Monday, September 15, 2014

How to Get It Wrong

Paul Krugman, NYT
SEPT. 14, 2014

Last week I participated in a conference organized by Rethinking Economics, a student-run group hoping to promote, you guessed it, a rethinking of economics. And Mammon knows that economics needs rethinking in the wake of a disastrous crisis, a crisis that was neither predicted nor prevented.

It seems to me, however, that it’s important to realize that the enormous intellectual failure of recent years took place at several levels. Clearly, economics as a discipline went badly astray in the years — actually decades — leading up to the crisis. But the failings of economics were greatly aggravated by the sins of economists, who far too often let partisanship or personal self-aggrandizement trump their professionalism. Last but not least, economic policy makers systematically chose to hear only what they wanted to hear. And it is this multilevel failure — not the inadequacy of economics alone — that accounts for the terrible performance of Western economies since 2008.

In what sense did economics go astray? Hardly anyone predicted the 2008 crisis, but that in itself is arguably excusable in a complicated world. More damning was the widespread conviction among economists that such a crisis couldn’t happen. Underlying this complacency was the dominance of an idealized vision of capitalism, in which individuals are always rational and markets always function perfectly.

Now, idealized models have a useful role to play in economics (and indeed in any discipline), as ways to clarify your thinking. But starting in the 1980s it became harder and harder to publish anything questioning these idealized models in major journals. Economists trying to take account of imperfect reality faced what Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff, hardly a radical figure (and someone I’ve sparred with) once called “new neoclassical repression.” And it should go without saying that assuming away irrationality and market failure meant assuming away the very possibility of the kind of catastrophe that overtook the developed world six years ago.

(More here.)

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