July 15, 2015

The case for pure economics

Comment on Yanis Varoufakis on ‘On the Euro Summit’s Statement on Greece: First thoughts’

Blog-Reference see also Blog-Reference

What is the proper job of the economist qua scientist? “A scientific observer or reasoner, merely as such, is not an adviser for practice. His part is only to show that certain consequences follow from certain causes, and that to obtain certain ends, certain means are the most effectual. Whether the ends themselves are such as ought to be pursued, and if so, in what cases and to how great a length, it is no part of his business as a cultivator of science to decide, and science alone will never qualify him for the decision.” (J. S. Mill, 2006, p. 950)

The economist qua scientist brings knowledge to the table, not his personal opinion. It is the legitimate political institution that determines the political ends. This is the OUGHT-part, science is concerned exclusively with the IS-part of reality. The is/ought difference is reasonably clear since Hume but has been deliberately ignored by every talented public speaker since then. However, for science this difference is fundamental.

“A genuine inquirer aims to find out the truth of some question, whatever the color of that truth. ... A pseudo-inquirer seeks to make a case for the truth of some proposition(s) determined in advance. There are two kinds of pseudo-inquirer, the sham and the fake. A sham reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to make a case for some immovably-held preconceived conviction. A fake reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to advance himself by making a case for some proposition to the truth-value of which he is indifferent.” (Haack, 1997, p. 1)

The economist who comments on political goals leaves the realm of science. This, of course, is no problem at all under one condition. All he has to do is to put off his scientific hat and put on his political hat and then go the other way. This, of course, holds in normal times with legitimate political bodies in place. What has to be done if political bodies are on the way to losing their legitimacy is quite another matter.

Why must politics and science be strictly separated? Simply because it is less probable that the scientific ethics of objectivity/impartiality/knowledge flows to politics and more probable that subjectivity/partiality/opinion flow to science. Gresham’s Law about bad money driving out good applied to sociology says: politics debase science but science does not improve politics. Therefore there is an overall net loss from close interaction. Partiality and impartiality simply cannot coexist in one and the same person.

That part of economics that has been political from Smith, to Marx, to Hayek, to Keynes, and on to the actual orthodox and heterodox activists has to be clearly separated from science and eventually thrown out. To the extent that theoretical economics has been hijacked by political economics, it has to regain its full independence.

As far as politics is of importance for theoretical economics it has to be taken in from political science. Theoretical economics has to answer only one question: how does the monetary economy work? This presupposes that the economy is understood — broadly speaking — as a system with objective features. Of no primary interest is psychological or sociological second-guessing of human behavior. As far as behavioral issues are of importance for economics they have to be taken in from psychology or sociology.

It is not the task of the economist to dabble in psychology, sociology, political sciences, geopolitics, history, anthropology, law, ethics, philosophy, etcetera. Interdisciplinarity, for one, means that economics relies on the results of other sciences and in turn offers reliable knowledge about the working of the monetary economy. The same applies to all other practical cooperation.

In order to tell the politicians and practitioners something about causes and best means, the economist needs the true theory or else he has not much more to offer than educated common sense or his personal opinion.” (Stigum, 1991, p. 30)

Here is the crux. There is no such thing as a true economic theory. What economists have produced so far is not much more than educated common sense and an abundance of incoherent models that apply nonentities like equilibrium or utility or rational expectations or supply/demand functions or I=S, etcetera, etcetera. Whoever exchanges scientific ideas with an economist gets lemons.

The deep root of the failure of both Orthodoxy and traditional Heterodoxy is a complete lack of understanding of what profit is.#1 The profit theory is false since Adam Smith. This, in turn, means that economists have failed to capture the essence of the market system. Neither the Marxian attack nor the Liberal defense of the market economy ever had a sound theoretical foundation (2015). Economists have nothing to offer of scientific value.

In sum: the poor results of political economics are not only an embarrassment for economics but — as severe collateral damage — have negative external effects on the true sciences. It cannot be expected of the public to immediately recognize the difference between cargo cult science#2 and the real thing. This provides an ecological niche for illusion and deceit that undermines the integrity of science.

Here is the wake-up call from a genuine scientist. “So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science.” (Feynman, 1974, p. 11)

Both, Orthodoxy and traditional Heterodoxy are lost for science. Their proponents are still employable for some econ-talk and entertainment in the media. Yet, young students indeed have the choice between becoming real innovative scientists or just some redundant quacking frogs in the swamp of political economics.

To recall: (i) human progress has neither been brought about by politicians nor by businessmen nor by economists but solely by scientists and (ii), because of their scientific failure over the last 200+ years economists have consistently stood in the way of establishing overall economic welfare.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

Feynman, R. P. (1974). Cargo Cult Science. Engineering and Science, 37(7): 10–13. URL
Haack, S. (1997). Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism. Skeptical Inquirer, 21(6): 1–7. URL
Kakarot-Handtke, E. (2015). Major Defects of the Market Economy. SSRN Working Paper Series, 2624350: 1–40. URL
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, Vol. 8 of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Stigum, B. P. (1991). Toward a Formal Science of Economics: The Axiomatic Method in Economics and Econometrics. Cambridge: MIT Press.

#1 Mental messies and loose losers
#2 Wikipedia Cargo cult science

Related 'The end of political economics' For details of the big picture see the blog label Science and cross-references Political Economics/Stupidity/Corruption.