When We Turn to Concrete Economic Questions, There Isn’t Really a ‘Mainstream’ at All


J. W. Mason in Evonomics:

I’ve felt for a while that most critiques of economics miss the mark. They start from the premise that economics is a systematic effort to understand the concrete social phenomena we call “the economy,” an effort whose methods unfortunately are unsound. But I don’t see any method at all.

It seems to me that Deirdre McCloskey was right: Economics is not the study of the economy. Economics is just what economists do. Economic theory is essentially a closed formal system; it’s a historical accident that there is some overlap between its technical vocabulary and the language used to describe concrete economic phenomena. Economics the discipline is to the economy, the sphere of social reality, as chess theory is to medieval history: The statement, say, that “queens are most effective when supported by strong bishops” might be reasonable in both domains, but studying its application in the one case will not help at all in applying it in in the other.

A few years ago Richard Posner said that he used to think economics meant the study of “rational” behavior in whatever domain, but after the financial crisis he decided it should mean the study of the behavior of the economy using whatever methodologies. (I can’t find the exact quote.) Descriptively, he was right the first time; but the point is, these are two different activities. Or to steal a line from my friend Suresh, the best way to think about what most economists do is as a kind of constrained-maximization poetry. It makes no more sense to ask “is it true” than of a haiku.

One consequence of this is that radical criticism of the realism or logical consistency of orthodox economics does nothing to get us closer to a positive understanding of the economy. Another consequence is that when we turn to concrete economic questions there isn’t really a “mainstream” at all. Left critics want to take academic orthodoxy, a right-wing political vision, and the economic policy preferred by the established authorities, and roll them into a coherent package. But I don’t think you can. I think there is a mix of common-sense opinions, political prejudices, conventional business practice, and pragmatic rules of thumb, supported in an ad hoc, opportunistic way by bits and pieces of economic theory. It’s not possible to knock over the whole tottering pile by pulling out a few foundational texts.

More here.