Mainstream economics — the art of building fantasy worlds

from Lars Syll

Mainstream macroeconomic models standardly assume things like rational expectations, Walrasian market clearing, unique equilibria, time invariance, linear separability and homogeneity of both inputs/outputs and technology, infinitely lived intertemporally optimizing representative household/ consumer/producer agents with homothetic and identical preferences, etc., etc. At the same time, the models standardly ignore complexity, diversity, uncertainty, coordination problems, non-market clearing prices, real aggregation problems, emergence, expectations formation, etc., etc.

How to Build a Fantasy Economy - YouTubeBehavioural and experimental economics — not to speak of psychology — show beyond doubt that “deep parameters” — peoples’ preferences, choices and forecasts — are regularly influenced by those of other economic participants. And how about the homogeneity assumption? And if all actors are the same — why and with whom do they transact? And why does economics have to be exclusively teleological (concerned with intentional states of individuals)? Where are the arguments for that ontological reductionism? And what about collective intentionality and constitutive background rules?

These are all justified questions — so, in what way can one maintain that these models give workable microfoundations for macroeconomics? Science philosopher Nancy Cartwright gives a good hint at how to answer that question:

Our assessment of the probability of effectiveness is only as secure as the weakest link in our reasoning to arrive at that probability. We may have to ignore some issues to make heroic assumptions about them. But that should dramatically weaken our degree of confidence in our final assessment. Rigor isn’t contagious from link to link. If you want a relatively secure conclusion coming out, you’d better be careful that each premise is secure going on.

Avoiding logical inconsistencies is crucial in all science. But it is not enough. Just as important is avoiding factual inconsistencies. And without showing — or at least warranted arguing — that the assumptions and premises of their models are in fact true, mainstream economists aren’t really reasoning, but only playing games. Formalistic deductive ‘Glasperlenspiel’ can be very impressive and seductive. But in the realm of science, it ought to be considered of little or no value to simply make claims about the model and lose sight of reality.

Instead of making the model the message, I think we are better served by economists who more than anything else try to contribute to solving real problems. And then the motto of John Maynard Keynes is more valid than ever:

It is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong