Mainstream economists’ funeral orations

Posted: 28 September 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Viktor Vasnetsov, "Grave Digger" (1871)

It was Samuelson who, in 1997, declared with morbid optimism that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.”*

Now, Paul Krugman is worried that progress in economics has come to an end.

when I was younger I firmly believed that economics was a field that progressed over time, that every generation knew more than the generation before. . .

When I look at a lot of what prominent economists have been writing in response to the ongoing economic crisis, I see no sign of intellectual discomfort, no sense that a disaster their models made no allowance for is troubling them; I see only blithe invention of stories to rationalize the disaster in a way that supports their side of the partisan divide. And no, it’s not symmetric: liberal economists by and large do seem to be genuinely wrestling with what has happened, but conservative economists don’t.

And all this makes me wonder what kind of an enterprise I’ve devoted my life to.

There may be two problems here: One is the right-wing’s “blithe invention of stories to rationalize the disaster in a way that supports their side of the partisan divide.” The other is the modernist story of progress in economics, now as in the past.

What neither Samuelson nor Krugman wants to admit is there have always been different approaches to economics—economics has always been an agonistic field of contending theories and methodologies—and there’s no way of positing or measuring progress, except perhaps within one of those approaches. Thus, a funeral oration for mainstream economics may not signify the death of other economic discourses. Indeed, it may breathe new life into them.

* “Credo of a Lucky Textbook Author,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 11 (Spring): 159.

Comments
  1. bcs says:

    But then there is the Theory of Everything sort of approach.
    Sometimes theories are wrong under some circumstances, but right under others.
    For instance, general-relativity and quantum-mechanics. Then conflicts in
    the compromise of string-theories, then compromise of the string-theories into
    matrix-string-theory… but they very muchly divide by zero (more like 0.0…1
    at the sub-Plank level.) making it difficult to prove and even difficult to
    fathom.

    When I was playing Globulation 2 I decided to form a society of all workers,
    and no antagonists. The “Globs” have a simple AI, so they really just work
    until they start dying of starvation. In that game the workers don’t build
    things on their own, but it has the real-time strategy approach with a menu
    of different buildings that can be constructed by choice of the player.
    For what their simple AI can’t do, the player has to do for them, thus the
    society becomes harder to manage as it grows and experiences similar boom-
    and-bust cycles that real society does, but without “currency”. The measure
    is food and the most important building in that society is – the inn.

    Blah though! All modern economic theories recognize surplus value in some way
    or another. They all see in society “class”, but what constitutes the classes
    to them varies. Income? Type of job? Relations of production? They also all
    see income inequality, either being as “due to talent and deserving-ness”, or
    “due to a class that exists to create surplus-value “productive labor” and is
    thereby exploited as they work more than they earn and cause accumulation
    at one pole and misery at the other, etc.”

    In economics the world is still flat and we wonder what is “North of North.”

    But the boom-and-bust/bubble/”business-cycle”/depression-and-euphoria
    phenomenon is not limited to Capitalism, or any -ism for that matter.
    It occurs when there is too much society to manage, when over-determination
    is most potent and least predictable, yet inevitable. It is brought on by
    slamming on the gas and ends slamming on the breaks.

    Blah again! My 2-cents is worthless.

  2. […] Paul Krugman, who had earlier lost his belief in the progress of economics, has admitted that decades ago economics journals had come to serve merely as […]

  3. […] precisely the modernist conceit in economics: that economic knowledge progresses (Samuelson would add, “funeral by funeral,”) and that modelling is the way to guarantee the […]

  4. […] rightly draws attention to: the modernist conceit in economics: that economic knowledge progresses (Samuelson would add, “funeral by funeral,”) and that modelling is the way to guarantee the continued […]

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