January 17, 2017
Economic Crises and the Crisis of Economics: Economists should learn to be humble and accept their own limitations
by Paola Subacchi@www.project-syndicate.org
Paola Subacchi is Research Director of International Economics at Chatham House and Professor of Economics at the University of Bologna. She is the author of The People’s Money: How China is Building an International Currency.
Is the economics profession “in crisis”? Many policymakers, such as Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, believe that it is. Indeed, a decade ago, economists failed to see a massive storm on the horizon, until it culminated in the most destructive global financial crisis in nearly 80 years. More recently, they misjudged the immediate impact that the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote would have on its economy.
Of course, the post-Brexit forecasts may not be entirely wrong, but only if we look at the long-term impact of the Brexit vote. True, some economists expected the UK economy to collapse during the post-referendum panic, whereas economic activity proved to be rather resilient, with GDP growth reaching some 2.1% in 2016. But now that British Prime Minister Theresa May has implied that she prefers a “hard” Brexit, a gloomy long-term prognosis is probably correct.
Unfortunately, economists’ responsibility for the 2008 global financial crisis and the subsequent recession extends beyond forecasting mistakes. Many lent intellectual support to the excesses that precipitated it, and to the policy mistakes – particularly insistence on fiscal austerity and disregard for widening inequalities – that followed it.
Some economists have been led astray by intellectual arrogance: the belief that they can always explain real-world complexity. Others have become entangled in methodological issues – “mistaking beauty for truth,” as Paul Krugman once observed – or have placed too much faith in human rationality and market efficiency.
Despite its aspiration to the certainty of the natural sciences, economics is, and will remain, a social science. Economists systematically study objects that are embedded in wider social and political structures. Their method is based on observations, from which they discern patterns and infer other patterns and behaviors; but they can never attain the predictive success of, say, chemistry or physics.
Human beings respond to new information in different ways, and adjust their behavior accordingly. Thus, economics cannot provide – nor should it claim to provide – definite insights into future trends and patterns. Economists can glimpse the future only by looking backwards, so their predictive power is limited to deducing probabilities on the basis of past events, not timeless laws.
And because economics is a social science, it can readily be used to serve political and business interests. In the years leading up to the financial crisis, global economic growth and profits were so strong that everyone – from small investors to the largest banks – was blinded by the prospect of bigger gains.
Economists employed by banks, hedge funds, and other businesses were expected to provide a short-term “view” for their employers and clients; and to dispense their “wisdom” to the general public through interviews and media appearances. Meanwhile, the economics profession was adopting more complex mathematical tools and specialized jargon, which effectively widened the gap between economists and other social scientists.
Before the financial crisis, when so many private interests and profitable opportunities were at stake, many economists defended a growth model that was based more on “irrational exuberance” than on sound fundamentals. Similarly, with respect to Brexit, many economists confused the referendum’s long-term impact with its short-term effects, because they were rushing their predictions to fit the political debate.
Owing to these and other mistakes, economists – and economics – have suffered a spectacular fall from grace. Once seen as modern witch doctors with access to exclusive knowledge, economists are now the most despised of all “experts.”
Where do we go from here? While we should appreciate Haldane’s candid admission, apologizing for past mistakes is not enough. Economists, especially those involved in policy debates, need to be held explicitly accountable for their professional behavior. Toward that end, they should bind themselves with a voluntary code of conduct.
Above all, this code should recognize that economics is too complex to be reduced to sound bites and rushed conclusions. Economists should pay closer attention to when and where they offer their views, and to the possible implications of doing so. And they should always disclose their interests, so that proprietary analysis is not mistaken for an independent perspective.
Moreover, economic debates would benefit from more voices. Economics is a vast discipline that comprises researchers and practitioners whose work spans macro and micro perspectives and theoretical and applied approaches. Like any other intellectual discipline, it produces excellent, good, and mediocre output.
But the bulk of this research does not filter into policymaking and decision-making circles, such as finance ministries, central banks, or international institutions. At the commanding heights, economic-policy debates remain dominated by a relatively small group of white men from American universities and think tanks, nearly all of them well-versed devotees of mainstream economics.
The views held by this coterie are disproportionately represented in the mass media, through commentaries and interviews. But fishing for ideas in such a small and shallow pond leads to a circular and complacent debate, and it may encourage lesser-known economists to tailor their research to fit in.
The public deserves – and needs – a marketplace of ideas in which mainstream and heterodox views are afforded equal attention and balanced discussion. To be sure, this will take courage, imagination, and dynamism – particularly on the part of journalists. But a fairer, more pluralistic discussion of economic ideas may be just what economists need as well.