26 May 2009

Got to repost the latest Keen, its too good not to...


Writing in the New York Times, Gregory Mankiw could see some need to modify economics courses a bit in response to the GFC, but overall he felt that:

“Despite the enormity of recent events, the principles of economics are largely unchanged. Students still need to learn about the gains from trade, supply and demand, the efficiency properties of market outcomes, and so on. These topics will remain the bread-and-butter of introductory courses.” (That Freshman Course Won’t Be Quite the Same, New York Times May 23 2009)

Writing on a blog The East Asia Forum, authors Doug McTaggart, Christopher Findlay and Michael Parkin wrote that:

“The crisis has also brought calls for the heads of economists for failing to anticipate and avoid it. That idea, too, is wrong: much economic research pointed to the emerging problem.

More economic research (and teaching), not less, is the best hope of both emerging from the current crisis and of avoiding future ones.” (The state of economics, East Asia Forum, May 21 2009)

What a load of bollocks.

The “principles of economics” that Mankiw champions, and the ”More economic research (and teaching)” that McTaggart et al are calling for, are the major reason why economists in general were oblivious to this crisis until well after it had broken out.

If they meant “Principles of Hyman Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis”, or “More Post Keynesian and Evolutionary economic research”, there might be some validity to their claims. But what they really mean is “principles of neoclassical economics” and ”More neoclassical economic research (and teaching)”–precisely the stuff that led to this crisis in the first place.

Neoclassical economic theory supported the deregulation of the financial system that helped set this crisis in train. See for example this New York Times report on the abolition of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 “CONGRESS PASSES WIDE-RANGING BILL EASING BANK LAWS” (New York Times November 5th 1999). The reporter Stephem Labaton noted that:

The opponents of the measure gloomily predicted that by unshackling banks and enabling them to move more freely into new kinds of financial activities, the new law could lead to an economic crisis down the road when the marketplace is no longer growing briskly…

Then he observed that

Supporters of the legislation rejected those arguments. They responded that historians and economists have concluded that the Glass-Steagall Act was not the correct response to the banking crisis because it was the failure of the Federal Reserve in carrying out monetary policy, not speculation in the stock market, that caused the collapse of 11,000 banks. If anything, the supporters said, the new law will give financial companies the ability to diversify and therefore reduce their risks. The new law, they said, will also give regulators new tools to supervise shaky institutions.

This is a very apt description of the role of neoclassical economists over the last 40 years: every step of the way, they have argued for deregulation of the financial system. Now we have McTaggart and colleagues making the self-serving claim that:

The current crisis is a failure of regulation that calls for not more regulation, but the right regulation.

So the same economic theory that supported the abolition of Glass-Steagall, amongst many other Depression-inspired controls, is suddenly going to be able to do a volte-face and tell us what “the right regulation” might be? Garbage.

What is really needed is a thorough revolution in economic thought. First and foremost this has to be based on empirical reality, and from this perspective almost everything that current textbooks treat as gospel truth will end up in the dustbin.

Coincidentally, many non-neoclassical economists whose writings have been put into the dustbin by today’s economics orthodoxy will be back on the shelves once more. Minsky, Schumpeter, Keynes, Veblen and Marx don’t rate a mention in in most current economic textbooks; they had better feature in future texts, or by 2060 or so we’ll be back here again.

Though I’m clearly annoyed at Mankiw’s and McTaggart’s drivel, I’m not surprised by it–in fact I predicted it (I doubt that they can point to anything they wrote prior to the GFC that predicted it!). I said the following in an article “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know” published on March 12 2009 in issue 49 of the Real World Economics Review:

Despite the severity of the crisis in the real world, academic neoclassical economists will continue to teach from the same textbooks in 2009 and 2010 that they used in 2008 and earlier…

they will interpret the crisis as due to poor regulation,…

They will seriously believe that the crisis calls not for the abolition of neoclassical economics, but for its teachings to be more widely known. The very thought that this financial crisis should require any change in what they do, let alone necessitate the rejection of neoclassical theory completely, will strike them as incredible.

Sometimes, I would like to be wrong…

Finally, what lesson did neoclassical economists take from the Great Depression? That the Federal Reserve caused it via poor economic policy. Who do current neoclassical economists blame for this crisis? The Federal Reserve of course, for poor economic policy:

By 2007, fuelled by the Federal Reserve’s egregious policy errors, markets were moving into unsustainable bubble territory. The Fed by this time had realized the problem was getting out of hand and had moved interest rates up sharply—too sharply—and burst the house price bubble. (McTaggart et al).

But who staffs the Federal Reserve? Neoclassical economists of course…

Please, let’s not fall for this nonsense a second time. Keynes tried to free us from neoclassical economic thinking back in the 1930s, only to have neoclassical economists like John Hicks and Paul Samuelson eviscerate Keynes’s thought and re-establish a revitalised neoclassical economics after the Depression was over. This time, let’s do it right and get rid of neoclassical economics once and for all.


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