This semester, I’m teaching a course on Marxian economic theory. It’s been a real eye-opener for the the students, who seem a bit surprised to learn that there is such a wholesale critique of the mainstream economics they’ve been learning. Some are even intrigued by this new way of thinking about the economy, which led one of them to pose the following question: did Marxists predict the crisis better or more accurately than mainstream economists?
Well, I explained, that’s setting the bar pretty low, since mainstream economists simply failed to predict the crash of 2007-08. But, I explained, Marxists did no better. And that’s because economic forecasting is like selling snake oil: lots of folks earn lots of money promising the ability to predict economic events but all they’re doing is selling the promise, not the actual ability, to get the forecasts right. (And, of course, they pay nothing for their failures, since they’ve left town long before people discover the magic elixir doesn’t work.)
And that’s what has happened to the students: they’ve been told mainstream economics is superior to all other approaches, that it’s a “real science,” because of its predictive power. And they’re willing to jump ship, as it were, if an alternative theory offers more predictive power.
The problem is, as Sir David Hendry explains, forecasting only works if the future behaves the same as the past, if it follows the same rules and falls under the same normal distribution. If it doesn’t, then all bets are off. What that means for me (and for Chris Dillow) is that Marxists are no better at predicting the future than mainstream economists. In fact, economic forecasting, of whatever sort, is a false promise.
But then I went on in my response to the student’s question: what really distinguishes different groups of economists is whether or not they include the possibility of a crisis in their theories and models—and what they would suggest doing once such a crisis occurred (including measures to prevent future crises). And there the difference between mainstream and Marxian economics couldn’t be starker: mainstream economics simply doesn’t include the possibility of crises (except as an exogenous event) whereas Marxists start from the proposition that instability is inherent (and therefore an endogenous tendency) in an economy based on the capitalist mode of production. That’s one fundamental difference between them. The other is that, once a crisis occurs (such as in 2007-08), the two groups of economists offer very different solutions: whereas mainstream economists spend their time debating whether or not any kind of intervention is warranted (based on neoclassical versus Keynesian assumptions concerning invisible and visible hands), Marxist economists presume that interventions are always-already being made (in terms of determining who pays the costs of the crisis) and that it’s better both to help those who are most vulnerable and to put in place the kinds of institutional changes that would prevent future crises.
So, no, I don’t put a lot of stock in economic forecasting, whether promised by mainstream economists or others. It’s a promise of control that is a lot like selling snake oil. But I’m willing to throw in my lot with an approach that, first, actually includes the possibility of such crises at the very center of the theory and, second, is willing to move outside the paradigm of private property and markets to help those who are hurt by the crisis and to change the rules so that those who created the crisis in the first place no longer have the incentive and means to do it again in the future.
And you don’t need a crystal ball to know that, if such changes are not made, another crisis is awaiting us just around the corner.
Here’s the graph Bruce is referring to in the comments on this post:
And here’s the same series going back earlier: