Opinion

Edward Hadas

Three Ms for economics re-education

Edward Hadas
May 21, 2014 15:10 UTC

Many economics students are unhappy with what they are being taught. A network of 62 groups from around the world has drawn up a petition calling for more “pluralism” in instruction. The malcontents find the dominant neoclassical model too narrow and want to know why so few experts predicted the 2008 financial crisis. They also want less abstract theory and more study of actual economies. The reproaches are just, but the students’ reform agenda is insufficiently radical.

They underestimate the scale of the intellectual scandal. The profession’s ignoble tradition started in the 19th century, when most political economists, as they were then known, failed to notice that industry was leading to massive improvements in the standard of living. Today’s practitioners know much more, but they still struggle to explain the most basic phenomena – prices, wages, money, credit, unemployment and development.

Pluralism, the study of alternative schools of economic thought, would help, but not much. With the partial exception of the still underdeveloped study of institutional economics, the available alternatives to the neoclassical synthesis largely rely on the same erroneous assumptions that humans are rational and that market forces almost exclusively shape economies.

The demand to study intellectual history and other social sciences is more promising. Add in philosophy, and a new curriculum could lead the next generation of economists to undertake a profound re-evaluation of some basic concepts.

The role of markets is a good place to start. Economists generally refer to “market economies”, but they are not talking about supermarkets. They are referring to a theoretical model of economic activity. What they call perfect markets are a sort of eternal war of all against all with no durable winners. Most professionals assume that such markets are the best form of economic organisation: the closer to market perfection, the better.

Poverty and renunciation

Edward Hadas
Apr 3, 2013 14:10 UTC

“Go into the street, and give one man a lecture on morality, and another a shilling, and see which will respect you most.” Samuel Johnson said that in the 18th century, but the general preference for money over preaching is sufficiently strong and timeless that his wry quip remains pertinent. Most economists take Johnson’s sentiment too seriously. They assume that people always want more shillings and always resist wealth-denying morality. That is a serious error.

Consider, for example, the enthusiastic response from around the world to the material renunciations of Pope Francis. The crowds cheered when the new leader of the Catholic Church said he wanted a “poor Church for the poor”. His decision to stay in simple lodgings and wear simple clothes amounted to turning down shillings for the sake of giving a morality lecture, but few observers were bothered. On the contrary, it was welcomed as a pertinent comment on the excessively materialist values of modern society.

The need to be “for the poor” is eternal and universal. In every society there will always be people who cannot thrive without help from others. Despite Dr Johnson’s comment, the need for conscience-pricking discourses on the topic, papal and otherwise, is equally timeless. Otherwise, it would be too easy to find plausible but ultimately selfish reasons not to help out.

Prosperity need not kill religion

Edward Hadas
Apr 25, 2012 13:57 UTC

Thomas Carlyle’s fulminations against the spiritual damage wrought by factories are almost two centuries old, but the sentiment is current wherever industrialisation is rampant. “The huge demon of Mechanism,” he wrote, “smokes and thunders, panting at his great task, oversetting whole multitudes of workmen … so that the wisest no longer knows his whereabout.”

In China, today, government leaders and dissidents alike worry that, as one commentator put it, “frenzied competition for a better life [has] lobotomized the people of inherent values like common decency, compassion and feelings of fellowship”.

A century ago, Max Weber described the process as “disenchantment”. The German sociologist thought the transition from a culture of faith and farming to the narrow-minded and bureaucratic “iron cage” of modern civilisation required the destruction of a spiritual worldview. He saw a modern society made up of “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart”.

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