Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The real trouble with economics

I pretty much agree with everything Mark Thoma says here in pointing to sociological factors within academic economics as the source of recent problems. Anyone who has read this blog knows I'm not so sanguine about the supposed "sophistication" of the analytical models currently used in macroeconomics, but, that to one side, Thoma is right that the real problem has been a lack of imagination and willingness to build models (probably messy and inelegant ones) that would inform us in a practically useful way about possible market instabilities:

 "I talked about the problem with the sociology of economics awhile back -- this is from a post in August, 2009:

In The Economist, Robert Lucas responds to recent criticism of macroeconomics ("In Defense of the Dismal Science"). Here's my entry at Free Exchange's Robert Lucas Roundtable in response to his essay:
Lucas roundtable: Ask the right questions, by Mark Thoma: In his essay, Robert Lucas defends macroeconomics against the charge that it is "valueless, even harmful", and that the tools economists use are "spectacularly useless".
I agree that the analytical tools economists use are not the problem. We cannot fully understand how the economy works without employing models of some sort, and we cannot build coherent models without using analytic tools such as mathematics. Some of these tools are very complex, but there is nothing wrong with sophistication so long as sophistication itself does not become the main goal, and sophistication is not used as a barrier to entry into the theorist's club rather than an analytical device to understand the world.
But all the tools in the world are useless if we lack the imagination needed to build the right models. Models are built to answer specific questions. When a theorist builds a model, it is an attempt to highlight the features of the world the theorist believes are the most important for the question at hand. For example, a map is a model of the real world, and sometimes I want a road map to help me find my way to my destination, but other times I might need a map showing crop production, or a map showing underground pipes and electrical lines. It all depends on the question I want to answer. If we try to make one map that answers every possible question we could ever ask of maps, it would be so cluttered with detail it would be useless, so we necessarily abstract from real world detail in order to highlight the essential elements needed to answer the question we have posed. The same is true for macroeconomic models.
But we have to ask the right questions before we can build the right models.
The problem wasn't the tools that macroeconomists use, it was the questions that we asked. The major debates in macroeconomics had nothing to do with the possibility of bubbles causing a financial system meltdown. That's not to say that there weren't models here and there that touched upon these questions, but the main focus of macroeconomic research was elsewhere. ...
The interesting question to me, then, is why we failed to ask the right questions. For example,... why policymakers didn't take the possibility of a major meltdown seriously. Why didn't they deliver forecasts conditional on a crisis occurring? Why didn't they ask this question of the model? Why did we only get forecasts conditional on no crisis? And also, why was the main factor that allowed the crisis to spread, the interconnectedness of financial markets, missed?
It was because policymakers couldn't and didn't take seriously the possibility that a crisis and meltdown could occur. And even if they had seriously considered the possibility of a meltdown, the models most people were using were not built to be informative on this question. It simply wasn't a question that was taken seriously by the mainstream.
Why did we, for the most part, fail to ask the right questions? Was it lack of imagination, was it the sociology within the profession, the concentration of power over what research gets highlighted, the inadequacy of the tools we brought to the problem, the fact that nobody will ever be able to predict these types of events, or something else?
It wasn't the tools, and it wasn't lack of imagination. As Brad DeLong points out, the voices were there—he points to Michael Mussa for one—but those voices were not heard. Nobody listened even though some people did see it coming. So I am more inclined to cite the sociology within the profession or the concentration of power as the main factors that caused us to dismiss these voices.
And here I think that thought leaders such as Robert Lucas and others who openly ridiculed models they disagreed with have questions they should ask themselves (e.g. Mr Lucas saying "At research seminars, people don’t take Keynesian theorizing seriously anymore; the audience starts to whisper and giggle to one another", or more recently "These are kind of schlock economics"). When someone as notable and respected as Robert Lucas makes fun of an entire line of inquiry, it influences whole generations of economists away from asking certain types of questions, some of which turned out to be important. Why was it necessary for the major leaders in macroeconomics to shut down alternative lines of inquiry through ridicule and other means rather than simply citing evidence in support of their positions? What were they afraid of? The goal is to find the truth, not win fame and fortune by dominating the debate.
We need to take a close look at how the sociology of our profession led to an outcome where people were made to feel embarrassed for even asking certain types of questions. People will always be passionate in defense of their life's work, so it's not the rhetoric itself that is of concern, the problem comes when factors such as ideology or control of journals and other outlets for the dissemination of research stand in the way of promising alternative lines of inquiry.
I don't know for sure the extent to which the ability of a small number of people in the field to control the academic discourse led to a concentration of power that stood in the way of alternative lines of investigation, or the extent to which the ideology that markets prices always tend to move toward their long-run equilibrium values caused us to ignore voices that foresaw the developing bubble and coming crisis. But something caused most of us to ask the wrong questions, and to dismiss the people who got it right, and I think one of our first orders of business is to understand how and why that happened.
I think the structure of journals, which concentrates power within the profession, also influence the sociology of the profession (and not in a good way)."

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