In 2002, I wrote a small piece noting that Steve Keen’s novel criticism of economics in his book Debunking Economics is simply wrong (Debunking Debunking Economics). Part of that novel criticism is Keen’s claim that the standard analysis of the competitive model is mathematically wrong, and if one does the math correctly, one finds that the competitive equilibrium and the collusive outcome are the same. Which is an extraordinary claim! Everyone has been just doing the math wrong for well over a century, and if we were to do the math correctly we’d find that all industry structures actually behave as if the industry were monopolized, under textbook assumptions. Again, it’s important to emphasize this isn’t an appeal to some more complex model, or to empirical evidence, or criticism of some unrealistic assumption in the standard model: Keen’s claim is that this theoretical result follows from textbook assumptions if one merely does the math correctly.
Brian Milner is a “a senior economics writer and global markets columnist” at Canada’s largest and arguably most highly respected newspaper, the Globe and Mail. Milner doesn’t understand what economists mean by the word “efficient,” doesn’t understand the elements of the efficient markets hypothesis (EMH), and, worst, uncritically repeats nonsense from David Orrell, whose awful anti-scientific screed I reviewed here. Why oh why, as Brad DeLong likes to say, can’t we have a better press corps?
A short article I wrote in 2002 regarding the novel arguments in Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics has been hard to track down for a while, so I’m making it available here.
Unfortunately, the link to Keen’s paper on the first page is broken. I attempted to get the paper from Keen’s site, but it’s now behind a paywall! I think the paper was called “A 75th Anniversary Gift for Sraffa,” but I failed to locate a copy.
An alert reader of yesterday’s post regarding David Suzuki’s ongoing confusion over the concept of an “externality” pointed me to an interview with Professor Suzuki in a magazine called Common Ground. Suzuki helpfully clarifies precisely what he thinks “externality” means, so we no longer have to infer from context:
I won’t go into a long critique, but currently nature and nature’s services – cleansing, filtering water, creating the atmosphere, taking carbon out of the air, putting oxygen back in, preventing erosion, pollinating flowering plants – perform dozens of services nature to keep the planet happening. But economists call this an ‘externality.’ What that means is “We don’t give a shit.” It’s not economic. Because they’re so impressed with humans, human productivity and human creativity at the heart of this economic system. Well, you can’t have an economy if you don’t have nature and nature’s services, but economics ignores that. And that’s an unbelievably egregious error.
(emphasis added). I agree someone’s made an “unbelievably egregious error,” and repeated it countless times to countless people.
David Suzuki owes the community of economists, and his audiences, an apology and an unequivocal retraction.
A reader of this (seemingly defunct, but stay tuned) blog sent me a link to a portion of a movie called Surviving Progress in which Dr. Suzuki gives an even more offensive, ridiculous, and staggeringly ignorant take on economics than those previously discussed on this blog. For the amusement of fellow economists, here’s the video, complete with helpful visuals of a guy in a suit—possibly modeled on Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller—standing in front of a chalkboard with some dull looking stuff that’s not even recognizable as economics. Dr. Suzuki recites his oft-repeated claim that “economics is a form of brain damage” and here adds the allegation that economists “know damn well” that we deliberately deceive people into thinking economics is a science when in fact all we want to do is torch the planet for sweet, sweet cash.
For those interested in what economists actually think about the environment, and what an “externality” actually is, see for example “How do economists really think about the environment?” Or open any Economics 101 textbook.
Pulled from the comments:
Economists merely regurgitate the patriarchal language of “mathematics” and therefore perpetuate the transmogrification of marginalized classes by heteronormative imperialist forces. Any hermaneutical approach worth its salt will nullify the predation of privileged sectors and work to delegitimize the sanctity of “otherness” while subtextually transcending mythopoetical domination by post-capitalist neophytes. Economics fails to do this.
It’s a fair cop.
Ira Basen’s very crucial point (although he’s not quite this blunt) is that the entire economics profession is something of a fraud and that mainstream economists often have no idea what they are talking about. Except for some shining exceptions like John Maynard Keynes, John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, for over 200 years economists – including the “trained economist” who governs us –have operated on the basis of self-evidently ludicrous premises. Not only ludicrous but relentlessly anti-scientific. As even The New York Times said the other day, the destructive trend toward austerity across the Western world – at least austerity for the most vulnerable – is nothing more than political ideology masquerading as economic policy.
Dismissing an entire discipline you know nothing about in three ideologically-motivated sentences is inarguably anti-intellectual. Anti-intellectualism is unacceptable among educated people, except when it comes to economics, in which case it’s considered unacceptable in some circles to fail to approach the subject in precisely the same manner in which young earth creationists approach evolutionary biology. Much like “biologists are all atheists!” is not only factually incorrect but also an intellectually irrelevant attack on biology, “economists are all right-wing!” is a factually incorrect and intellectually irrelevant attack on economics.
If you (1) don’t know anything about economics and (2) nonetheless hold extremely strong opinions on appropriate methodology in modern economic research, you’re doing it wrong.
This morning’s Globe includes a lengthy, very low quality article by Ira Basen on what’s wrong with modern economic research. It’s yet another repackaging of the same old ideologically-charged and technically incompetent canards, basically reducing all of economic thought to a cartoon version of macroeconomic theory circa 1980, and all economic research to mindless and/or corrupt advocacy of laissez-faire politics.
David Orrell, a mathematician who works on biological problems, recently published a book called Economyths: Ten Ways Economics Gets It Wrong. Economyths is a terrible, willfully ignorant, deeply anti-intellectual book. The characterization of economic thought presented is ridiculous. The level of scholarship is abysmal.
It is often, correctly I think, noted that economists are relatively bad at communicating results from economic research to the general public. A related failure is economists tend to be relatively bad at squashing ridiculous criticism of economics. Economics, biology, and climatology are all disciplines which tend to attract lots of craptastic criticism, and for similar reasons. One might think that biologists in particular might tread carefully when attacking other disciplines, given how much nonsense is written by creationists and their fellow travellers. Alas, some of the most egregiously poorly-aimed attacks on economics come from biologists, and not just David Suzuki.