Economic systems that work well do not have many heroes. The elevated status of the world’s central bankers – seen in the close attention paid to their annual get-together last weekend in Jackson Hole, Wyoming – is a sign that the financial system works badly.
Most of the modern economy flourishes without much help from professional economists. That would have pleased John Maynard Keynes. The British economist thought his peers should be like dentists – “humble, competent people” who could deal effectively with specialised problems. Such technicians do in fact take care of the production and distribution of goods and services, the allocation of incomes, the protection of the environment and even the development of new products.
These practical, almost anonymous experts have been a huge success. The prosperity of developed economies is fantastic by any historic standard, and many goods and services are available to rich and poor alike. The system deals fairly easily with innovations, changes in taste, natural disasters, military action and pretty much every sort of disruption – except severe financial problems.
Of course, economic problems remain. In rich countries, the biggest by far is a shortage of good jobs. The recent positive German experience of falling unemployment suggests that the main solution is, as Keynes would have hoped, detailed and bureaucratic. The main tricks have been refinements in the terms and conditions of employment contracts and in the details of the tax and unemployment systems. In other countries, different adjustments are needed, perhaps more equal wages. But what is required is detailed work by economist-dentists.
For all that, most professional economists are still not much like dentists. They generally work with grand theories about such abstract concepts as equilibrium interest rates and economic cycles. They rely on idealised concepts like “the firm,” risk premiums and gross domestic product. Their simplifying equations are impressive, but not very useful.