by Guillaume Calafat) 

considers only mainstream histories that are looking for the factors that created the present, not the things that did not create the present but might help create a better future.

Perhaps the problem is “the”economic” in the title. If we don’t  read histories of archeology,the impressionists, philosophy, regulations  and the chemical industry, we can’t break out if we don’t try.  The way out is through the door, how come no one uses that method? 

I want to raise the idea that everyone might be  acting rationally, given their actual circumstances. Getting into grad school, keeping the house in the energy wasting suburbs – all reasonable. End of the world? Maybe just accept it. Maybe we just have to learn how to feed each other. 

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