February 24, 2018

Economics: communication without content

Comment on Lars Syll on ‘Science and the quest for truth’


Economics always claimed to be a science. It never was. The major approaches ― Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, Austrianism ― are mutually contradictory, axiomatically false, materially/formally inconsistent and all got the foundational economic concept of profit wrong. What we actually have is the pluralism of provably false theories.#1

There are political economics and theoretical economics. The main differences are: (i) The goal of political economics is to successfully push an agenda, the goal of theoretical economics is to successfully explain how the actual economy works. (ii) In political economics anything goes; in theoretical economics, the scientific standards of material and formal consistency are observed.

Theoretical economics (= science) had been hijacked from the very beginning by political economists (= agenda pushers). Political economics has produced NOTHING of scientific value in the last 200+ years.

And this means, in turn, that economic policy guidance NEVER has had sound scientific foundations. Economic policy advice never rose above the level of educated common sense and supply-demand-equilibrium rhetoric. Economists have NO scientifically valid knowledge about how the price- and profit mechanism works.#2 There is a total logical disconnect between economic policy arguments and economic theory.

Economic theory has not become qualitatively better since the founding fathers. What can be observed is stagnation at the proto-scientific level. The scientific content of economics proper is close to 0 percent, the blather/gossip content is close to 100 percent.

Scientific discourse is guided by the distinction of true/false. Political rhetoric is guided by the distinction of effective/ineffective. Truth is not an issue in politics, only winning the present debate. While economics has no scientific truth-value, it has political use-value. This, and not scientific merit, let economics thrive.

Science and politics are mutually exclusive. Science tries to get out of the initially given swamp where ‘nothing is clear and everything is possible’. (Keynes) Political economics in effect perpetuates ― intentionally or unintentionally does not matter ― the swampy status quo with confused/confusing storytelling: “The currently prevailing pattern of economic theorizing exhibits the following three characteristics: (1) a syncopated style of argument fluctuating back and forth between literary and symbolic modes of expression, (2) naive translation, or the loose paraphrasing of formulae into sentences, and (3) loose verbal reasoning for certain aspects of theoretical argumentation where explicit symbolic formulation is lacking.” (Dennis, 1982)

Clarity, consistency, rigorousness, precision are the main threats for those who are, for whatever reason, happy with the swampy status quo. The main immunizing stratagem of political economists is vagueness because “... you cannot prove a vague theory wrong.” (Feynman)

Accordingly, the key arguments of the confused confusers of economics are:
  • There is no such thing as objective truth. Truth is just a social construct.
  • Because of ontological uncertainty and Heisenberg and Gödel, there can, in principle, be no certain knowledge.
  • There are no economic laws/invariants only some unreliable correlations.
  • Economics is not hard science, to begin with. Economics is a social science with its own pluralist methodology. Comparison, imitation, physics envy, and benchmarking are misplaced.
  • There is not one true theory/model but there are various models and the point is to pick the “right” one for the situation.
  • Economics has not to be judged by applying the well-defined scientific criteria of material/formal consistency but by its positive/negative impact on society.

This amounts to a phasing out of scientific standards. As a consequence, the representative economist is insensitive to or even happy with methodological pathologies:
  • The whole subject matter of economics is ill-defined. Economics is NOT a so-called social science but a systems science. Partial sociological research is NOT economics.
  • The foundational concepts of the subject matter are ill-defined. There is no proper axiomatization. The representative economist cannot tell the difference between profit and income.
  • Theories/models contain blatant nonentities, e.g. utility, equilibrium, rational expectations.
  • Debates/discussions are almost always inconclusive. There is not much ambition for definitive falsification/final refutation. Debunked theories/models are not abandoned but recycled with new make-up. The indefensible pluralism of false theories is thus maintained.
  • Debates/discussions drift almost immediately away from the subject matter, i.e. the functioning of the economic system as a whole, to the meta-level of second-guessing human motives/behavior, and storytelling about persons/events, and moralizing, and reinterpretation of what other economists have said and really meant, and attention/perception/reputation management.
  • The function/malfunction of the economic system is the subject matter of economics. The function/malfunction of firms and individuals is the subject matter of consultancies, the police, and the press.

Political economics is meta-communication, that is, not theoretical clarification of what economic reality is (= episteme) but a closed circle of communication about opinions/ beliefs/guesses/hearsay (= doxa).#3 At some point in history, economics left science behind and became disinfotainment.

The economy is a rather abstract entity and its working is not visible to the naked eyes. What is needed to get reality into focus is the third eye of theory. Scientific abstraction, though, is not exactly the business of political economists ― storytelling, and agenda-pushing, and populism is. Theory is replaced by a popular narrative.

It is not such a rare occurrence that institutions mutate into something else which has not much to do with their original mission. So, in the political realm Democracy may turn into Idiocracy, and in the scientific realm, the careful growth of knowledge may turn into a breathtaking expansion of idiocy. This happened to economics after political economists (= agenda pushers) gained the majority over theoretical economists (= scientists).#4

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

#1 The real problem with the economics Nobel
#2 Mass unemployment: The joint failure of orthodox and heterodox economics
#3 See summary graphics on Wikimedia AXEC130
#4 For details of the big picture see cross-references Scientific Incompetence and cross-references Failed/Fake Scientists.

Related 'Balderdash or discourse?' and 'Narrative economics and the imperatives of the sitcom' and 'Economics: ‘a tale told by an idiot ... signifying nothing’' and 'Again and again: economists are incompetent scientists' and 'New Economic Thinking = old scientific garbage' and 'Getting out of proto-scientific garbage' and 'Stop knowing nothing, start knowing something' and 'Lousy scientists' and 'Economists: scientists or political clowns?' and 'Economists, stupid or corrupt or both?' and 'The economist as amateur journalist' and 'Fact of life: your econ prof is scientifically incompetent' and 'Economics: a science without scientists' and 'Economics: When the scientifically unfit blather about science' and 'Economic narratives are for the scientific garbage dump'.

For more on Communication see AXECquery.

Wikimedia AXEC123e