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methodology

Romer writes that macro-economists casually dismiss facts, and the profession as a whole has gone backwards over the past few decades, losing precious and hard-won knowledge. He does not consider WHY this happened. What are the methodological flaws that create the possibility of moving backwards, losing knowledge, affirming theories known to be in conflict with facts. How is it that leading economists can confidently assert theories which border on lunacy, and receive Nobel Prizes instead of psychiatric treatment?

This is due to the famous AS-IF methodology of Friedman, which gave economists a license for lunacy.  Friedman came up with this defense of orthodoxy when numerous emprical investigation revealed clearly that firms did not maximize profits, did not know their marginal costs, typically used mark-up pricing, and did other things which did not square with neo-classical theories. Friedman’s argument has been universally condemned by logicians and philosophers as an instance of the logical fallacy of “Affirming the consequent” – the use of modus ponens in reverse. That is, Friedman says, in effect, that theory T implies observable consequence C. We observe C, and therefore we can affirm that T holds. This is obviously fallacious since many different theories, inconsistent with T, may also imply consequence C. Even more importantly, a false theory T will always imply consequences C* which are not observed — since the theory is false, it will have consequences which are false. Ignoring all of these problems,  Boland uses an instrumentalist interpretation to defend Friedman, just like all economics textbooks. He writes that even though critics universally condemn his logic, Friedman is right, and ALL the critics are wrong.

In my lecture on  AM2L07 (code for Advanced Micro II: Lecture 7) Methodological Mistakes: Prospect Theory and Psychology Protocols, I explain why Friedman is wrong and his critics are right by discussing this methodological debate within the concrete context of trying to understand search theory. Consider a hypothetical problem where a person is searching for the highest wage. He goes from one firm to next. At each point he is offered a job at a certain wage W. He can accept and quit searching, or reject the offer and go on searching. We want to find a theory which explains search behavior that we observe in lab experiments designed to emulate this situation.

In simple models, it is easy to show that optimal search sets a reservation wage W* and the laborer searches until he/she finds the first offer above this value. The Economist is committed to the assumption that humans are hyper-rational, and they maximize. ONLY theories satisfying these assumptions will be examined for validity. This means that there is NO QUESTION of looking at human behavior itself to see whether or not this hypothesis about behavior holds. Rather, the ONLY problem is to find the FUNCTION which is being maximized.  Economists start by using Expected Utility theory. A rather large number of empirical examples show that this theory does not match human behavior. Nonetheless, this continues to be the dominant theory of decision making under uncertainty and continues to be taught in textbooks, even though the theory is KNOWN to be wrong.

An improvement upon this is PROSPECT theory. By making ad-hoc modifications to probabilities, utilities, and FRAMING the problem in a suitable way, this theory can achieve a MUCH BETTER match to observed behavior than Utility theory. This theory preserves MAXIMIZATION – humans maximize something. However it abandons rationality — why should humans treat probabilities INCORRECTLY. Economists cannot stomach this observed failure of rationality and so AFFIRM theories solidly in conflict with observed facts about human behavior.

NEITHER of these approaches is scientific, since both dogmatically assert allegiance to the maximization principle regardless of observation. The articles by John Hey show how one can move beyond this to a genuinely scientific methodology. He explains how many researchers have investigated search behavior, but have only been concerned with whether or not it matched ASSUMED theories of behavior. INSTEAD he proposes to investigate how humans ACTUALLY behave, without imposing any assumptions about behavior in advance. He used psychological protocols, asking subject to think out loud about the process with which they arrive at the decision on whether to accept an offer or to go on to search for the next one. As can be expected, humans cannot make complex calculations that theory requires of them, and instead they use various heuristics and rules of thumb. These heuristic work fairly well, and get them reasonable close to what someone with full information and infinite computational capabilities could achieve. Nonetheless, the use of heuristics gives radically different results about what we could expect to see in markets where these behaviors, rather than the hypothesized AS-IF behavior is used. The full lecture is linked below

For lecture slides and reference materials, links to related articles, as well as the whole sequence of lectures, see the course website: Advanced Micro II (shortlink: bit.do/ee2018)

POSTSCRIPT: The process of lecturing, trying to explain to my students how their fellow students are being duped by economic textbook, always give me greater clarity. In this lecture, I examine three approaches to understanding human behavior in the process of searching for the best wage (or searching for the best price).

1: AXIOMATIC — represented by Expected Utility. Here we know in advance what human behavior is. We do not need to look at human behavior at all. If someone ELSE studies this behavior and finds that our theories do not match actual behavior, we say that the experiment must be wrong.

2: DESCRIPTIVE — represented by Prospect Theory. Unlike economists, experimentalists and behaviorists study actual behavior. When it fails to match Expected Utility, they came up with a new theory — prospect theory — which summarizes and encapsulates a description of how humans behave in decisions under uncertainty. Economists REJECT this picture because it shows how human behavior is IRRATIONAL – and this conflicts with their FUNDAMENTAL assumptions of rationality, which must be maintained regardless of any inconvenient facts or observations or introspection.

3: SCIENTIFIC: An accurate description permits us to proceed to the next stage, which is to try to understand the REASONS for this behavior. For example, we observe that most people are risk-averse. They prefer the certain outcome of $50 to a gamble with offers $0 and $100 with equal probabilty. Now we can ask why — this is with regards to unobservable, hidden motivations, about which we can never be certain. A good explanation for this is REGRET. Because of our psychological makeup, the flatness of the utility function in gains, a win of 100 does not feel vastly superior to a win of 50. But the real kicker is the feat that if I take a gamble and lose, I will feel so stupid. Avoiding the regret that might occur when I say I should have taken that certain $50 might be the explanation for risk aversion.

Actually, even “reverse Modus Ponens” is not a good description of Friedman’s methodology — there is an added F-Twist: If we can FIND some observations C such that theory T implies them, then we affirm theory T, and IGNORE any other implications of T which actually conflict with observations.

The METHODOLOGICAL point is the Friedman, like all nominalists and instrumentalists, GIVES up on the possibility of understanding human behavior. All he wants is a model which provides a SUPERFICIAL match to some observations. However, many many real life situations show that this is NOT ENOUGH — we need to have a deeper understanding, in order to be able to explain economic and social phenomena. See also previous related post on Economists Confuse Greek Methodology with Science

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That economics is a value-laden science is not a new idea. Most of the prominent economic thinkers were also philosophers, wary of moral and philosophical content of scientific assumptions, models, and theories. That economics needs philosophy, and the separation between these two cannot be maintained any longer, is gaining recognition, and has become a subject of debates in the field of philosophy of economics that brings together (to various extends) philosophers, mainstream, and heterodox economists. For example, Daniel Hausman (1992) discusses that at an analytic level economists do successfully separate the philosophical and ethical content from economic analysis, albeit this separation is possible only at the analytic level. Karl Polanyi (1957), in his discussion on the entanglement of economic activities in the social totality, gives insights from a different perspective how considering the subject of economic study in social vacuum can in fact lead to thinking that scientific practice indeed has disentangled from society.

Today economists of both mainstream (e.g., Jean Tirole) and heterodox approaches more readily admit: economics is a moral and philosophical science. Yet the meaning and scope of the normative components of economics, the epistemic consequences of the social embeddedness of science, and the social consequences of economics are raising so far inconclusive debates. These issues constitute two-tiered dimensions of scientific rationality: external and internal ones. While the criteria of internal rationality (which constitute the standard approach to scientific rationality) refer to disciplinary epistemology and methodology, the criteria of external rationality involve the axiological, ethical, and societal elements of the process of knowledge production and the social consequences of science.

Interestingly, as Gustav Márquez (2016) points out, even in the field of philosophy of economics, the discussions are often focused on the elements of what I call here internal rationality. Márquez argues that the predominant focus on these issues characterize the mainstream philosophy of economics, while the more normatively-laden issues, such as a broader theoretical reorientation towards more responsive and socially engaged approaches (which I considered as aspects related to the external scientific rationality), are not so much a part of the dominant concerns and discourse.

Why would an external rationality matter? What is the meaning of the social consequences of economics as a science? And how the acknowledgment of the value-laden component of scientific practices plays out in research practices of the scientific community, and of an individual researcher? These questions are not easy to answer, as they involve several complex issues, such as what is the meaning of scientific truth, scientific objectivity, how to account for the normative components of science, or what are the grounds for our confidence in scientific methods and analysis—to name a few. While each of these questions opens a Pandora box by itself, my goal is to simply open up some of the ways these profound issues can be approached for a discussion. My guiding thought is that one of the elements that drastically shapes our take on these questions pertains to the context in which science and the process of knowledge production is considered.

My specific focus will be on the role of science in society and for policy making. In my next entries of the WEA Pedagogy Blog, I am going to consider several issues, problems, and controversies raised at the intersection of economics, society, and policy, with an eye towards their educational and pedagogical challenges. My objective is to problematize, hopefully for a broader discussion with the readers, the fact that the specific philosophical commitments (e.g. ontological and epistemological assumptions about the role of science, function of knowledge, scientific truth, etc.) bear impact on how the epistemic consequences of the value-ladedness of economics are framed, and on the acknowledgment and role assigned to the extra-scientific components of research practices.

References:

Hasuman, Daniel M. 1992. The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Márquez, Gustavo. 2016. A Philosophical Framework for Rethinking Theoretical Economics and Philosophy of Economics. London: College Publications.

Polanyi, Karl, [1944] 1957. The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Preliminary Remarks: “The trouble is not so much that macroeconomists say things that are inconsistent with the facts. The real trouble is that other economists do not care that the macroeconomists do not care about the facts. An indifferent tolerance of obvious error is even more corrosive to science than committed advocacy of error.” From The Trouble with Macroeconomics (Paul Romer)

I do not understand why indifference to error is worse than committed advocacy. Tor an illustration of committed advocacy of error, see postscript below on 70 years of economists’ committment to a fallacious theory. Furthermore, the problem is not confined to macro. Microeconomists are also dogmatically committed to utility maximization, when in fact this hypothesis about consumer behavior is solidly rejected by empirical evidence; see: The Empirical Evidence Against Neoclassical Utility Maximization: A Survey of the Literature

Understanding Macro: The Great Depression

Published in The Express Tribune, February 21st, 2018.

Due to frequent headlines, there is a substantial public awareness of core macroeconomic issues like unemployment, trade agreements, exchange rates, deficit, taxes, interest rates, etc. However, even professionals are often ignorant of the intellectual battles which have shaped modern macroeconomics, since this is not taught in typical PhD programmes in economics. This article attempts to provide the history of ideas which led to the emergence of macroeconomics, since this is an essential background required for informed analysis of these issues.

Lord John Maynard Keynes invented the entire field of macroeconomics in response to the Great Depression in 1929, which could not be understood according to economic theories dominant until then. According to the classical economic theory, forces of supply and demand in the labour market would ensure full employment. Keynes starts his magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, with the observation that the economic theory cannot explain the long, persistent and deep unemployment that was observed following the Great Depression. Keynes set himself the goal of creating a theory which could explain wide fluctuations in levels of employment that he observed. He discovered that creating such a theory involved rejecting deeply held convictions, central to economic theory.

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huntergatherer

As a preliminary demonstration, and an explanation of the “Three Methodologies“, we assess how they work in primitive hunter-gatherer societies.

A hunter-gatherer is a human living in a society in which most or all food is obtained by foraging (collecting wild plants and pursuing wild animals), in contrast to agricultural societies, which rely mainly on domesticated species.

There are many characteristics of such societies forced by the material conditions of production. Since existing food supplies in any one location are soon exhausted, such societies are generally nomadic. Here are some philosophies, and political and social structures that would naturally arise in hunter-gatherer nomadic societies.

Philosophy: Since human beings are directly dependent on the environment, the idea of “Mother Earth” and a close relationship with nature can be expected to develop. This stands in contrast with urban lifestyles which are remote from nature; it is this detachment from nature which has permitted the widespread environmental destruction which is currently taking place.

Politics: Typical Hunter-Gatherer societies are egalitarian. This is because everyone derives a living directly from nature, and is mobile. If one subgroup is oppressed, they can simply leave, so there is not much room for powerful groups to exercise large amounts of power and control over other groups. Furthermore, in subsistence economies, one cannot afford slaves because there is generally not enough surplus food to feed them. So economic conditions favor egalitarian political structures; nonetheless, human ingenuity can sometimes overcome such obstacles.

Property: Since property of nomads is confined to what they can carry with them, it is necessarily limited. Illustrative of hunter-gatherer attitudes towards property is the Cherokee Constitution of 1839, which states: “The lands of the Cherokee Nation shall remain common property”.

We now consider insights yielded into the study of such societies by the three methodologies discussed in the previous post

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This is a summary of the introduction/motivation part of href=”https://sites.google.com/site/az4math/ll15europe19th”>Lecture 15 on Advanced Microeconomics II, delivered at PIDE in Spring Semester 2017.  The lecture is about 19th Century European History, and how it is deeply entangled with Modern Economic Theory. We cannot understand one without the other.

19th Century European Economic Ideas In Historical Context.

“… the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong …” Ecclesiastes 9:11

In the late 19th century, a battle of methodologies (“Methodenstreit”) took place, which shaped the future of economics. The German Historical School lost out to the newly emergent, quantitative, mathematical and scientific approach. This led to a re-conceptualization of economics as a science similar to physics, which studies the economic laws of motion of societies. For a detailed account of this battle, and its effects, see “How Economics Forgot History,” by Geoffrey Hodgson.

1. Contemporary Methodology:[humans are predictable robots] The idea that economic theory is a science like physics has extremely unpleasant and counterintuitive consequences. We look for universal laws of economics, which apply equally well to Pakistan, France, Brazil, Russia and Nigeria. Furthermore, they apply equally well in the seventeenth, nineteenth, and twenty-first century. The trade theory of economists must apply equally to trade between Ghana and England, India and Pakistan, and the Huron and Iroquois tribes. Since the ability of human beings to shape their destiny in accordance with visions cannot be fit into a scientific framework, human behavior is reduced to that of a robotic pleasure machine, which follows precise mathematical laws.

2. Marxist Methodology:[social and political structures are determined by economic structures] A key element of Marxist methodology is that economic relations of production are fundamental. These determine the political and social superstructures. Marxist methodology is far richer than current methodology, which removes history, and human beings, from economics. Nonetheless, Marxist methodology gives primacy to materialistic conditions of productions, and considers society and politics as important secondary consequences.

3. (Polanyi’s Methodology):[material circumstance shape human societies, but also human vision and ideas shape material circumstances] Whereas conventional methodology restricts attention to the material circumstance, and Marx considers material circumstances as primary, Polanyi uses a bi-directional causality. Human ideas and visions can shape history, and conversely, the economic relation of production shape human ideas and visions. For more discussion of the radical implications of this entanglement of ideas and materials, see my earlier post on “Meta-Theory and Pluralism in Polanyi’s Methodology“.

These are three distinctly different methodological principles.  In the rest of this lecture, we will look at nineteenth century European history through these three different colored glasses and see how they help us understand the economic, social and political changes which occurred during this period. Our goal will be to establish that “entanglement” occurs – that human ideas are both shaped by, and shape, history. In particular, economic theories are used by humans to understand historical experience, and also to guide social responses to this experience, and attempt to mold history in favorable directions. An extremely important consequence of this entanglements is that economic theories cannot be understood when detached from the historical context in which they were born. As Polanyi explains clearly, modern economic theories were produced in nineteenth century England, and to understand these theories, it is necessary to understand European history of that era.

The failure to see the impact of ideas on history was due to the overwhelming influence of a materialist view of the world, which had come into existence following the success of Newton’s laws in explaining diverse phenomena. Since material substances follow laws, they could not be affected by ideas. This duality and divide between spirit and matter has been influential in shaping Western epistemology, and in making it difficult to see the influence of spirit on matter, due to ideological preconceptions.

Before proceeding to the complexities of European history, we will do a dry-run of the conceptual framework we are using within the simpler context of hunter-gatherer as well as feudal societies. The 90m Video-Lecture linked below, discusses the co-evolution of economic theories along with the historical context in 19th century Europe:

Currently, I am teaching a course in Advanced Microeconomics where I have started with the premise that conventional economic theory, both Micro and Macro are fundamentally wrong. The number of ways in which they are wrong cannot even be counted. Instead of enumerating errors, the course is devoted to providing a constructive alternative. A lot of the early lectures deal with the basic concepts of optimization and equilibrium, the fundamental building blocks of conventional courses, and explain how these are wrong. I also explain how economists are using a wrong methodology, and how they misunderstand the concept of a theoretical model, and the relations between models and reality. The video-taped lectures, PPT slides, and some supporting materials, are available from my website: https://sites.google.com/site/az4math/

Originally, I had not planned to teach Karl Polanyi because his theories are significantly more complex than those of Karl Marx and Adam Smith. However, because the class has been very receptive, and has understood the what I have been teaching, I have decided to explain his ideas. We have already started discussing his ideas starting from Lecture 13, and have finished Part I of the Great Transformation in Lecture 16. In order to prepare for the complexities of Part II, I have distributed the following handout to the class, to explain the complex general methodological framework which underlies Polanyi’s analysis.

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ideologyinequalityEven though very few people have more than a vague idea about them, macroeconomic theories deeply affect the lives of everybody on the planet. Writings of Piketty, Stiglitz and many others, as well as personal experience of the 1% — 99% divide, have created increasing awareness of the deep and increasing inequalities which characterize modern capitalist economies. However, the link between inequality and macroeconomic theory has not been pointed out clearly. The fact that since the 1970’s top corporate salaries have increased by 1000% while the average worker only earns 11% more is closely linked to the revolution in economic theory that occurred over the 70’s and 80’s. We will try to sketch some parts of the complex and coordinated efforts which led to the emergence of theories which provide the invisible foundations and the enabling environment for this inequality.

The oil crisis of the early 70’s destroyed the consensus on Keynesian macroeconomics, and created the opportunities for ideologies disguised as economic theories to emerge. Chicago school economist Robert Lucas attacked the dominant Keynesian theories which argued that governments must play an important role in eliminating unemployment. Guided by free market ideology, Lucas created macroeconomic theories which suggested that government interventions are always harmful. Some elements of the Lucasian methodology provided genuinely superior alternatives to defects in existing Keynesian models. However, other elements were bizarre. Even though unemployment is a painful reality to vast numbers of people, defender-of-free-markets Lucas argued that this was a free choice. According to Lucas, the Great Depression was really the Great Vacation, where vast numbers of people suddenly decided to stop working in order to enjoy leisure. This, and many other strange assumptions of the Lucasian alternative led famous economists like Robert Solow to say that to engage in a serious discussion with the Chicago school would be analogous to discussing technicalities of the Battle of Austerlitz with a madman who claimed to be Napoleon Bonaparte. For example, Solow wrote that “Bob Lucas and Tom Sargent like nothing better than to get drawn into technical discussions, because then attention is attracted away from the basic weakness of the whole story. Since I find that fundamental framework ludicrous, I respond by treating it as ludicrous – that is, by laughing at it – so as not to fall into the trap of taking it seriously and passing on to matters of technique.”

Recent remarks of eminent economist Paul Romer, a student of Lucas, regarding the dramatic failures of contemporary macroeconomic models have generated shock waves which continue to reverberate among economists. Romer wistfully suggests that if Solow had engaged with the Chicago school, instead of subjecting them to sarcasm, contempt and ridicule, they might have been amenable to reason. Lucas, Sargent, and their followers responded to hostile attacks by closing ranks, ignoring all who disagreed with them, and giving up on basic scientific principles such as using evidence to evaluate models.  Even though Romer criticizes Solow for ridiculing Lucas, he also finds it difficult to take the macroeconomic theories of Lucas and Sargent seriously. Since these models remove essential real factors like money and unemployment from the picture, Romer writes that modern macroeconomic models are reduced to using mythical objects like phlogiston and gremlins to explain real world economic events. What is frightening about this is that these models, which have been blamed for their inability to see the looming global financial crisis, continue to be used by Central Banks for monetary policy decisions throughout the world.

The mystery of how ludicrous theories which invoke mythical objects and causes, came to dominate the scene is not easily resolved. One important element in the success of the Chicago School was their lack of scruples. Stigler, one of leaders of free market thought at the Chicago School, explained that “… new economic theories are introduced by the technique of the huckster” (a door-to-door peddler who sells fake items as if they were genuine}. He defended this intellectual fraud on the grounds that a warrior against ignorance must subordinate the lesser truths to his quest to spread the grand truth. The grand truth, or the ideological conviction, that governments must not intervene in free markets guided the development of modern macroeconomics at the hands of Lucas, Sargent and Prescott. Ideological convictions of the Chicago School are impervious to facts – they ignore the long lines of the unemployed at the soup kitchens, and the strong empirical evidence of correlations between tight monetary policies and high unemployment.

A second crucial element was the creation of an artificial Nobel Prize in economics. Private financiers and bankers who stood to gain massively from the spread of free market theories of the Chicago School decided to purchase respectability for them. The bankers donated funds to create a prize in Economics in 1968 which was deceptively and fraudulently named after Alfred Nobel: “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”. The conditions and methods for granting the prize were made to resemble the genuine Nobel prizes sufficiently to deceive the masses into thinking that this was one of the genuine Nobel prizes. After creating an imitation Nobel prize, the Swedish bank proceed to award about half of all of them to Chicago School economists, giving half to assorted others to maintain a semblance of objectivity. This has resulted in a tremendous rise in the prestige of Chicago school doctrines, catapulting them from an eccentric minority to the entrenched and dominant orthodoxy in economics.

This intellectual revolution, the displacement of Keynesian economics by the Chicago School, has been used to justify economic policies to enrich the wealthy, and caused massive damage to the general public. As policies based on free market theories have been enacted globally, wealth has concentrated in the hands of the top 1%, while the fortunes of the bottom 90% have been declining. Seeing that the economic system in place has led to reduction in job opportunities and incomes, and rising costs of necessities like education and health facilities, the bottom 90% have expressed their discontent and desire for radical change in the form of Brexit and Trump. However, fundamental change requires addressing the root cause of the problem, replacing defective ideology based macroeconomic theories with more empirical and evidence based theories.

Published Express Tribune, 9 Jan 2107. My author page on LinkedIn. Other works: Index .Related articles: Economic Theory Creates our World and our Worldview. The Fairy Tale of GNP per Capita.