Here is a list of economic questions that have something in common. In a recession, should governments reduce budget deficits or increase them? Do 0 percent interest rates stimulate economic recovery or suppress it? Should welfare benefits be maintained or cut in response to high unemployment? Should depositors in failed banks be protected or suffer big losses? Does income inequality damage or encourage economic growth? Will market forces create environmental disasters or avert them? Is government support necessary for technological progress or stifling to innovation?
What these important questions have in common is that professional economists can’t answer them. To be more precise, economists can offer plenty of answers about government deficits, printing money, inequality, environmental issues and so on, but none of these answers is authoritative enough any longer to persuade other economists, and never the world at large.
Take two examples. On whether government borrowing aggravates recessions or promotes recoveries, the world’s most eminent economists fall into one of two violently conflicting schools. The world’s most important central banks, the U.S. Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, hold diametrically opposing views about the effects of quantitative easing. If economics were a genuinely scientific discipline, such disputes over fundamental issues would have been settled decades ago. They are equivalent to astronomers still arguing about whether the sun revolves around the earth or earth around the sun.
How should politicians and voters who look to economists for guidance respond to this cacophony? Writing this week from Hong Kong, which is hosting a galaxy of economic superstars at the annual conference of the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), I can offer a partial answer.
INET is a $150 million foundation created four years ago to support academic research and teaching in economics that break with the assumptions of natural equilibrium, market efficiency and statistical predictability that were largely responsible for the policy mistakes that produced the 2008 financial crisis. Economics is ultimately a study of politics, psychology and social behavior. It is therefore as close to philosophy or even theology, as to physics, biology or engineering. Just as philosophers and theologians still argue about the same issues that preoccupied Plato, Kant and Descartes, economists see no shame in continuing the debates over budget deficits, monetary policy and full employment launched by Keynes, Wicksell or Walras.