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January 05, 2017



«We shouldn’t engage in futurology. That’s the job of soothsayers, necromancers and charlatans*. Instead we should help build resilience to shocks.»

That is an excellent argument and congruent with the arguments of M Pettis in his book "The volatility machine".

The problem with «resilience to shocks» is that the income and wealth of some very influential political lobbies are strongly leveraged on volatility, and «resilience to shocks» would strongly limit their rent opportunities.


«We should help people make better decisions for themselves. [ ... ] By this standard, Martin Lewis is one of country’s leading economists.»

Uhhhhhhhhh that's about the domestic (individual) economy rather than the political (aggregate) economy though.

Luis Enrique

so every time an economist is asked "what will the consequences of this be?" i.e. Brexit, economists should answer: don't ask me? So who else will answer, because people won't stop asking.

yes, people talk economic decisions everyday. But we would also like to understand how those decisions interact - you could either think of general equilibrium models here or emergent behavior from ABMs. I don't see what's so objectionable to trying to understand how things fit together. And that is something that exists outside ourselves, in a sense - what else is emergent behavior? Are you really saying it doesn't make sense to think about "the economy" in that sense? Wasn't Marx also trying to understand "the economy"?

I just don't get this, other than the sniping about economists claiming priest-like abilities to divine the impenetrable are you really saying nobody should try to understand these bigger picture questions? What about all those people who don't call themselves economists but who confidently expound on how the economy works? In my experience the average person who think highly of their own intellectual abilities is no better than the average economist when it comes to overestimating their own ability to comprehend the economy. Aren't the pluralist economists this book I haven't read not going to try to understand "the economy"?

What does functioning as a claim to power and wealth mean? Does understanding how to fix people's teeth function as a claim for power and wealth? I think dentists get paid more than economists. I am not going to make any great claims for economists ability to understand "the economy" (I'd say better than non economists on average but still way short of full comprehension) but why isn't that kind of ability, where it exists, worth paying for like any other?

Somebody has to set economic policy, OK it could be done by referendum, but failing that it will be delegated to some group which will have power, the people doing that can hardly help being economists, even if you don't want professional economists to get into that game, it just means others would.

John M

Economists are the kinds of people who know 73 different sexual positions but have never had a girlfriend...

Dave Timoney

The idea of the economy as an alien force is hardly that recent. It goes back to Smith's "invisible hand" and Ricardo's "iron laws", not to mention Marx's teleology, and is part and parcel of Enlightenment thinking and the broader issue of scientism.

This is a problem of demand as much as supply. In other words (and despite the claims of 2016), we actually over-value expertise, which is why Martin Lewis is so popular. The vanity of some economists plays a part, but the distinction between them and dentists comes down to a difference in our expectations.

An improvement requires not just a change in behaviour among economists but a change in attitude among the public (or at least the media). We need to stop asking What will happen? and ask Why might anything happen? I'm not holding my breath.


"As increasing areas of political and social life are colonized by economic language and logic, the vast majority of citizens face the struggle of making informed democratic choices in a language they have never been taught. (p19)"

I'm afraid the vast majority of citizens actively choose not to 'struggle' with democratic choice. Just go into any newsagent if you need proof.

If you like, 'alienation' is as much a choice as it is an outcome.

And whether or not the undergraduate syllabus of economics degrees at Russell Group universities is 'neoclassical' or 'heterodox' is not going to change this state of affairs.

Luis Enrique

Magnus - right, and if economics was more pluralist and incorporated sociology, Marxism, Lacanianism etc. etc. that's really going to help with citizens facing the struggle of making informed democratic choices in a language they have never been taught.

Dan Kervick

"This leads to the sort of alienation which Marx described. This is summed up by respondents to a You Gov survey (pdf) cited by Earle, Moran and Ward-Perkins, who said; 'Economics is out of my hands so there is no point discussing it.' "

The alienation which Marx discussed in the quote you cited, and that the survey above underlines, doesn't seem to have anything fundamentally to do with the failure to understand economic language, concepts and logic. The respondents don't just mean, "Economic language is beyond my ken, so there is no point in discussing subjects that employ that language." What they mean is "the economic system (Marx's 'multiplied productive force') is something over which I have no control, so there is no point discussing it." Even if these respondents, and others, perfectly understood the concepts economists use to describe that system, they would still find the sytem to be outside their control.

And the other point Marx makes is about alienation from the "origin and ends" of the economic system. This is not a problem about the lack of specialized economic knowledge, because economists themselves can have only the most superficial understanding of these origins and ends. Looking in the abstract at the sum of all productive forces in a social system, only a small fraction of which are known by any individual, no matter how expert, by direct experience or with intimate acquaintance, and asking "Why are we doing all of these things?" takes one down long and deep philosophical paths.

Nevertheless, one thing economists could do, but which very few seem inclined to do, is study a broad spectrum of potential modifications to the fundamental institutions, behavioral regulations, organization and patterns of productive activity that constitute our economic system, ranging from the relatively modest to the radically dramatic. They could attempt to analyze and predict the outcomes of these changes, if they were to be implemented, and they could also work with other social and political scientists to help people understand what kinds of individual and cooperative actions would be required to get from the present state to those various reformed states.

The vision presented here instead - helping individuals navigate, and achieve some reasonably obtainable level of prosperity and security within, an economic system that is taken as a given fact of life - is a profoundly conservative one.

Luis Enrique

and when it comes to "“Economics is out of my hands so there is no point discussing it.” almost everything I discuss - from who should win the best supporting actor Oscar to whether we should have bombed Syria - is outside of my control. Since when has "this is out of my hands" stopped people discussing things? But even decisions like bombing Syria or not are worth discussing when it comes to thinking about where to cast you vote come election time.

Dan K, I like "economists could ...study a broad spectrum of potential modifications to the fundamental institutions, behavioral regulations, organization and patterns of productive activity that constitute our economic system"


Martin Lewis doesn't understand how banks work.


One continues to criticize or blame economists for being elitist. Where did that come from? Yes, sometimes they are little dense and hard to read (like those in the natural sciences or engineers) and they do make mistakes, but some/most like Krugman (with whatever faults) tries to enlighten the public, every week, but who reads the "NY Times" or any reputable publication? You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.



Quite so.

In fact Krugman repeatedly said/forecast that the short-run UK economic performance following Brexit might well be positive. Similarly Jonathan Portes's forecast from last year (on his blog today) really does not look unreasonable either, saying as it did that the short-run was highly uncertain given the exchange rate responses etc.

I'm pretty sure that the OECD/IMF/Treasury/LSE etc would also have loaded all their own forecasts with uncertainty caveats also.

The 'terrible year' for economists is some sort of bizarre conspiracy between Brexiters in the right-wing press and disgruntled undergraduates.


A terrible year for economists?? check out the bonuses this year – all depends on how you determine success/failure I suppose, but for me I’ll take some more terrible years please.

Harry Barnes

I am sorry that you closed down my comment on "The Econocracy: a review". As I did not keep a copy, could I have it back ?


@ Dan - I agree. I often argue the case for more worker democracy, and I think various forms of egalitarian change are compatible even with orthodox economics. Sadly, though, that's no way to earn a living.
I gave examples of economists helping people make better personal decisions because this is what I do in my day job.
A lot of the perceived failures of economists - forecast errors, supporting the 1% - arise from us doing what we're paid for, not from the intellectual discipline of economics.
@ Magnus - I agree, and will shortly be saying so in the IC
@ Harry - Sorry, I don't know what happened. I did nothing, as I only very rarely moderate/block comments.


Since the book was mentioned again, and since commenters such as Luis seem to be puzzling over how to include the public in economic discussion, I thought it might be good to offer another comment.

In the book we lay out our idea of public interest economists, who would actively go out and try to educate and engage with the local population (something which used to be relatively common for academics, at least in some disciplines). We believe that economists are afforded a great deal of authority - formal or informal - as a result of their training, as well as being reliant on public funding, and so the public have a right to demand something back.

It wouldn't only be a one way street and the public do have a duty to engage too. But they need to have opportunities to do this beyond reading Paul Krugman's column in the NYT - which by most peoples' standards is still pretty inaccessible, and is at arms length compared with actual public education classes.

Finally (to luis): public education would not be about teaching theories, whether neoclassical, Marxist or what have you. It would be about introducing people to the major debates in economics, some key ideas and jargon so they could come to their own conclusion. The call for pluralism refers to economics education rather than public education, though the public education would make it clear that there are multiple ways of understanding the economy, too.

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