The Hubris of Economics

On Tuesday, the 2nd most emailed article on WSJ.com was Crisis Compels Economists To Reach for New Paradigm.

It is an intriguing look at the problems of the the field of economics. It went, however, way too easy on both the profession and its practitioners. The article fails to ask some very basic questions about the soft science, and does not discuss the fundamental incompetency of many economists.

Given the failures of the profession — failing to anticipate the worst recession in decades, missing the warping effect of the housing boom, not recognizing the credit collapse until too late — a damning indictment of the dismal science might have been more appropriate.

Perhaps I can be of assistance.

There are many areas I would have liked to see the Economics Crisis article explore: The lack of Scientific Method, the mostly awful performance of economists, its misunderstanding of the value of modeling, the bias inherent in Wall Street variant of economics, and lastly, the corruption of economics by politics. I will just touch on some of these; you can fill in much of the blanks yourself.

Let’s start with the basics. Hard “science” — Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and all variants thereto — begins humbly. They try to describe the universe around us by creating theories, and then testing them. These theorems are always preliminary. Even when testing validates them, Science is always prepared — even eager — to replace them with newer theories that are proven to be even more valid.

The humility of science begins with an admission: We know nothing. We seek to learn through experiment and logic, and constantly evolve more and more accurate explanations. Scientific belief evolves gradually over time. Nothing is assumed, presumed, or hypothesized as true. Indeed, research is a presumption that current theories are inadequate or incomplete. The practice of science is a an ongoing search for better explanations, more proof, further verification — for Truth.

Science is the ultimate “show me” state.

Economics has a somewhat, shall we call it, less rigorous approach. Indeed, the arrogance of economics is that it is the polar opposite of Science. It begins with a few basic assumptions, many of which are obviously untrue; some are demonstrably false.

No, Mankind is not a rational, profit maximizing actor. No, markets are not perfectly, or even nearly, efficient. No, prices do not reflect the sum total of all that is known about a given market, sector or stock. Those of you who pretend otherwise are fools who deserve to have your 401ks cut in half. That is called just desserts. The problem is that your foolishness helped cut nearly everyone else’s 401ks in half. That is called criminal incompetence.

Where was I?  Ahhh, our sad tale of the practitioners of the dismal arts.

Starting from a false premise that fails to understand the most basic behaviors of the Human animal, economics proceeds to build an edifice of cards on a foundation of sand. (How could that possibly go astray?) Like a moonshot off by a few inches at launch, by the time the we reach further into time and space, the trajectory is off by millions of miles . . .

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Economics has had a justifiable inferiority complex versus real sciences the past century. It has attempted to overcome this by throwing lots of smart mathematicians at its practice, in an attempt to make the social art seem more “sciency,” and thus  more credible. This had led to lots and lots of formulas and models. The problems is, Economics places way too much weight on these. It creates an illusion of precision where none exists. The belief in their models led to all manner of mischief, from subprime to derivatives to risk management.

Economics forgot George E. P. Box’s most basic rule:

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”

Box was a statistician who recognized the fundamental truth of all attempts to depict the universe mathematically: They are inherently flawed.

He also understood that these flawed attempts can at times have value. His insights contextualize what mathematical modelers do — and fail to achieve.

Economics fails at this often.  The belief in the validity of their models — like the theories they are based upon — is the Achilles heel of the profession.

This is not to say there are not good, even great economists (some are even friends of mine!) who foresaw the coming crisis and warned about it. Many are aghast at the rigor mortis in the academic establishment; some are horrified at how poorly the profession has done. Forget forecasting the future, too many economists cannot accurately describe what happened yesterday.

The Behaviorists have been fighting the mainstream for decades now, trying to correct the errors of the basic building blocks of the dismal science.

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Excerpt after the jump.

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Previously:
The Mystery of the Awful Economists
RealMoney.com, 3/2/2005 3:42 PM EST
http://www.thestreet.com/p/rmoney/barryritholtz/10211333.html

(If you cannot access the Real Money piece, click here).

Mystery of the Awful Economists, part II (April 8th, 2005)
http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2005/04/mystery-of-the-awful-economists-part-2/

Mystery of the Awful Economists part III (April 13th, 2005)
http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2005/04/mystery-of-the-awful-economists-part-iii/

RIP Chicago School of Economics: 1976-2008 (December 23rd, 2008)
http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2008/12/chicago-repudiation/

Why Economists Missed the Crises (January 5th, 2009)
http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2009/01/why-economists-suck/

The Big Picture: On the Efficient Market Hypothesis (2005-09)

The Big Picture: On Prediction Markets (2004-09)

Source:
Crisis Compels Economists To Reach for New Paradigm
MARK WHITEHOUSE
WSJ, NOVEMBER 3, 2009
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125720159912223873.html

Excerpt:

“The past century saw two revolutions in the way economists view the world. Both required painful crises to set them in motion, but both arguably improved government’s ability to manage the economy.

The first came after the Depression, when economists built some of the first mathematical models that policy makers could use to try to manage the economy. The second came after the inflationary 1970s, when economists created new models that took into account how people’s expectations, such as about prices or income, can influence the economy over time.

During the second revolution, the U.S. economy entered a period of stability and low inflation that lasted from the 1980s through most of the 2000s, leading many economists to believe they had triumphed over business cycles. As Robert Lucas of the University of Chicago, one of the intellectual fathers of the models, put it in 2003: The “central problem of depression-prevention has been solved…for many decades.”

The result was a new orthodoxy, known as “rational expectations,” that still dominates, underpinning everything from the way pension funds invest to how financial analysts put values on securities. Among its main branches is the idea that markets are “efficient,” meaning that even an uninformed investor can get a fair shake, because the price of any security tends to reflect all available information relevant to its value.”

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