February 19, 2016

Caught in secular intellectual stagnation

Comment on ‘What’s wrong with heterodox economics’

Blog-Reference and Blog-Reference on Feb 20

All thinking economists are agreed: orthodox economics is, as Keen famously put it, a naked emperor (2011), or as Quiggin put it, a zombie (2010). This is not news, the embarrassment is well advanced in years “As will become evident, there is more agreement on the defects of orthodox theory than there is on what theory is to replace it: but all agreed that the point of the criticism is to clear the ground for construction.” (Nell, 1980, p. 1)

The list of defects is indeed almost endless — and exactly this is the problem. As a matter of methodological principle, the proof of one inconsistency should be enough to refute a theory. Actually, the orthodox approach is refuted by every trick in the book — yet it is still trolling around with silly model bricolage. It seems that critique and refutation are not enough to get rid of a failed approach. This, though, is also well known.

• “The moral of the story is simply this: it takes a new theory, and not just the destructive exposure of assumptions or the collection of new facts, to beat an old theory.” (Blaug, 1998, p. 703)
• “If we feel misgivings ..., all we have to do is to start appropriate research. Anything else is pure filibustering.” (Schumpeter, 1994, p. 577)
• “There is no evidence to suggest that economists abandon degenerating programs in the absence of a progressive alternative.” (Weintraub, 1985, p. 148)
• “There is no alternative that is so obviously superior that it would justify everyone abandoning the current orthodoxy.” (Hausman, 1992, p. 255)
• “There is another alternative: to formulate a completely new research program and conceptual approach. As we have seen, this is often spoken of, but there is still no indication of what it might mean.” (Ingrao et al., 1990, p. 362)

Let us call this the problem of the missing alternative or nothing-to-choose dilemma. What is common to Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy is the incompetence to find a superior alternative to what is easily recognizable as a failed approach: “Yet most economists neither seek alternative theories nor believe that they can be found.” (Hausman, 1992, p. 248)

The curious fact is that Keynes has already pointed the way: “For if orthodox economics is at fault, the error is to be found not in the superstructure, which has been erected with great care for logical consistency, but in a lack of clearness and of generality in the premises.” (1973, p. xxi)

These premises are well-known since more than 140 years “For it would not be too much of an oversimplification to present the field as having progressed smoothly and steadily, developing theories of ever greater power and broader scope within an essentially unchanged explanatory framework, based on the concepts of optimizing individual behavior and market equilibrium, that were already central to economic thought in the previous century.” (Woodford, 1999, p. 2)

Or, in the blog-version of Krugman: “most of what I and many others do is sorta-kinda neoclassical because it takes the maximization-and-equilibrium world as a starting point”.

And here you have it! What we know with absolute certainty is that the new economic paradigm has to be free of these green cheese assumptions. So, there is no need at all to take notice of any peer reviewed article or textbook or any post which contains maximization-and-equilibrium. Economic policy proposals of marginalists can simply be laughed out of every debate.

Debunking has been wildly successful, now there is only one task left. To paraphrase the great economist and methodologist J. S. Mill: ‘Doubtless, the most effectual mode of showing how the science of Economics may be constructed, would be to construct it ...’ (2006, p. 834)*

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

Blaug, M. (1998). Economic Theory in Retrospect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 5th edition.
Hausman, D. M. (1992). The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ingrao, B., and Israel, G. (1990). The Invisible Hand. Economic Equilibrium in the History of Science. Cambridge, MA, London: MIT Press.
Keen, S. (2011). Debunking Economics. London, New York, NY: Zed Books, rev. edition.
Keynes, J. M. (1973). The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes Vol. VII. London, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Mill, J. S. (2006). A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive. Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation, volume 8 of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.
Nell, E. J. (1980). Growth, Profits, and Property, chapter Cracks in the Neoclassical Mirror: On the Break-Up of a Vision, pages 1–16. Cambridge, New York, NY, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
Quiggin, J. (2010). Zombie Economics. How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us. Princeton, NJ, Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Schumpeter, J. A. (1994). History of Economic Analysis. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Weintraub, E. R. (1985). Joan Robinson’s Critique of Equilibrium: An Appraisal. American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, 75(2): 146–149. URL
Woodford, M. (1999). Revolution and Evolution in Twentieth-Century Macroeconomics. Mimeo, pages 1–32. URL

* See ‘How to restart economics’ and ‘How economics finally became a science


REPLY  comment on Julian Wells on Feb 21

The misapplication of statistical tools is not exactly at the core of the problem. The core is that standard economic theory is provable false. This begins with supply-demand-equilibrium. Provable means according to well-established scientific criteria.

So, a good start would be for orthodox journals to adopt a 'policy of automatic rejection' of any work that contains maximization-and-equilibrium.

Yet, one has to go one decisive step further and ask who produces this scientific garbage in the first place. And here you have it: “most of what I and many others do is sorta-kinda neoclassical because it takes the maximization-and-equilibrium world as a starting point.” (Krugman)

So, in order to make economics a science, the best start is to adopt a policy of automatic retirement of Krugman and the other sorta-kinda neoclassicals.