From Fri Nov 10 06:00:26 2006
Date: 10 Nov 2006 10:37:33 -0000
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Date: Tue, 7 Nov 2006 16:10:20 -0600 (CST)
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From: “Tim Murphy” <>
Subject: Baroque fantasies of a peculiar science
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Baroque fantasies of a peculiar science

By Philip Ball, The Financial Times, 29 October 2006

It is easy to mock economic theory. Any fool can see that the world of neoclassical economics, which dominates the academic field today, is a gross caricature in which every trader or company acts in the same self-interested way—rational, cool, omniscient. The theory has not foreseen a single stock market crash and has evidently failed to make the world any fairer or more pleasant.

The usual defence is that you have to start somewhere. But mainstream economists no longer consider their core theory to be a “start”. The tenets are so firmly embedded that economists who think it is time to move beyond them are cold-shouldered. It is a rigid dogma. To challenge these ideas is to invite blank stares of incomprehension—you might as well be telling a physicist that gravity does not exist.

That is disturbing because these things matter. Neoclassical idiocies persuaded many economists that market forces would create a robust post-Soviet economy in Russia (corrupt gangster economies do not exist in neoclassical theory). Neoclassical ideas favouring unfettered market forces may determine whether Britain adopts the euro, how we run our schools, hospitals and welfare system. If mainstream economic theory is fundamentally flawed, we are no better than doctors diagnosing with astrology.

Neoclassical economics asserts two things. First, in a free market, competition establishes a price equilibrium that is perfectly efficient: demand equals supply and no resources are squandered. Second, in equilibrium no one can be made better off without making someone else worse off.

The conclusions are a snug fit with rightwing convictions. So it is tempting to infer that the dominance of neoclassical theory has political origins. But while it has justified many rightwing policies, the truth goes deeper. Economics arose in the 18th century in a climate of Newtonian mechanistic science, with its belief in forces in balance. And the foundations of neoclassical theory were laid when scientists were exploring the notion of thermodynamic equilibrium. Economics borrowed wrong ideas from physics, and is now reluctant to give them up.

This error does not make neoclassical economic theory simple. Far from it. It is one of the most mathematically complicated subjects among the “sciences”, as difficult as quantum physics. That is part of the problem: it is such an elaborate contrivance that there is too much at stake to abandon it.

It is almost impossible to talk about economics today without endorsing its myths. Take the business cycle: there is no business cycle in any meaningful sense. In every other scientific discipline, a cycle is something that repeats periodically. Yet there is no absolute evidence for periodicity in economic fluctuations. Prices sometimes rise and sometimes fall. That is not a cycle; it is noise. Yet talk of cycles has led economists to hallucinate all kinds of fictitious oscillations in economic markets. Meanwhile, the Nobel-winning neoclassical theory of the so-called business cycle “explains” it by blaming events outside the market. This salvages the precious idea of equilibrium, and thus of market efficiency. Analysts talk of market “corrections”, as though there is some ideal state that it is trying to attain. But in reality the market is intrinsically prone to leap and lurch.

One can go through economic theory systematically demolishing all the cherished principles that students learn: the Phillips curve relating unemployment and inflation, the efficient market hypothesis, even the classic X-shaped intersections of supply and demand curves. Paul Ormerod, author of The Death of Economics, argues that one of the most limiting assumptions of neoclassical theory is that agent behaviour is fixed: people in markets pursue a single goal regardless of what others do. The only way one person can influence another's choices is via the indirect effect of trading on prices. Yet it is abundantly clear that herding—irrational, copycat buying and selling—provokes market fluctuations.

There are ways of dealing with the variety and irrationality of real agents in economic theory. But not in mainstream economics journals, because the models defy neoclassical assumptions.

There is no other “science” in such a peculiar state. A demonstrably false conceptual core is sustained by inertia alone. This core, “the Citadel”, remains impregnable while its adherents fashion an increasingly baroque fantasy. As Alan Kirman, a progressive economist, said: “No amount of attention to the walls will prevent the Citadel from being empty.”