Goodbye, Homo Economicus

Published on (first on Prospect Magazine), by Anatole Kaletsky, 28 March, 2009.

Was Adam Smith an economist? Was Keynes, Ricardo or Schumpeter? By the standards of today’s academic economists, the answer is no. Smith, Ricardo and Keynes produced no mathematical models. Their work lacked the “analytical rigour” and precise deductive logic demanded by modern economics. And none of them ever produced an econometric forecast (although Keynes and Schumpeter were able mathematicians).

If any of these giants of economics applied for a university job today, they would be rejected. As for their written work, it would not have a chance of acceptance in the Economic Journal or American Economic Review. The editors, if they felt charitable, might advise Smith and Keynes to try a journal of history or sociology …

… The answer lies, ironically, in the fact that economics is so politically important: the second great merit of rational expectations lay in its key ideological conclusion—that deliberate policies of macroeconomic stimulus by governments and central banks could never reduce unemployment and would merely exacerbate inflation. That government activism was doomed to failure was exactly what politicians, central bankers and business leaders of the Thatcher and Reagan periods wanted to hear. Thus it quickly became established as the official doctrine of the political and economic establishments in America—and from this powerful position it was able to conquer the entire academic world.

To make matters worse, rational expectations gradually merged with the related theory of “efficient” financial markets. This was gaining ground in the 1970s for similar reasons—an attractive combination of mathematical and ideological tractability. This was the efficient market hypothesis (EMH), developed by another group of Chicago-influenced academics, all of whom received Nobel prizes just as their theories came apart at the seams …

… Economics today is a discipline that must either die or undergo a paradigm shift—to make itself both more broadminded, and more modest. It must broaden its horizons to recognise the insights of other social sciences and historical studies and it must return to its roots. Smith, Keynes, Hayek, Schumpeter and all the other truly great economists were interested in economic reality.

They studied real human behaviour in markets that actually existed. Their insights came from historical knowledge, psychological intuition and political understanding. Their analytical tools were words, not mathematics. They persuaded with eloquence, not just formal logic. One can see why many of today’s academics may fear such a return of economics to its roots … (full long text).

(Anatole Kaletsky is editor-at-large of the “Times” and chief economist of GaveKal Research).

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