By Edward Hadas
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
The “konditorei” in Sankt Florian, Austria offers fine pastries and wonderful hot chocolate. It was the perfect location to interrupt a holiday for a bit of work. Over a slice of strudel, I spent a few minutes last week contemplating my colleague Andy Mukherjee’s well argued article about the danger robots pose for the modern economy. Looking around the bakery-cafe, I saw why Andy should be proven wrong.
Many people think politics is really a branch of economics. When the United States invaded Iraq in 1991, the common cry was that it was all about oil. On the same thinking, rich countries were indifferent to the brutal civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – which has cost 5.4 million lives, according to the International Rescue Committee – because the economic stakes were too low to matter. This economic reductionism goes on in developed countries too. Pundits and pollsters argue that elections are won and lost above all else on the economy.
If a man is suspected of murder, arson and speeding, any prosecutor who focuses only on the last charge risks ridicule. That imagined situation has some bearing on recent criticism of Thomas Piketty, the best-selling French anti-inequality economist. The accusations are largely restricted to ways in which he has exceeded the limits of his data.
Recently, at the House of Sweden, there was a feisty exchange among the newest Nobel laureates. First, one of the economics winners, Robert Shiller, questioned the validity of the efficient markets hypothesis, the prize-wining idea of co-laureate Gene Fama. This prompted chemistry winner, Martin Karplus, to say “What understanding of the stock market do you really have?” He reckoned economics can’t explain the market and questioned if “the dismal science” is even a science.
The 2013 Nobel Prize for economics celebrates that financial markets work, but cautions how little we know. One theme unifies the work of all three winners: Eugene Fama, Robert Shiller and Lars Hansen — risk. (A disclosure: until August I worked at Dimensional Fund Advisors, where Fama is a director and consultant.) Risk is unpredictable, but can be very profitable. That sounds simple enough, but it has profound implications — not only for the lords of high finance, but households, too. Risk teaches humility, to overconfident investors and also policymakers. That humility was notably absent at the IMF/World Bank meetings last week. Policymakers should take special note of the prize this year; it reveals how little we really understand about financial markets.
This essay is adapted from Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change, published this month by Princeton University Press.