11 December 2008

Can't fix what you don't understand, can you

"They have been raised solely within the neoclassical approach to economics, which has dominated the academic discipline of economics since the mid-1970s. They have been trained to uncritically believe in models of the economy based on the fantasies of hyper-rational individuals (who can predict the future), that markets that are always in equilibrium where money is simply a veil over barter.

One excellent question put to James by Henry Blodget is worth quoting in its entirety. Blodget quite justifiably expressed the belief that in their training economists look at history–a statement that shows he didn’t himself do an economics degree, because one of the first subjects that neoclassical economists eliminated to make way for their obsessions with “microeconomics” and “econometrics” was economic history:

Blodget: But obviously in training economists, especially academics who go through an incredible period where they’re learning and studying history, and you look back over history where you’ve had many of these complete crashes that were unforeseen at the time. How does academia deal with that? Is the story always told that “Oh yes, but we were stupid and unsophisticated then, and now we’re smart and therefore we’ll see it”? How do people explain that?

James’s reply was:

Galbraith: That’s an excellent question, but the reality is that training in economics does not involve coming to grips with history. Economic history is barely taught in graduate economics departments, and the history of economic thought isn’t taught at all. So figures that have been fundamental to understanding phenomena like the Great Depression–or for that matter the Great Crash–are simply not in the curriculum.

Keynes, who taught my father John Kenneth Galbraith–who understood the Great Depression as well as any figure in the 20th century–… you won’t find them on the reading lists. That is in some sense the shocking commentary on the intellectual direction that the profession has taken.

There’s much more worth listening to in this interview. There is, also, hope. The fact that serious intellectuals who are critical of neoclassical economics are now being listened to by the media and the markets–though not yet governments–is a sign that, possibly, the days of the delusional neoclassical approach to economics are coming to a close.

Unfortunately, it has taken a serious economic crisis–possibly the most serious in history–to bring that delusion to its knees. But in the meantime, people trained in that delusion are still in control of economic policy, and are charged with helping overcome a problem they did not foresee, and still do not understand."

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