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Philip Mirowski: The Seekers, or How Mainstream Economists Have Defended Their Discipline Since 2008 – Part III

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By Philip Mirowski, Carl Koch Professor of Economics and the History and Philosophy of Science University of Notre Dame. Professor Mirowski has written numerous books including More Heat than Light, Machine Dreams and, most recently Science-Mart

Edited and with an introduction by Philip Pilkington, a journalist and writer living in Dublin, Ireland

The previous parts of the series can be found here and here, while a bibliography can be found here

Perhaps the best defence for a failed set of ideas is to have critics that will engage in only superficial critiques. This provides the audience – in this case, the educated general public – with a spectacle by which they can console themselves that the edifice is being shaken up by brave and innovating insiders. The critiques of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH) currently pouring out of the discipline and into the mediasphere is precisely such a spectacle. (A spectacle which, I must admit, I have partaken in to some degree).

The prize-fighters that step into the public arena in this regard are none other than Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both of whom have won the Nobel Prize in Economics – a sort of official sanction by the profession that these are people worth listening to on the state of economics. Their critiques, which attack some of the outlandish excesses of neoclassical thought, merely tiptoe around the edges of the neoclassical research program and do not take on the more fundamental issues.

The EMH is thus set up as a sort of arch-villain of the Bond film variety which, by some readings, led directly to the financial excesses and collapse that we have witnessed. Thus all it needs is a suave hero to do away with it and all will be right with the world once more.

And that is how the critics become the system’s best defenders. By insulating the research program from any real, fundamental criticism (such as, for example, a charge that, pace Hyman Minsky, capitalism is inherently unstable and lacking in equilibrium) such critics limit the scope of serious debate – all the while giving the audience the impression that they are, in fact, watching a serious debate unfold. As Mirowski writes, such a spectacle “constitutes the very definition of an ‘empty gesture’ in orthodox economics.”

– Philip Pilkington


Part III: Microirrationalities – A Critic’s Defence of The System

For those living through the roller-coaster of 2008, and retrospectively searching for previous wrong turns, it seemed obvious to focus on the sector wherefrom disasters cascaded one after another like clowns piling out of an auto: namely, Wall Street. Not only had finance become the 400 pound gorilla of the US economy, accounting for 41 of all corporate profits in 2007 (Stiglitz, 2010a, p. 7), but it was also the arena where economic theory had seemed to matter to a greater degree than elsewhere, given recourse to formal models to ‘justify’ all manner of activities, from securitization and options pricing to risk management.[14] Thus it was fairly predictable that some economists would look to finance theory as the locus of error, and rapidly settled upon a single doctrine to scapegoat, the one dubbed the ‘efficient-markets hypothesis’ [EMH]. Paul Krugman became a prominent spokesperson for this option in his notorious ‘How Did Economists Get it so Wrong?’ (2009):

By 1970 or so, however, the study of financial markets seemed to have been taken over by Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss, who insisted we live in the best of all possible worlds. Discussion of investor irrationality, of bubbles, of destructive speculation had virtually disappeared from academic discourse. The field was dominated by the ‘efficient markets hypothesis’ . . . which claims that financial markets price assets precisely at their intrinsic worth given all publicly available information . . . And by the 1980s, finance economists, notably Michael Jensen of the Harvard Business School, were arguing that because financial markets always get prices right, the best thing corporate chieftains can do, not just for themselves but for the sake of the economy, is to maximize their stock prices. In other words, finance economists believed that we should put the capital development of the nation in the hands of what Keynes had called ‘a casino’.

Journalists found the EMH irresistibly seductive to ridicule, with John Cassidy and Justin Fox attacking it at length. The journalist Roger Lowenstein declared: ‘The upside of the current Great Recession is that it could drive a stake through the heart of the academic nostrum known as the efficient-market hypothesis.’[15] There was more than sufficient ammunition to choose from to rain fire down on the EMH, not least because it had been the subject of repeated criticism from within the economics profession since the 1980s. But what the journalists like Cassidy, Fox and Lowenstein, and commentators like Krugman, neglected to inform their readers was that the back and forth, the intellectual thrust and empirical parry had ground to a stand-off more than a decade before the crisis, as admirably explained in Lo and MacKinlay (1999):

There is an old joke, widely told among economists, about an economist strolling down the street with a companion when they come upon a $100 bill lying on the ground. As the companion reaches down to pick it up, the economist says ‘Don’t bother – if it was a real $100 bill, someone would have already picked it up.’ This humorous example of economic logic gone awry strikes dangerously close to home for students of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, one of the most important controversial and well-studied propositions in all the social sciences. It is disarmingly simple to state, has far-reaching consequences for academic pursuits and business practice, and yet is surprisingly resilient to empirical proof or refutation. Even after three decades of research and literally thousands of journal articles, economists have not yet reached a consensus about whether markets – particularly financial markets – are efficient or not.

What can we conclude about the Efficient Markets Hypothesis? Amazingly, there is still no consensus among financial economists. Despite the many advances in the statistical analysis, databases, and theoretical models surrounding the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, the main effect that the large number of empirical studies have had on this debate is to harden the resolve of the proponents on each side. One of the reasons for this state of affairs is the fact that the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, by itself, is not a well-defined and empirically refutable hypothesis. To make it operational, one must specify additional structure, e.g., investors’ preferences, information structure, business conditions, etc. But then a test of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis becomes a test of several auxiliary hypotheses as well, and a rejection of such a joint hypothesis tells us little about which aspect of the joint hypothesis is inconsistent with the data. Are stock prices too volatile because markets are inefficient, or is it due to risk aversion, or dividend smoothing? All three inferences are consistent with the data. Moreover, new statistical tests designed to distinguish among them will no doubt require auxiliary hypotheses of their own which, in turn, may be questioned.

This imperviousness of an isolated hypothesis to empirical rejection, and the crucial role of auxiliary hypotheses in serving as a protective barrier, is familiar in the philosophy of science literature as ‘Duhem’s thesis’. The mere fact of deflecting disconfirmation off onto harmless auxiliary hypotheses is not prima facie an illegitimate ploy; it occurs in all the natural sciences. The issue was not that immunizing stratagems had been resorted to in this instance; rather, it was that the EMH had proven so rabidly tenacious within orthodox economics and in business schools, occupying pride of place for decades within both macroeconomics and finance, that economists had begun to ignore most modern attempts to disprove it. Perhaps it was not the localized cancer that its detractors had portrayed; maybe it was more akin to a symbiotic parasite that actually helped orthodox economics thrive. The lesson for crisis-watchers that I shall explore is that the EMH cannot be killed easily and maybe not at all within the parameters of the current economics profession. That is one reason why non-economists need to be suspicious of claims like the pronunciation of the economist most famous for the ‘reject the EMH’ option, Joseph Stiglitz:

[A] Considerable portion of [blame] lies with the economics profession. The notion economists pushed – that markets are efficient and self-adjusting – gave comfort to regulators like Alan Greenspan, who didn’t believe in regulation in the first place . . . We should be clear about this: economic theory never provided much support for these free market views. Theories of imperfect and asymmetric information in markets had undermined every one of the ‘efficient market’ doctrines, even before they became fashionable in the Reagan– Thatcher era. (Stiglitz, 2010b)

Pace Stiglitz, each blow just seemed to leave it stronger. One of the characteristics of the EMH which rendered it impervious to refutation was the fact that both proponents and critics were sometimes extremely cavalier about the meaning and referent of the adjective ‘efficient’. Both Krugman and Stiglitz, for instance, in the above quotes simply conflate two major connotations of efficiency, namely, ‘informational efficiency’ and ‘allocative efficiency’. The former is a proposition about the efficacy and exactitude of markets as information conveyance devices; the latter is a proposition that market prices correctly capture the ‘fundamentals’ and maximize the benefits to market participants by always representing the unique arbitrage-free equilibrium. It is sometimes taken for granted that the former implies the latter; this is the gist of the comment that one will never find loose $100 bills on the sidewalk. However, if one rephrased the claim to state that no one will ever find valuable unused information on the sidewalk, then the fallacy starts to become apparent.16 In order to respect the significance of that distinction, in this section I deal with those who propose that the orthodoxy shed the information-processing version of the EMH in reaction to the crisis; while in the next I consider those who seek to dispense with allocative efficiency altogether.

The journalist and blogger Felix Salmon posed the critical question during the crisis: why did the EMH become the destructive love affair which the economics profession seemed unable to shake off? [17] To understand where the orthodox economics goes awry, one must become acquainted with a little bit of history. The role of the EMH should be situated within the broader context of the ways that neoclassical economics has changed over time. [18] In a nutshell, neoclassical economics looks very different now than it did at its inception in the 1870s. From thenceforth until World War II, it was largely a theory of the allocation of scarce means to given ends. Although trade was supposed to enhance ‘utility’, very little consideration was given to what people knew about commodities, or how they came to know it, or indeed, about how they knew much of anything else. The Socialist Calculation Controversy, running from the Great Depression until the fall of the Wall, tended to change all that. In particular, Friedrich Hayek argued that the true function of The Market was to serve as the greatest information processor known to mankind. Although Hayek was not initially accorded very much respect within the American economics profession before the 1980s, nonetheless, the ‘information processing’ model of The Market progressively displaced the earlier ‘static allocation’ approach in the preponderance of neoclassical theory over the second half of the twentieth century. As one can appreciate, this profoundly changed the meaning of what it meant to assert that ‘the market works just fine’, at least within the confines of economics. [19] ‘Efficiency’, a slippery term in the best of circumstances, had come increasingly to connote the proposition that the market could package and convey knowledge on a ‘need-to-know’ basis in a manner which could never be matched by any human planner.

Once one recognizes this distinct trend, then the appearance of the EMH in Samuelson (1965) and Fama (1965) and its rapid exfoliation throughout finance theory and macroeconomics (Mehrling, 2010; Bernstein, 1992) becomes something more than just a fluke. The notion that all relevant information is adequately embodied in price data was one incarnation of what was fast becoming one of the core commitments of the neoclassical approach to markets. Of course, the fact that numerous ineffectual attempts were made along the way to refute the doctrine in specific instances (variance bounds violations, the end-of-the month effect, January effect, small cap effects, mean reversion, and a host of others) did not impugn the EMH so much as quibble over just how far the horizon would be extended. The EMH spawned lots of econometric empiricism, but surprisingly little alteration in the base proposition. The massive number of papers published on the EMH merely testified to the protean character of the idol of ‘market efficiency’, which grew to the status of obsession within the American profession.

In the Odyssey, Proteus assumed a plethora of shapes to escape Menelaus; in the EMF, ‘information’ had to be gripped tight by neoclassical theory, because it kept squirming and changing shape whenever anyone tried to confine it within the framework of a standard neoclassical model. Few have been sensitive enough to the struggle to attend to its twists and turns, but for present purposes it will be sufficient that three major categories of cages to tame the beast have been: information portrayed as ‘thing’ or object, information reified as inductive index, and information as the input to symbolic computation (Mirowski, 2009). For numerous considerations here bypassed, they cannot in general be reduced one to another. The reason this matters to journalists’ convictions that the crisis has invalidated the EMH is that the detractors mostly conform to the literature which treats information like a commodity, whereas the defenders repulse them from battlements of legitimation built largely from information as an inductive index. This may seem a distinction that only a pedant could love, but once clarified it goes a long way to demonstrating that the crisis will never induce the majority of neoclassical economists to give up on the EMH.

The standard-bearer for the denial of the Kenntnisnahme über alles EMH has been Joseph Stiglitz. Here it is important to acknowledge that Stiglitz deserves the respect of the Left because he has repeatedly taken political positions that have not ingratiated him with those in power, and often has been steadfast in his pessimistic evaluations of the crisis, when all the journalists wanted to hear was how the crisis was done, dusted and under control. He has been right more often about the gravity of problems that the crisis revealed than the thundering herd of economists claiming that they had sagely prophesied disasters.20 And, in stark contrast to most of the figures encountered in this chapter, he has repeatedly gone on record stating that economists should bear some responsibility for the crisis. By these lights, Stiglitz has been an exemplary contrarian economist. Nonetheless, Stiglitz has simultaneously been a major defender of neoclassical economics, suggesting that the EMH is not all that central to the core doctrines of orthodoxy:

Normally, most markets work reasonably well on their own. But this is not true when there are externalities . . . The markets failed, and the presence of large externalities is one of the reasons. But there are others. I have repeatedly noted the misalignment of incentives – bank officers’ incentives were not consistent with the objectives of other stakeholders and society more generally. Buyers of assets also have imperfect information . . . The disaster that grew from these flawed financial incentives can be, to us economists, somewhat comforting: our models predicted that there would be excessive risk-taking and shortsighted behavior . . . In the end, economic theory was vindicated. (Stiglitz, 2010a, pp. 150, 153)

This is what Krugman has called ‘flaws-and-frictions’ economics, and it comes perilously close to the standard response) that ‘we already had models that told us the crisis was coming’. It follows that our first hesitation should be the one previously broached: so why weren’t these models well represented in macro or micro textbooks and graduate pedagogy? Stiglitz is fully aware that there exists a tradition of oxymoronic ‘New Keynesianism’ which reprised a boring old story of sticky wages and prices in a neoclassical equilibrium, but he wants to suggest that there exists something else on offer which is more compelling. In Stiglitz’s case, there is a special caveat: the models he has in mind are found mostly in his own previous publications. While there could be no academic prohibition against tooting your own horn, there is something less than compelling about claiming a generality for some idiosyncratic models where the novelty quotient is distinctly low. While Stiglitz has certainly earned the Nobel, he has not effectively staunched the intellectual trend of treating markets as prodigious information processors; nor has he provided a knock-down refutation of the EMH. This has led to the distressing spectacle of Stiglitz, the great hope of the Left, openly defending the neoclassical approach to the crisis, while not really changing it all that much.

Stiglitz has admitted that his mission all along was to undermine free market fundamentalism from within:

[I]t seemed to me the most effective way of attacking the paradigm was to keep within the standard framework as much as possible . . . While there is a single way in which information is perfect, there are an infinite number of ways that information can be imperfect. One of the keys to success was formulating simple models in which the set of relevant information could be fully specified . . . the use of highly simplified models to help clarify thinking about quite complicated matters. (Stiglitz, 2003, pp. 613, 583, 577)

The way he has chosen to do this is to produce little stripped-down models which maximize standard utility or production functions, with a glitch or two inserted up front in the set-up. He has been especially partial to portraying ‘information’ as a concrete thing to be purchased, and ‘risk’ as standard density function with known parameters. There is no canonical Stiglitz ‘general model’, but rather a number of specialized dedicated exercises, one for each flaw and/or friction explored. Macroeconomics then simply becomes microeconomics with the subscripts dropped. This distinguishes Stiglitz from the small cadre of researchers in section 20.3.3 below, who are convinced that this ‘representative agent’ trick does not constitute serious macroeconomic theory.

In Stiglitz’s academic writings, he stakes his claim to have refuted the EMH primarily on two papers, one co-authored with Sanford Grossman in 1980, and another co-authored with Bruce Greenwald in 1993.[21] The take-away lesson of the first was summarized in his Nobel lecture:

When there is no noise, prices convey all information, and there is no incentive to purchase information. But if everybody is uninformed, it clearly pays some individual to become informed. Thus, there does not exist a competitive equilibrium. (2002, p. 395)

The second is proffered as the fundamental cause of the crisis in his (2010b):

It perceives the key market failures to be not just in the labor market, but also in financial markets. Because contracts are not appropriately indexed, alterations in economic circumstances can cause a rash of bankruptcies, and fear of bankruptcy contributes to the freezing of credit markets. The resulting economic disruption affects both aggregate demand and aggregate supply, and it’s not easy to recover from this – one reason that my prognosis for the economy in the short term is so gloomy.

Both of his crucial ‘findings’ are in fact based upon very narrow versions of what is a much more diversified neoclassical orthodoxy. It would indeed have been noteworthy if Stiglitz or his co-workers had provided a general impossibility theorem, say, along the lines of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem or Turing’s computability theorem, but Stiglitz has explicitly rejected working with full Walrasian general equilibrium (2003, pp. 580, 620), or Chicago’s resort to transactions costs (p. 573), and does not seriously consider the game theorists’ versions of strategic cognition. Indeed, it seems a rather heroic task to derive any general propositions from any one of his individual ‘toy’ models. Stiglitz himself admits this in when he is not engaged in wholesale promotion of his information program.[22] Instead, it is possible that ‘simple’ models serve mainly to cloud the issues that beset the half-century quest for a consensus economics of information.

Take, for instance, the Grossman–Stiglitz model (1980). The text starts out by positing information as a commodity that needs to be arbitraged (p. 393), but claims in a footnote (p. 397) that the model of knowledge therein is tantamount to the portrayal of information as inductive index, which is not strictly true, and then defines its idiosyncratic notion of ‘equilibrium’ as equivalence of plain vanilla rational expected utilities of informed and uninformed agents. Of course, ‘for simplicity’ all the agents are posited identical; how this is supposed to relate to any vernacular notions of divergences in knowledge is something most economists have never been poised to address. Many economists of a different political persuasion simply ignored the model, because they deemed that Stiglitz was not taking into account their (inductive, computational) version of ‘information’. When Grossman offered his own interpretation of their joint effort, he took the position that the rational expectations model was identical to the approach in Hayek (1945), that: ‘when the efficient markets hypothesis is true and information is costly, competitive markets break down’, and that, ‘We are attempting to redefine the Efficient Markets notion, not destroy it’ (Grossman, 1989, p. 108). That seems closer to the median interpretation of Stiglitz’s work in the profession as a whole.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of Stiglitz’s designated models that he believes starkly refute neoliberalism has been that, when you really take the trouble to understand them, they end up having nothing cogent to say about the current crisis whatsoever. Start with Grossman and Stiglitz (1980). The problems with the financial system in 2007 had nothing to do with participants lacking correct incentives to purchase enough ‘information’ which would have revealed the dodgy nature of the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and other baroque assets which clogged the balance sheets of the financial sector. Rather, the reams of information that they did purchase, from ratings agency evaluations to accounting audits to investment advice, was all deeply corrupted by being consciously skewed to mislead hapless clients and evade the letter of the law. Perhaps the ‘information’ was corrupted by the mere fact of being bought and sold. Since Stiglitz never comes within hailing distance of confronting epistemology in any of his models – he disdains philosophy as much as the next neoclassical – he never really deals with matters of truth and falsehood. Agents are just machines buying unproblematic lumps of information (or not).

And worse, the‘marketfailure’ that he repeatedly diagnoses has nothing to do with what people mean by ‘failure’ in the vernacular. Stiglitz identifies ‘market failure’ with not realizing the full measure of utility which might have occurred in the standard neoclassical model – this is called ‘Pareto optimality’ in the trade – and exists in an imaginary universe utterly devoid of markets freezing up and the implosion of the assignment of credible prices across the board. Likewise, the Stiglitz–Greenwald paper has nothing whatsoever to do with the collapse of the financial sector in 2008. Using their own words: ‘we showed that there were essentially always simple government interventions that could make some individuals better off without making anyone worse off. The intuition behind our result was that whenever information was imperfect, actions generated externality- like effects’ (Stiglitz, 2009, p. 557). Stiglitz persistently conflates ‘welfare loss’ with system-wide economic failure: this travesty stands in stark contrast to the model-free occasions wherein Stiglitz perceptively analyzes the inconsistencies of concrete practices in real-world institutions, linking them to palpable dire outcomes. Pareto optimality was the last thing one needed to consult to try and understand the utter confusion and disarray accompanying the mad improvisations at the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) and the Congressional Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) appropriation in the depths of the crisis; it certainly would be impotent to clarify the types of ‘government intervention’ required to stem the collapse. Incredibly, the Greenwald–Stiglitz model does not even explicitly have any money in it, even though one core phenomenon of the 2008 meltdown was a credit crisis. Instead, their model identifies the central weakness of the capitalist system as a rational contraction of investment on the part of firms, not financial system collapse. [23]

Stiglitz repeatedly pronounces last rites over the EMH, but has little effect on the profession because he cannot see that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. ‘The Chicago School and its disciples wanted to believe that the market for information was like any other market’ (2010a, p. 268). Yet, that is the fundamental initial premise of his own models. ‘The widespread belief in the EMH played a role in the Federal Reserve’s failure. If that hypothesis were true, then there was no such thing as bubbles’ (2010a, p. 269). But this just displays a deficiency of hermeneutic attention. As noted above, both the Fed and the profession can accept that the EMH, properly understood, and bubbles are entirely compatible – you just will not know you are in one till it bursts. And paraphrasing Bill Clinton, it all depends what you mean by ‘bubble’. Does Joe Stiglitz really repudiate the neoliberal doctrine of the Marketplace of Ideas? ‘The price mechanism is at the core of the market process of gathering, processing and transmitting information’ (2010a, p. 266). It seems the answer is No. His evangelism consists of showering his political opponents with little models where the Cosmic Information Processor aka ‘The Market’ is beset with various formats of idiosyncratic noise, pesky little flaws and granular frictions. There is nothing fundamentally autodebilitating about the system, nor autodestructive in the Marketplace of Ideas. [24] But then, who in the elite of the orthodox economics profession ever thought otherwise?

The endless quest to dispatch the EMH almost constitutes the definition of ‘empty gesture’ within orthodox economics.


14. The impression that economists were in some sense responsible for the existence of these markets became the pretense for the burgeoning literature on ‘performativity’ in the sociology of finance. See MacKenzie et al. (2007).

15. Washington Post, 7 June 2008.

16. This distinction has been a crucial component in some contemporary defenses of the EMH. See, for instance Szafarz (2009), or the Cassidy interview with Richard Thaler:

‘I always stress that there are two components to the theory. One, the market price is always right. Two, there is no free lunch: you can’t beat the market without taking on more risk. The no-free-lunch component is still sturdy, and it was in no way shaken by recent events: in fact, it may have been strengthened’ (Cassidy, 2010).

17. caught-on/: ‘Economists are scientists, after all. That which they can’t explain, they turn into an axiom.’

18. The following three paragraphs are ridiculously telegraphed summaries of narratives found in Mirowski (2002, 2009).

19. Since the notion that The Market is uniquely better at information processing than any human mind is a core tenet of neoliberalism (Mirowski and Plehwe, 2009), this trend justifies the claim that the economic orthodoxy has become more neoliberal, and hence more conservative, over time.

20. This often attracts the disdain of other Nobel winners, here James Heckman: ‘The whole profession was blindsided. I don’t think Joe Stiglitz was forecasting a collapse in the mortgage market and large-scale banking collapses’ (Cassidy, 2010). For some sensible Stiglitz observations on the state of affairs in 2010, see: http://www. and going-to-have-to-bail-out-the-banks-again-2010-7.

21. These are reprinted in (Stiglitz, 2009) as Chapters 21 and 26, respectively. Stiglitz identifies these as the key papers in his (2010a) and (2010b).

22. ‘Unfortunately, we have not been able to obtain a general proof of any of these propositions. What we have been able to do is analyze an interesting example’ (Grossman and Stiglitz, 1980, p. 395).

23. ‘While Keynes was willing to let Animal Spirits serve as the deus ex machina to retrieve an explanation of investment variability, our theory provides a more plausible explanation of variability in investment’ (Stiglitz, 2009, p. 647). ‘Talking up animal spirits can only take you so far’ (2010a, p. 256). These quotes exemplify why Stiglitz does not belong under our previous category of ‘behavioral economics’.

24. This is why Stiglitz’s repeated attempts to usurp the mantle of Hyman Minsky are deeply embarrassing; at least, if you had actually read Minsky. A serious attempt to refute neoliberalism would begin with acknowledgement of the ways in which markets undermine themselves in the course of ‘normal’ operations (for example Mirowski, 2010).

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  1. Foppe

    For reference: Stiglitz, INET 2010. I watched this when it was first put up, and am reminded of it here. What I find the most curious about the story Mirowski tells here, is the curious split between Stiglitz’s “non-theoretical” vs. “theoretical” suggestions. Because in this talk (at the very least at the start), Stiglitz seems to me to be saying things that roughly echo (or complement) Mirowski’s observations about the uselessness of criticizing the EMH by itself, while ignoring all of the assumptions needed to make it “work” in the first place. (Although one difference may be that Stiglitz wants to keep the larger structure, while Mirowski thinks that holding on to it would be either a mistake, or a pointless endeavour, since in order to be able to keep it with all of the supporting assumptions changed to more realistic ones, you’d have to change the definition so much that it would be entirely different anyway.) Anyway, this seems to me to lead to the following question: why can’t or doesn’t Stiglitz apply his own criticisms to his own work? Is he too conservative? Too old?

        1. George Balanchine


          The smart thing to do would have been to ignore my comment. Obviously, you don’t realize that if you mock people, you may get mocked in return?
          And what you wrote was kind of…well, naive. Do you really think people are going to examine their own beliefs in that way?

          George Balanchine

          1. Foppe

            Thanks for the advice, George. But I think I prefer being naive over being a troll who has nothing substantive to add except some whining about the minimal amount of “leftist” criticism that is being directed towards the Israeli state for engaging in the morally reprehensible actions it has been engaging in during the past decades. But anyway.

  2. jake chase

    The truth about markets is quite simple: they always were a ruthlessly efficient conductor of changes in bank lending practice and collateral valuation. Since the invention of derivatives and repo financing their efficiency has accelerated to the point that we now get more alternating bubbles and crashes. This efficiency cries out for regulation dampening speculation by banks backstopped by the Fed. It demands a return to Glass Steagall. It demands accounting reform. Instead the only this we get from economists is rubbish wrapped in high school mathematics.

    1. Erick Muller

      Do you really think it was a lack of regulation(or “de-regulation”) that was the genesis of this crisis. In order for that to be truth you would have to point me at what specific regulation in Glass-Steagell was the culprit in this economic crisis?, Steagell was never repeal, in fact, since the so call Glass-Steagell repeal a lot more regulations and regulatory agencies had come about to regulate the banking industry and financial markets. If de-regulation was the cause of this crisis, then it would mean that in 2006-2008 when the crisis occurred we have the least amount of laws, regulary bodies and regulations for this specific sector of the economy, the fact o the matter is that we have a lot more regulations than before 1999 when I think Clinton repeal Glass-Steagell, so you would have to explain why if we have more regulations than before did the crisis occured and what specific clause in Glass-Steagell would have prevented this crisis from occurring?

  3. UnBeliever

    To an non-economist the EMH is just a shoddy bit of applied maths. They couldn’t do the integrals so they assumed the at market moves were normally distributed, and hey presto, simple equations fall from the sky. The fact that nobody who ever made a histogram of stock market daily returns, let alone 5-minute or 30 second returns, ever thought they were looking at a normal distribution has apparently never bothered them.

    What is totally bizarre is you can’t explain the price of traded derivatives without embracing some kind of non-normal distribution of returns (typically a stochastic volatility model). So that bastion of capitalist efficiency, the capital markets, practices out of pragmatic necessity a refutation of the EMH, and still economists embrace it. You could not make this up.

    1. Justicia

      “The fact that nobody who ever made a histogram of stock market daily returns, let alone 5-minute or 30 second returns, ever thought they were looking at a normal distribution has apparently never bothered them.”

      I’m not a mathematician but isn’t this what Mandelbrot wrote about in ‘The (Mis)Behavior of Markets’?

      Here, again, mainstream economists seem to have ignored this critique for self-regarding reasons:

      Why didn’t people in finance pay attention to Benoit Mandelbrot?
      Oct 18, 2010

      So why haven’t finance academics and practitioners paid more attention to Mandelbrot’s warnings? I think it’s mainly that he didn’t provide them a handy alternative to Black-Scholes. I can’t pretend to fully understand the practical implications of his fractal view of markets (and yes, I’ve read his book for lay readers on the subject), but it does seem more useful as a critique than as a positive model of market behavior. You can’t haul in big consulting fees or create giant new securitization markets with a critique. So the natural tendency of both scholars and bankers has been to hold on for dear life to the Black-Scholes approach to modeling market risk. They get paid well for doing so, after all.

      1. Sandwichman

        A critique is not tractable. Realistic economics would require accepting constraints on what the analyst can achieve. But who wants to hire an economist whose powers are limited. Good analysis is not marketable.

  4. Knut

    From the perspective of conventional economics, the villain in the piece is Pareto Efficiency. As the Mirowski points out, this is essentially a cop-out, but you can’t get published unless you use it.

    I have just finished reading Ian Little’s Critique of Welfare Economics, which is now 60 years old. Little was a philosopher with advanced economics training and he takes up the question whether the criterion has anything remotely to do with anything one would associate with a broad definition of welfare. It was on my bookshelf and out of curiosity I picked it up and started reading. It is a remarkable critique. I never see it referenced anymore, because it is ‘methodological.’

  5. Jill

    This will be clear, but to state right off the bat, most of this goes over my head as I am just learning about it. Still I do have two observations.

    About the purchasing of information. While true that most investors did not have access to correct information due to lying, things like “free speech opinions” by ratings agencies for example, there was a group of people who did have access to accurate information, the quants. People who were mathematical geniuses and those who hired them knew full well that this was a house of cards which would collapse. This was an opportunity for them to make money. It is why they knew how and when to create financial instruments to bet on bubbles and collapses in the first place. This practice continues today. It is a significant part of the past, current and future economic disaster in our nation.

    As with everything else–the people at the top have access to accurate knowledge. Few others do. These people are able to manipulate the system so it benefits them, even especially, when it collapses on top of every one else.

    This quote is relevant throughout our economic/political system: “Perhaps the best defence for a failed set of ideas is to have critics that will engage in only superficial critiques.” It is a description of one of the most effective forms of propaganda we are subjected to.

    Thanks for writing this series.

    1. reason

      I started out being sceptical about this piece, but essentially it is correct.

      But the real problem is of course not so much the EMH, it is the equilibrium approach. If you view the dynamics of the market, it becomes clear that Keynes’s betting on a beauty contest analogy is being ignored. It is not so much the exact use of information that is wrong, it is the incentives of the players that are misidentified.

    2. Doug

      Thanks Jill for the understandable observation. But, I think it is inaccurate. The quants, I’m guessing, did not have complete information. Again, just guessing, but I suspect they lacked at least two forms of information. First, they probably relied on the AAA ratings as opposed, say, to actually looking at and studying the assets underlying the dreck. Second, even if they were told/informed of the dreck, they probably lacked information of a different and important sort: knowledge. They lacked the knowledge of black swans; they lacked the knowledge of massively tightled coupled systems; they lacked the knowledge that so-called ‘local’ housing markets could collapse simultaneously — and so forth. This second point being that information is difficult to call ‘informative’ in the absence of knowledge structures.

      In addition, the senior most players in these companies also lacked information. Few of them, I suspect, could even understand the models being used. And, their so-called risk management approaches were created — and run — for purposed of illusion instead of insight.

      Finally, in a typical large enterprise such as a TBTF — not to mention in a distributed market/network such as ‘finance’ — much of the point is for human beings — even those in the same enterprise — to hide information instead of sharing it. And, even when the hiding is not at work, plain old job descriptions, poor process disciplines, general busy-ness and so forth impede instead of expedite information sharing.

      1. Justicia

        I’m not so sure it was “information” that was lacking but the willingness to examine available data and incorporate them into the models.

        The banks packaging the MBS could have scrutinized the underwriting of the mortgages but they had no incentive to do so. As Bill Black has pointed out, they ignored early warnings from the FBI and within the industry that mortgage fraud was rampant. Instead, they gamed the system by corrupting the rating agencies.

        Theory determines what counts as relevant information and the banks could conveniently discount inconvenient data because it was irrelevant under their theoretical constructs. Anyone attempting to challenge theory with data was dismissed as the profession considered those facts to be outside the range of plausible controversy.

      2. Jill

        Hi Doug,

        The quants did know. Some of them feel so guilty about what happened that they have become reclusive. They tried to warn regulators about what was happening in 2005. They were purposely ignored by the regulatory agencies. GS for one hired them and GS knew exactly what they were doing. It’s a very interesting story.

        Terry Gross did several interviews with/about the quants. Here’s a link to one:

        1. reasonable doubt

          I think Jill is right to a point. I think as others have pointed out there was a general lack of macro level understanding and concern. Banks are so specialized these days that individual groups within banks have only a cursory understanding of the activities of other groups. More importantly, in finance it is all about the bonus and since there is this high level of fragmentation only people at the very top would be all that concerned about the happenings within individual groups. However, these people at the top would not be privy to all of the information on the ground since the underlings will inevitable game the system to ensure they received the maximum bonus. I can say from my personal experience on a Debt Capital Markets desk at league table bank (albeit lower end), people were aware of the ridiculous amounts of liquidity in the system, but they often didn’t know where it came from nor were they really paid to dig deeper. If all bankers could have predicted the system could collapse so gloriously they would not have behaved as they did. They are parasites and first rule for any parasite trying to survive is that it should never kill the host.

  6. Jane Doe

    So, in short, its belief, not science.

    But, isn’t the belief self-serving to political interests, so it’s not belief, just propaganda?

  7. Sandwichman

    The Efficient Market Hypothesis is premise number six in Dorning Rasbotham’s 1780 “Thoughts on the Use of Machines in the Cotton Manufacture”: “trade will find its own level.”

    Economic theodicy is like a newt. Cut off the Efficient Market Hypothesis and it regenerates. What one needs to understand and critique is the interaction of the parts. Here is the enumeration Rasbotham’s essay offers:

    1. The interests of the poor should have the highest priority (after all, what would become of the rich if there were no poor people to till their grounds, and pay their rent?);

    2. There is not so great a difference between the real interests of the rich and the poor;

    3. Trade is a large and difficult subject that requires deep thought, long study, extensive reading and large experience to form a true judgment;

    4. Machines distinguish men in society from men in a savage state. There are many examples showing how machines invariably benefit people;

    5. All improvements at first produce some difficulty but many receive the benefit while only a few suffer, probably not much and hopefully not for long (they should be grateful for the opportunity to make a sacrifice for their fellow man);

    6. Trade will find its own level. Those thrown out of their old employments will find or learn new ones. Those who get a disproportionate gain will soon find many rivals and lose their temporary advantage;

    7. There is a disposition among people to be unduly alarmed by new discoveries;

    8. Even if machines (or globalization or the hypertrophy of the finance sector) are evils they are necessary evils. We might as well make the best of them;

    9. This would be a prosperous time for the poor, if only they weren’t so inclined to carry their money to the alehouse;

    10. Anyone who disagrees with the above truths is a irreligious, conscienceless scoundrel; and (drumroll),

    11. That “there is only a certain quantity of labour to be performed” is a false principle.

    1. F. Beard

      The problem is not automation. The problem is the automation is financed with the workers’ own stolen purchasing power via credit creation.

      1. Sandwichman

        “The problem is not automation.” Agreed. Allow me to introduce a slight amendment to your “stolen purchasing power.” It may be useful to set aside the moral connotation of “stolen” and think in terms of asymmetrical accounting and asymmetrical obligations.

        Capital “borrows” something from labor when it finances labor’s consumption with debt. But only the money side of the transaction gets entered into the account books and only the debt obligation becomes recoverable under the law. But there was a reciprocal promise made by capital about the stability of conditions that would allow the debt to be repaid. When capital reneges on its part of the obligation, that’s just tough.

        I’m not talking about some vague implicit obligation but about an incessant barrage of explicit promises that are broken with impunity. “Get a good education and you’ll get a well-paying job.” “Work hard and you’ll have a secure job and move up the ladder of promotion.” “Save your money and invest and you will have a secure retirement.” “Vote for me and I’ll look after the public interest.” “You get to choose between leisure and income.”

        The one promise that is honored religiously is “don’t pay your mortgage on time and we’ll foreclose on your house.”

        1. F. Beard

          If the workers had been paid in common stock, which is likely without a government enforced counterfeiting cartel for their bosses to borrow from, then the workers would have “shared” in the profits of automation. No implicit or explicit social contract would have been necessary.

          1. F. Beard

            Workers do get paid in common stock, or in stock options. Min

            Yes, but the common stock is not used as money. Therefore its value is not directly tied to the goods and services the company produces (real demand) but depends on an intermediary – conventional money and credit.

            The real value of a money should not depend on the value of another money yet in our economy the price of everything is affected by the amount and velocity of FRNs. That’s bogus.

        2. Min

          Don’t forget the other promise, not to labor, but to home buyers: “You can refinance in a few years.”

    2. Jim Sterling

      I like it. 1) and 5) might suggest that the employers should bear some of the “difficulty” caused by displacing labor from its accustomed place, but 9) neatly throws the responsibility back on the employed. What can the rich do, if the lower orders will insist on doing drugs drinking?

    3. Jim Sterling

      Number Six is the EMH, in its Panglossian happy-face guise. But it has a sad-face guise too: when productive machinery really does result in more prosperity for the workers, even the ones not working with the machinery, then employer-class folks call it Baumol’s Cost “Disease”.

  8. reason

    This simple argument

    “When there is no noise, prices convey all information, and there is no incentive to purchase information. But if everybody is uninformed, it clearly pays some individual to become informed. Thus, there does not exist a competitive equilibrium. (2002, p. 395)”

    reminds me of an paradox that I believe came first from Tyler Cohen – people buying market index securities are free riders on the price identification process of other market participants. But average returns after transaction costs for these people are higher than those doing the work of trying to identify the “true” price. So how does the “market” work at all? Is it dependent on the good will of amateurs?

  9. Paul Tioxon

    Chalmers Johnson speaks of a similar defense of economics, even when there is no direct, conscious challenge, it seems there is a radar to detect long range attacks coming from any source.,Meredith_The_developmental_State_Odyssey_of_a_concept.pdf

    Johnson was shocked to run into what he saw as economics becoming the doctrinaire orthodoxy of the West. It seems in his analysis of MITI in Japan, he tripped too many wires concerning the iron laws of economic development. The Japanese bureaucrats of MITI did not believe in the invisible hand when they were deliberately using their own hands to make industrial policy. Of course, the fervor with which economics came to be rigidly appropriated for the Cold War vis a vis Marxist Soviet economic thought, made the loss of an enemy a chance to establish intellectual hegemony within the discipline. Now, by triumphal decree of winning, standard economic free market theory was the indisputable heavy weight champion of the world and the social sciences. Like victorious veterans coming home from a long war, the economist were greeted with praise, and accolades along with a political sinecure as the most important people in government aside from lawyers. As you know, National Security and Economic advisers with their own Councils carry the most gravitas of the few hard men that decide the fate of nations. No Council of Sociologists or Presidents Commission on Political Science to Preserve Democracy can be found.

    1. Sandwichman

      And sometimes the “national security” and “economic” advisers are almost indistinguishable, as with NSC-68 and Leon Keyserling’s advice to Paul Nitze that a massive arms build-up would pay for itself by generating so much extra growth that revenue to finance the arms build-up could be “siphoned off” the increase in the GNP! Look, ma, a perpetual motion machine!

      1. Paul Tioxon

        Of course you are right. Daniel Ellsberg, Harvard PhD in economics, Rand consultant and nuclear war planner, and Viet Nam War exposer of lies, deceit and mass murder could not have operated at the high level that he did without the bona fides of that social science.

  10. Frank Speaking

    Physicists have finally admitted they have no clue when it comes to understanding the universe—it is time for economists to admit the same about the economy.

    See: The accidental universe: Science’s crisis of faith By Alan P. Lightman

    According to NPR Mitt Romney claimed in New Hampshire last night, “I know how the economy works.”

    He can be excused for making such a naked lie—he is a politician running for President—economists on the other hand have no such excuse.

  11. Susan the other

    This series is not so simple to follow, Philip. The writing is very enjoyable, true, but I’m confused about what Mirowski is actually saying about Stiglitz except that his analysis analyzes very very little and is almost as pointless as it can be. I like Mirowski’s phrases. Like his frustration with grammar: “…the meaning and referent of the adjective ‘efficient.’ ” I’m just thinkin’ if the market itself defies analysis and is theoretically all over the place, why don’t we make a market that works? It is going to be synthethetic whether it is allowed to free range or gets fenced off. As it is now, more information just leads to more insurance.

  12. craazyman

    We anticipate with great clarity that upon our liberation of the people of Spain from their debased condition under the rule of the Grand Inquisitor and his Demonic Sadistic Godless Equations that he will be unable to recognize his state of defeat.

    No doubt he will persist in his delusion that his rule retains a potency that renders it consonant with the natural condition of humanity.

    The inevitable defection of his agents to our cause –following their examination for our adherence to his doctrine of rationality, and upon learning of our adventures and many romantic conquests among the women of La Mancha weighing under 150 pounds, while employing nothing but a mule for transportation and with no concern for food or shelter — will undoubtedly be dismissed as anecdotes that do not rise to the rigor of evidence demanded by a rational man to distinguish truth from illusion.

    In this, as in all matters, we will repose our eternal trust in the true God, and will devoutly pray (every once and a while) that the Grand Inquisitor himself be visited by His benevolence so that he might See. For we know that only through ascension to a state of grace, and not by the tedious measurement of his infinite manifestations, is the Lord revealed in His great work.

  13. Hugh

    Again the reason that economists cling to failed, refuted, and discredited paradigms is because their careers, paychecks, and reputations depend on them doing so. That is why even a Krugman or a Stiglitz will rattle the cages only so much but no more. It is why heterodox economists, and even Mirowski, steer clear of or only sporadically allude to kleptocracy, wealth inequality, and class war.

    It is like the Emperor’s New Clothes. None will say the Emperor is naked and a nut and consider the consequences of that nuttiness for the country. At most, they will criticize his taste in shirts.

    1. MontanaMaven

      That’s why I prefer now to read David Graeber who is an anthropologist. He studies history and what real people have done. Read this CNN interview where he rips apart President Obama’s likening the U.S. economy to a household economy.

      If the study of history shows us anything, it’s that it all comes down to power. The people on the top know that everything is negotiable. If there’s a real problem, you can always work something out – which is what we saw in 2008, when the financial establishment effectively convinced the both political parties to step in and take care of several trillion dollars of their gambling debts.

      The rich have always been capable of extraordinary acts of generosity and forgiveness when dealing with each other. The absolute morality of debt is meant for us lesser mortals – since it’s the best means ever discovered to take a situation of massive inequality and make it seem like the victims are to blame.

    2. different clue

      Would you like the names of a couple of heterodox economists who talk about the kleptocracy, class warfare, etc.; lots of the time? Michael Hudson. Herman Daly. And I’ll bet there’s lots of others. I’ve heard of those two and I’m not even an economics-buff.

      At some point one decides that all this finely crafted verbiage and all the academystic equations are part of an extensive decoy operation designed to lure millions of people into mental and intellectual roach motels and give them hamster wheels to step into and run their lives away upon.

      At some point the pretensions of mainstream economics to be anything other than an organized structure of stupidly hallucinatory irreality (when not cynical deceit) deserve to be mocked and ridiculed, as here . .

      (By the way, I notice that someone went to a lot of trouble to try making “got economics?” unfindable on google.
      I had to type in “dieoff got economics” to find it. If I hadn’t remembered the “dieoff” part, I would never have found it. Now lets see how hard somebody works to make “dieoff got economics” equally unfindable . . . )

      1. Hugh

        Michael Hudson is a good case in point. He does talk about kleptocracy on occasion. But as I have said so very many times, kleptocracy is more than criminality in the system. Criminality in the system is the Bill Black view. It is rather the system as criminal enterprise. Any theory, explanation, or description of what is happening in the world’s economies must give kleptocracy, as well as wealth inequality and class war a central place. To mention them only now and again simply misses the point. I have likened this to talking about the world’s militaries in 1943 without any reference or only the occasional reference to World War II. Modern economists of all stripes are that far off.

        1. different clue

          I agree with you. We need language to express that fact very clearly and simply. The kleptocrats have taken possession of the government to legalize many forms of looting over and above capturing law enforcement to get its silent seal of approval for activities which are still illegal. They have treated the society and economy as a “battlespace” to be carefully “shaped” over the past few decades so as to facilitate the high-speed looting they are now conducting.

          Perhaps we should call the political-economic battlespace the way they have shaped it to be the “kleptonomy”? Could that be a good new word? To go along with ponziconomy?

          The kleptonomy. The ponziconomy.

  14. Eric L. Prentis

    The importance of empirically proving the Efficient Market Theory (EMT) wrong is crucial. About 40-to-70% of academics in economics and finance believe that markets are efficient, while the remainder ether believes they are close enough to being efficient or a good place to start. It is impossible to get papers published in the best academic journals that disprove market efficiency. Consequently, Ph.D. students are indoctrinated with the EMT ideology, self-perpetuating the dogma going forward.

    The EMT is the cornerstone of the craziness occurring in Washington. Virtually all those in congress, whether democrat or republican, believe in market efficiency and think they are correct when championing “smaller government, deregulation and privatization,” regardless how this has worked in practice. Witness our ongoing credit crisis, with first the real estate bubble and now the depression.

    Not surprisingly, the financial elite love the EMT and the guise of efficient markets, because it gives them intellectual cover for taking over the government. Only by discrediting the EMT, with credible empirical evidence, logically explained—-which I have done—-will the dogma of efficient markets be exterminated, and we can all finally move on.

    1. jake chase

      Those interested in how financial markets really work should read Alchemy of Finance by George Soros (1986). It is not an easy book but its most important point is childishly simple: markets are driven by changes in credit conditions, and credit conditions are driven by evaluation and reevaluation of collateral by lenders. Money floods into stocks when banks are feeling expansive; prices collapse when speculators (these days hedge funds) are forced to sell because lenders become increasingly nervous about their collateral. That is pretty much it.

  15. skippy

    Time machines looking for price or…. gun oil…. ummmm?

    Skippy….Universe or belief… one is much older… although the later is more Endorphin-ish…

  16. Sharia Law

    Had the Internet been around in the Middle Ages I’m sure it would have been a hive of intense debate and serious comment by many earnest and worthy, learned and respected, academics dedicating their lives to answering the vital question as to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    Now all we get is economists.

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