Who Are These Economists, Anyway?

GalbEcon James K. Galbraith in Thought and Action:

Krugman contends that Tweedledum and Tweedledee [new classical economists and the New Keynesians] “mistook beauty for truth.” The beauty in question was the “vision of capitalism as a perfect or nearly perfect system.” To be sure, the accusation that a scientist—let alone an entire science—was seduced by beauty over truth is fairly damaging. But it ’s worth asking, what exactly was beautiful about this idea?

Krugman doesn’t quite say. He does note that the mathematics used to describe the alleged perfection was “impressive-looking”—”gussied up” as he says, “with fancy equations.” It ’s a telling choice of words. “Impressive-looking”? “Gussied up”? These are not terms normally used to describe the Venus de Milo.

To be sure, mathematics is beautiful, or can be. I’m especially fond of the com- plex geometries generated by simple non-linear systems. The clumsy mathematics of the modern mainstream economics journal article is not like this. It is more like a tedious high school problem set. The purpose, one suspects, is to intimidate and not to clarify. And with reason: an idea that would come across as simple-minded in English can be made “impressive-looking” with a sufficient string of Greek symbols. Particularly if the idea—that “capitalism is a perfect or nearly-perfect system” would not withstand the laugh test once stated plainly.

As it happens, the same John Maynard Keynes of whom Krugman speaks highly in his essay, had his own view of the triumph of the economists’ vision— specifically that of the first great apostle of drawing policy conclusions by deduc-tive reasoning from first principles, that of David Ricardo over Thomas Robert Malthus. Keynes wrote:

It must have been due to a complex of suitabilities in the doctrine to the envi- ronment into which it was projected. That it reached conclusions quite different from what the ordinar y uninstructed person would expect added, I suppose, to its intellectual prestige. That its teaching, translated into practice, was austere and often unpalatable, lent it virtue. That it was adapted to carr y a vast and logical superstructure, gave it beauty. That it could explain much social injustice and apparent cruelty as an inevitable incident in the scheme of progress, and the attemp to change such things as likely on the whole to do more harm than good, com- mended it to authority. That it afforded a measure of justification to the free activ- ities of the individual capitalist, attracted to it the support of the dominant social force behind authority.

Note that Keynes does not neglect the element of beauty. But he embeds this point in a much richer tapestr y of opportunism, venality, and apologetics.

[H/t: Mark Blyth]