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

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, here, and here while a bibliography can be found here

The debates surrounding the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium [DSGE] models are perhaps some of the most interesting and important to have surfaced in the wake of the crisis. Of course, they, too many debates within the economics profession after the crisis, are deployed in order to insulate the research program from any fundamental criticism. But it is in the nature of the material that the critical observer can see something more interesting going on. And that is the contradiction at the heart of economics: the dichotomy, the abyss that opens up by necessity between macroeconomics and microeconomics.

Mirowski puts it as such:

A methodologist would point out, as I have done, that the canonical DSGE assumes its canonical outlandish format in order to ‘save’ it’s microfoundations, viz., the non-negotiable prescription that macro and neoclassical microeconomics are one big unified theory. All these current fragmentary amendments to render the DSGE model more ‘realistic’, or perhaps more politically acceptable to the ‘New Keynesians’, are self-contradictory, since they attempt to mitigate or ‘undo’ the microfoundations which had been imposed by decree from the outset. It ends up being one more instance of economists asserting both A and not-A simultaneously.

To truly understand the significance of this debate is to see that, were neoclassical economics ever to be amended in a manner that allowed it to be both logically consistent and empirically realistic, the whole thing would simply fall apart. As the great Cambridge economist Joan Robinson put it in her essay ‘Spring Cleaning’: the proper approach might be to scrap the lot and start again. Perhaps that is too much to ask, but surely it is reasonable to say, as we enter into a second Great Depression, that any analysis based on equilibrium is inherently flawed and should be done away with as quickly as possible.

– Philip Pilkington


Part IV: DSGE and the Threatened Unravelling of the Whole Damn Thing

A third reaction to the crisis is to refrain from indictment of the global orthodoxy, and instead suggest that since the crisis was eminently a ‘macroeconomic’ event, the onus for failure must be narrowly restricted to that subset of the profession tasked with study of the macroeconomy; and furthermore, the correct response is simply to jettison the paradigmatic model found in contemporary macroeconomic textbooks, the so-called ‘dynamic stochastic general equilibrium’ [DGSE] model. The crisis, for this cadre, does not portend the ‘death of economics’, but just a garden variety ‘model failure’: so replace the model. We might think of this as the ‘ounce of prevention’ response. Now, I can imagine my audience rolling their eyes – even those willing to put up with a modicum of technical issues raised so far are not going to countenance a tedious discussion of a specific mathematical model, no matter how crucial to the self-image of the economics profession. And it is true that there is almost no commentary in the general press on the DSGE model, compared with breathless denunciations of ‘rational economic man’ and the EMH. But this option does even more directly call into question the commonplace notion that economists can learn from their mistakes.

This is exemplified by an event in 2010 that was literally unprecedented in the history of economic thought in America. Congressional testimony is regularly convened on all manner of issues of applied economics; and economists are regularly enjoined to testify. But never before, to my knowledge, has an entire session been convened to hold public hearings on criticism of a mathematical model produced by economic theory, not on its purported applications. Yet, on 20 July 2010 a kind of Star Chamber was convened to pillory the DSGE model. [25] The basic stance of the hearings was defined in the opening comments by Chairman Brad Miller:

According to the model’s most devoted acolytes, the model’s insights rival the perfect knowledge Paul described in the First Letter to the Corinthians; but unlike the knowledge Paul described, DSGE’s insights are available in the here and now. To be fair, DGSE and similar macroeconomic models were first conceived as theorists’ tools. But why, then, are they being relied on as the platform upon which so much practical policy advice is formulated? And what has caused them to become, and to stay, so firmly entrenched? And, finally, the most important question of all: What do we get when we apply the various tools at our disposal to the urgent economic problems we’re facing today?

This is how the committee staff described the DSGE model for a lay audience:

The dominant macro model has for some time been the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium model, or DSGE, whose name points to some of its outstanding characteristics. ‘General’ indicates that the model includes all markets in the economy. ‘Equilibrium’ points to the assumptions that supply and demand balance out rapidly and unfailingly, and that competition reigns in markets that are undisturbed by shortages, surpluses, or involuntary unemployment. ‘Dynamic’ means that the model looks at the economy over time rather than at an isolated moment. ‘Stochastic’ corresponds to a specific type of manageable randomness built into the model that allows for unexpected events, such as oil shocks or technological changes, but assumes that the model’s agents can assign a correct mathematical probability to such events, thereby making them insurable. Events to which one cannot assign a probability, and that are thus truly uncertain, are ruled out.

The agents populating DSGE models, functioning as individuals or firms, are endowed with a kind of clairvoyance. Immortal, they see to the end of time and are aware of anything that might possibly ever occur, as well as the likelihood of its occurring; their decisions are always instantaneous yet never in error, and no decision depends on a previous decision or influences a subsequent decision. Also assumed in the core DSGE model is that all agents of the same type – that is, individuals or firms – have identical needs and identical tastes, which, as ‘optimizers’, they pursue with unbounded self-interest and full knowledge of what their wants are. By employing what is called the ‘representative agent’ and assigning it these standardized features, the DSGE model excludes from the model economy almost all consequential diversity and uncertainty – characteristics that in many ways make the actual economy what it is. The DSGE universe makes no distinction between system equilibrium, in which balancing agent-level disequilibrium forces maintains the macroeconomy in equilibrium, and full agent equilibrium, in which every individual in the economy is in equilibrium. In so doing, it assumes away phenomena that are commonplace in the economy: involuntary unemployment and the failure of prices or wages to adjust instantaneously to changes in the relation of supply and demand. These phenomena are seen as exceptional and call for special explanation.

While skepticism concerning the DSGE is worn openly in this précis, it was nowhere near as scathing as the disparagement of the model that one hears in private and reads on blogs. Incredulity often focuses upon the presumption of a single immortal representative agent capturing the entire economy. For instance, at the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), I witnessed one famous economist compare coordination failures in DSGE models to the right hand losing track of what the left hand was doing, and the treatment of uncertainty in DSGE as tantamount to diagnosing the onset of Alzheimer’s. You can just imagine the bizarre shapes that ‘information’ assumes in this solipsistic portrait: what can it mean for this god-like agent to learn anything? A good DSGE joke current on the blogs is: ‘Based on all available information, I rationally expect DSGE models to suck for an infinite number of future periods; and because I am a representative agent, everybody agrees with me.’

So maybe economist jokes are not all that funny, but there are a few philosophical points to be extracted from the imbroglio. The first is that, within the profession, seeking out the Golden Mean does not guarantee intellectual credibility. The DSGE model was the product of a long series of compromises resulting in what was conceived as best-practice consensus, following a period in which participants had endured what they felt was three decades of bickering, discord and wrangling over the correct way to theorize in macroeconomics.[26] In the middle of the Noughties, embrace of the Great Moderation was coupled with declaration of the Great Macro Accord, and the DSGE model was its offspring. Complacency in the world of ideas replicated complacency in the world of policy. In another instance of bad timing, Olivier Blanchard, Chief Economist of the IMF, decreed: ‘The state of macro is good . . . macroeconomics is going through a period of great progress and excitement, and there has been, over the past two decades, convergence in both vision and methodology’ (2008, pp. 2, 26). ‘DSGE models have become ubiquitous. Dozens of researchers are involved in their construction. Nearly every central bank has one, or wants to have one’ (2008, p. 24). But perhaps the fact that the DSGE model was an attempt to be all things to all sides, a détente imposed from above, emitted from a very few ‘top-ranked’ economics departments rather than a voluntary truce taking hold organically. This had something to do with its clueless set-up for its vertiginous fall.

While there are some good historical summaries of how the rational expectations movement and the so-called ‘Lucas critique’ killed off the previous Keynesianism of the 1960s/1970s, there are very few sociological meditations on how economics got from there to the DSGE model. Starting out under the banner of ‘consistency’, it was insisted that neoclassical microeconomics and macroeconomics be fully interchangeable. Second, orthodox macroeconomists came to conflate ‘being rational’ with thinking like an orthodox economist. What this implied was that agents knew the one and only ‘true model’ of the economy (which conveniently was stipulated as identical with neoclassical microeconomics); and since they all knew the same thing, for practical purposes of the model, they were all alike in most relevant respects. Hence, far from congealing an intellectual travesty, it seemed plausible (not to mention mathematically convenient) to portray the entire economy as playing out between the ears of a single person. Thus the ‘representative agent’ fiction in fact constitutes a projection of deep commitments of the existing elite of the orthodox economics profession. That is why it became a shared presumption of neoliberals who believe in the natural healing powers of the market, as well as ‘New Keynesians’ looking for reasons why the economy falters.

Consensus is often mistaken for groupthink within the DSGE model, and this tends to mirror a sociological characteristic of the economics profession. Both the ‘agent’ in the DSGE model and in the American profession could not imagine an effective search for truth emerging out of substantial persistent disagreement over fundamentals. Agents in orthodox models are enjoined from ‘agreeing to disagree’; and economists in good standing must knuckle under as well. The utter revulsion for anything smacking of real heterodoxy, combined with a fear of appearing ‘unscientific’ to outsiders, eventually led to a ‘donnybrook’ far more drastic than any embarrassment or compromised legitimacy that might have otherwise previously arisen from strident disagreement in the court of public opinion. Indeed, the effect of the crisis has been to bring those repressed disputes out into the open.

Once the presumption of omniscience broke down, then the consequences of the banishment of methodological self-scrutiny began to be felt. Both the criticisms and defenses of DSGE, at the Congressional hearings and elsewhere after the crisis onset, were distressingly unsophisticated, as one might expect as fallout from the ostracism of methodological thought. Robert Solow testified in Congress that DSGE models ‘didn’t pass the smell test’, introducing a novel olfactory standard for scientific model choice. The defense of DSGE at the hearings by V.V. Chari equally reveals the paucity of resources (and rhetorical skills) possessed by contemporary economists:

So, any interesting model must be a dynamic stochastic general equilibrium model. From this perspective, there is no other game in town. Modern macroeconomic models, often called DSGE models in macro share common additional features. All of them make sure that they are consistent with the National Income and Product Accounts. That is, things must add up. All of them lay out clearly how people make decisions. All of them are explicit about the constraints imposed by nature, the structure of markets and available information on choices to households, firms and the government. From this perspective DSGE land is a very big tent. The only alternatives are models in which the modeler does not clearly spell out how people make decisions. Why should we prefer obfuscation to clarity? My description of the style of modern macroeconomics makes it clear that modern macroeconomists use a common language to formulate their ideas and the style allows for substantial disagreement on the substance of the ideas. A useful aphorism in macroeconomics is: ‘If you have an interesting and coherent story to tell, you can tell it in a DSGE model. If you cannot, your story is incoherent’. [27]

It is one thing to assert that you personally cannot imagine any other possible way to discuss the macroeconomy than the DSGE; it is quite another (in public, before a tribunal) to insist that no one else can either, without babbling incoherently. But of course there were alternatives studded throughout the literature, which had been proposed repeatedly by those seeking to exit the ‘big tent’ of orthodox macroeconomics.[28] This is not the appropriate venue to examine those proposals; rather, it is to ask – why are so many economists so loathe to let go of DSGE? All the usual considerations of inertia and sunk costs of intellectual commitment come into play; but there is something else as well. One way to understand such intransigence is to explore the possibility that excision of the DSGE cannot staunch the bleeding of the American economics profession; for these economists, renunciation of the DSGE is a slippery slope to the dissolution of the entire economic orthodoxy. Après DSGE, la déluge.

There were a few economists who had proposed that the monolithic coherence of macroeconomics and neoclassical microeconomics was a sham, but there were not accorded much respect, and were notably absent from the Congressional hearings. Perhaps the most prominent was the European economist Alan Kirman. He headed a group of scholars who issued the ‘Dahlem report’ (Colander et al., 2009) excoriating the economics profession early on in the crisis, and explained his own position in a widely read blog post (Kirman, 2009). Kirman suggested that the root problem with macroeconomics was really philosophical: the vaunted foundations of the DSGE model in full neoclassical general equilibrium were illusory. First, he cited some technical results dating from the 1970s stating that full general equilibrium analysis does not allow one to make much of any aggregate generalizations from the behaviour of a diverse group of neoclassical agents; and furthermore, except under some strained special circumstances, one cannot guarantee the existence of a unique or stable general equilibrium.[29] The reason that DSGE models could pretend that there was a full macroeconomic equilibrium was that the fiction of a one-person economy was one of the few cases where (obviously) the individual is identical to the aggregate economy, and that existence proofs were available in that case for a unique stable equilibrium. To put it more bluntly, DSGE models were predicated upon the only arbitrary special case where neoclassical microeconomics and macro could be logically reconciled. Instead of drawing the conclusion that the marriage of micro and macro was doomed, and the DSGE a stillbirth, the profession had chosen to pledge its troth to an outré mutant case and call it the whole world. It would be as though a religious fanatic arranged to live in a hermetic world comprised only of Christian Scientist cyborgs, so that he need never encounter anyone who might call his faith in natural healing into question. As Kirman (2009) wrote: ‘both the development of the DSGE model and the efficient markets hypothesis share a common feature – despite the empirical evidence and despite their theoretical weaknesses, their development proceeded as if the criticism did not exist’.

If there had been a contingent of methodologists integrated into the profession, they might have insisted that all the brouhaha about jettisoning the DSGE model was a weary sideshow, since the gnawing problem that the economic orthodoxy was intent on avoiding was gauging to what extent the crisis had voided the legitimacy of neoclassical micro- economics. Legions of macroeconomists were mobilized into action by the crisis not to address its dire consequences, but instead to obscure this threatening conclusion through smoke, mirrors and legerdemain. No one who wanted to maintain their position in academia would countenance the possibility that amputation of the DSGE would result in the patient bleeding to death. So instead they promoted endless consultations over the health of the DSGE – and even Congress was snookered into the pointless game.

This argument would begin by characterizing the two options promoted by economists who thought of themselves as orthodox macroeconomists after the crisis hit. The first was to insist that all that ridicule of the DSGE model was simply ignorant: all those aspects of the crisis that critics said could not be accommodated by the model, had in fact been fully taken into account somewhere in the journal literature.[30] You want heterogeneity of agents – we’ve done it. We’ve got models with frictions galore, and we have even coquetted with bounded irrationality. You claim there are big political divisions within macro and that DSGE only describes neoliberal fantasies of self-regulating markets; but the ‘freshwater–saltwater’ divide is just an illusion. We’ve got DSGE models to conform to all ideologies. We even have a version of the model here and there that mentions banks and credit. [31] All those nagging complaints are baseless, and mired in an outdated impression of real business cycle theory back in the 1980s.

This option, while commonplace, is utterly unavailing. A methodologist would point out, as I have done, that the canonical DSGE assumes its canonical outlandish format in order to ‘save’ its microfoundations, viz., the non-negotiable prescription that macro and neoclassical microeconomics are one big unified theory. All these current fragmentary amendments to render the DSGE model more ‘realistic’, or perhaps more politically acceptable to the ‘New Keynesians’, are self-contradictory, since they attempt to mitigate or ‘undo’ the microfoundations which had been imposed by decree from the outset. It ends up being one more instance of economists asserting both A and not-A simultaneously. By thrusting the rabbit into the hat, then pulling it back out with a different hand, the economist merely creates a model more awkward, arbitrary and unprepossessing than if they had just started out explicitly to incorporate confused heterogeneous agents, dodgy banks, consciously duplicitous CDOs, informationally challenged markets, and all the rest of the usual suspects for the crisis, minus the neoclassical window dressing. If you allowed freedom of amendment to the DSGE in this manner, you would end up with models that violated the Lucas critique in a more egregious fashion than the earlier Keynesian models these macroeconomists love to hate. Thus, a ‘more realistic DSGE’ ends up as a contradiction in terms.

The second option, the one favored by the really high-profile attackers of DSGE like Robert Solow and Paul Krugman, was to roll back the clock to 1969, and pretend that the whole sequence of sordid developments leading up to DSGE never happened. Sometimes this was portrayed as a ‘return to Keynes’, although a historian might aver that the American profession was never all that enamored of the actual Keynes and his writings.[32] Nevertheless, this latter group was extrapolating from the heady days of late 2008, when all thoughts of DSGE were nowhere to be found. As the economic historian Greg Clark (2009) put it:

The debate about the bank bailout, and the stimulus package, has all revolved around issues that are entirely at the level of Econ I. What is the multiplier from government spending? Does government spending crowd out private spending?

…If you got an A in college Econ I, you are an expert in this debate: fully an equal of summers and Geithner.

This proposal was, if anything, even more implausible than the revision of the DSGE. Most macroeconomists would rather abandon the field than admit that all their technical sophistication was superfluous, and purge the lessons they learned at the feet of Robert Lucas and Thomas Sargent. The entire field was populated by people drilled in contempt for reading Keynes, and confirmed in their convictions that those 1960s-era models, like the old-fashioned IS-LM and Phillips curve, fully deserved to be tossed on the trash-heap of history. Yet, even if some magic wand waved away generations of inertia, there was no guarantee that if you re-ran the tape of history over one more time, starting once more in 1969, the neoclassical orthodoxy would not just end up rejecting all those 1960s-era models all over again. For Lucas and Sargent had a point: the earlier ‘Keynesian’ macroeconomics as it existed back then was logically incompatible with neoclassical microeconomic theory, and if something had to give, it would be Keynes, and not the Arrow–Debreu theory of general equilibrium, at least in America. Hence, by a circuitous route I arrive once more at the lesson of this section: the real bone of contention is not the DSGE model per se, but rather the pre-eminence of legitimacy of neoclassical microeconomics. The DSGE model is a herring of the brightest red.

One of the places where the 2010 Congressional hearing missed an opportunity at gaining an understanding the true character of the path to dominance of the DSGE was in not inviting a historian and methodologist to provide meta-commentary upon the strange testimony offered by the invited participants. Not only would the missing witness have provided some context for the seemingly orthogonal positions voiced by Solow, Chari, Page and Winter, and pointed out that it was no accident that no substantial alternative to neoclassical theory had a place at the table; but she might have also suggested that the Congress (or its delegated agencies) itself deserved its own fair share of the blame for the rise to intellectual monopoly of the DSGE. To suggest where such testimony might have ventured, I here cite another occasion of testimony before the same House committee dating back to March 1981. Then the issue was a Reagan administration drive to cut the funding of economic research from the NSF. The speaker was Harvard economist Zvi Griliches:

It is ironic and sad that whoever came up with these cuts does not even recognize that most of the recent ‘conservative’ ideas in economics – the importance of ‘rational expectations’ and the impotency of conventional macroeconomic policy, the disincentive effects of various income-support programs, the magnitude of the regulatory burden, and the arguments for deregulation – all originated in, or were provided with quantitative backing by NSF supported studies.[33]

Griliches was merely stating the obvious: economists produce the sorts of knowledge that its patrons desire, within the trajectory of its accumulated intellectual heritage; that list of patrons includes neoliberal elements within the government, with their allies in selected ranked economics departments. Congressmen today should not act as though the DSGE model and its precursors were somehow foisted upon unsuspecting regulators and an innocent public by imperious economists. Mostly, Americans just got what they paid for.


25. The Hearing Charter (quoted above) of the House Committee on Science and Technology and sworn testimony of economists Sidney Winter, Scott Page, Robert Solow, David Colander and V.V. Chari can be found at publications/hearings_markups_details.aspx?NewsID52876.

26. This is not the place to run through the tortured history of orthodox neoclassical macroeconomics, from the ‘neoclassical synthesis’ through Friedman’s monetarism to ‘New Classical’ to ‘real business cycles’ to ‘New Keynesians’, and thus finally to DSGE. Some good sources on this massive literature are Quiggin (2010) and Mehrling (2010). As usual, the history is frequently accompanied by utterly naive methodological statements: ‘the field looked like a battlefield. Researchers split in different directions, mostly ignoring each other, or else engaging in bitter fights or controversies. Over time however, largely because facts have a way of not going away, a largely shared vision of fluctuations and of methodology has emerged’ (Blanchard, 2008, p. 2).

27. V.V. Chari, Testimony before the Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, US House of Representatives, 20 July 2010. For a similar argument, see Kocherlakota (2010).

28. See, for instance, Colander et al (2008), Meeusen (2010) and Howitt (2006, 2008).

29. For the curious, he was referencing the Sonnenschein–Mantel–Debreu theorems in microeconomics. See Rizvi (2006) for the relevant background.

30. This position is almost exactly repeated in the Chari testimony, and in Kocherlakota (2010), De Grauwe (2010) and Maskin (2009). All reactions in this paragraph are paraphrases of DSGE defenses found in these sources.

31. I shall indulge in just one example of how such protests were so misleading as to border on mendacity. The notion that DSGE models, which rarely incorporated money, much less a banking sector, could indeed handle a financial crisis, is often motivated by citation of the Diamond–Dybvig model (Diamond and Dybvig, 1983), which is a model of a run on a solvent bank. Since most of the main institutions in the current crisis were insolvent, and not merely illiquid, this model turns out to be utterly irrelevant. Furthermore, since most DSGE models encompass a presumption of the EMH at base, and accept the Modigliani–Miller theorem, there are no functions for finance to perform in the models.

32. See, for instance, Mirowski (forthcoming).

33. Quoted in Scheiding and Mata (2010).

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  1. reason

    I just think it is apposite to remember here an important point made by Steve Keen – it is not so much that macro didn’t conform to micro that was the problem, the problem was that micro didn’t conform to macro (i.e. constraints that are actually significant in reality were incorrectly ignored – or rather assumed away).

    1. Lafayette

      It may also be that macro is macro and micro is micro and never the twain shall meet?

      After all, both sciences are built on either empirical observations or data sets that are considerably (and often fundamentally) different. Almost all of macroeconomics is based upon national accounts. We cannot say that for all of microeconomic work.

      For instance, the SubPrime Mess, in which people blamed the “economists” for not seeing it coming. Frankly, the economists did not see the Internet coming either.

      Sectoral developments are quite often beyond macroeconomic ability to predict them. To each craftsman their own tools, materials and craftsmanship – as the saying goes.

  2. reason

    Of course the real problem with DSGE models is that the representative agent diddle means they can’t actually answer any interesting questions.

  3. craazyman

    These are so funny they nearly rise to the level of an antidote.

    Such a processional frieze of thought recalls to mind the Equlibrium Theorem (ET) of Profeser Delerious Tremens GED, found in his canonical work “The Synthesis of Eschatology and Ontology: Thought for a New Millenium” — Any natural system will appear to be in a state of equilibrium when viewed from a sufficiently removed perspective.

    ET has vast explanatory power in this particular instance. The university library is a gentle and cooperative place. I have personally found librarians to be some of the most helpful people on the planet, radiating a nearly saintly altruism.

    Much wealth awaits us in Spain Mr. Mirowski, if you can ride with us on the back of a donkey. The Grand Inquisitor has lost his authority and the people are restless for a return to their natural state of equilibrium. We will spend a year acquainting ourselves with the region of la mancha and romancing as many women as possible without endangering our physical safety. It may be can avoid our journey of liberation entirely if the Inquisitor recognizes his condition and renounces his rule of rationality. This would be fortuitious indeed, as we are lazy and a journey of libertaion may require periods of exertion.

    1. Anonymous Jones

      This comment was even more awesome than your comments usually are, CM.

      Faithful Sancho, however, would tell you that ET was his idea, or maybe he just forgot.

    2. psychohistorian

      Thanks for the chuckles craazyman.

      Don’t ask anyone who call themselves an economist to show how their model reflects the class based structure of the economy or how it accurately depicts any aspects of imperialism.

      But they can give you central bankers that have or want one (as was reported) of those “skooled” DSGE charlatans, excellent graduates of the Winston Smith program.

  4. jake chase

    When analyzing complete bullshit it is best simply to say it is complete bullshit and then stop. This is the only sensible approach to academic economics. The emperor has no clothes and those debating the fine points of his tailoring perform no useful public purpose.

    On the first day I began studying economics in college, the professor told us we would not learn “how to make a million dollars in the stock market”. Several students got up and walked out. I only wish I had joined them. It is possible that was the only true proposition I heard in the course of my twelve course economics major.

    1. Lafayette

      I only wish I had joined them.

      Yep … then you’d be part of the OWS movement today?

      Economics is a tool. The craftsman should not blame his tools if the work is done improperly.

      Which is why those toiling in soft-science employ “caveats”, because such, unlike hard-science, do not have the miraculous ability to repeat an experiment with the same results and thereby confirm their findings.

      1. different clue

        David Brower of the Sierra Club once said: “economics is a form of brain damage.”

        An economic analyst for the TVA that my father knew once said to us that “economics is ultimately a branch of moral theology.”

        Perhaps the truth is somewhere between those two positions, depending on the economist involved?

        Saying economics “is” a tool seems like saying that mechanics “is” a tool. No, they are hopefully disciplines which employ certain tools of analysis or practice.

        And again, the mainstream economics I see and hear flung all around seems more like brain damage, or a vast web of intellectual deceit, than anything else.
        “When the last salmon has been killed and eaten from the last river, then the white man will learn that he can’t eat money.” Or eat economics, either.

        1. different clue

          Did I just say “moral theology” just above? I meant to say “moral philosphy”. as in “economics is ultimately a branch of moral philosophy”. Not that it really is. But my father’s friend thought it was, or maybe wanted it to be.

  5. Susan the other

    So wicked. DSGE looks like marketing. THe last paragraphs about getting what you pay for was a cold shower though. I don’t want to be responsible for this. My excuse has always been my ignorance.

  6. Jerome R.

    When I read this part of Mirowski’s post, it reminded me of an anecdote related to me by my friend who was studying economics in graduate school. The professor was writing down some equations related to DSGE. He enthusiastically worked towards the mathematical “punchline”, and wrote down the result with a sense of satisfaction. My friend asked him, “can you give me an example of a real-world application of that result?”

    This question really threw the professor for a loop, and caused him to pause for what seemed like a long time. “The real world,” he finally said pointing to the result, “is a special case of that”.

    I have always found that anecdote instructive as the ontological weight some academics give to their models vs. the “real world”.

  7. groo

    funny all that, if it were not so sad.

    This is from Englishman John Ruskin’s series of essays ‘Unto This Last’ 1860, where he took on ‘political economy’ -Mills, Ricardo et al:

    Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusion of the science if its terms are accepted. I am simply uninterested in them, as I should be in those of a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons. It might be shown, on that supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables; and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their constitution. The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability. Modern political economy stands on a precisely similar basis. Assuming, not that the human being has no skeleton, but that it is all skeleton, it founds an ossifiant theory of progress on this negation of a soul; and having shown the utmost that may be made of bones, and constructed a number of interesting geometrical figures with death’s-head and humeri, successfully proves the inconvenience of the reappearance of a soul among these corpuscular structures. I do not deny the truth of this theory: I simply deny its applicability to the present phase of the world.

    Ruskin inspired Gandhi to write himself an essay in his spirit, to apply his evaluations to India.

    From that it becomes evident, that ‘political economy’ and its offsprings should be nearer to Social Philosophy and Ethics. (spare me religion)

    But instead they excel as plumbers, who resort to voodoo, when the tubes are broken.
    A dismal group indeed, who best can be explained away along the lines of Dunning-Kruger.

  8. Eric L. Prentis

    Dear Philip Mirowski;

    Please change the last line from:
    “Mostly, Americans just got what they paid for.” To:

    “The financial elite got their self-serving results; Americans paid the bill.”

  9. groo

    maybe it is an interesting coincidence, that theoretical physics currently undergoes a fundamental crisis.

    See this:
    ‘Science’s crisis of faith’

    I don’t say that this is is comparable in substance.
    Far from that!

    But modern economics, –nonsensical as it may be–, aligned itself along the lines of Physics.
    Now the master-discipline finds itself in crisis.

    What now?

    Well, children play in the mud anyway, even if dark matter indicates multiverses.

    Difficult it gets, when those ADHS-children are at the steering wheels of society.

    Some medication is needed.

  10. groo

    another point is, that modern economics has strong resemblance to medieval scholasticism:

    Let me cite for the sake of simplicity wikipedia:
    (actually, WHAT IS THE CASE, is worse, if You consider the context.)

    The scholastics would choose a book by a renowned scholar, auctor (author), as a subject for investigation. By reading it thoroughly and critically, the disciples learned to appreciate the theories of the author. Other documents related to the book would be referenced, such as Church councils, papal letters and anything else written on the subject, be it ancient or contemporary. The points of disagreement and contention between multiple sources would be written down in individual sentences or snippets of text, known as sententiae.

    (read church coucil as Adam Smith or Jevon’s Paradox or whatever.)
    This is soon forgotten, because HET is not a respectable discipline.
    Modern economisy has a notoriously short memory, or none at all. Having a short memory is an indication of a generic disease, called dumbness.)

    The basic principle is (word-)Realism, which is the opposite of contemporary meaning, which would be Nominalism.
    Word-realism says, that a word stays for some platonic entity, which is ore real that reality. See Plato.

    Say ‘homo oeconomicus’. In scholastic terms this being is a REAL entity, like an angel, dancing on the tip of a pin, which surpasses observed reality, and in case of doubt, the ‘reality’ has to subject to the superior reality of this platonic being.

    Understood this way, maybe we understand modern economists better.

    They are mired in concepts of the ca 13th-century, prepped up with some post-Newtonian m’e’thematics.

    Just a theory, to understand my fellow human beings, called ‘economists’.
    I subject myself to refutation.
    I hypothesize.

    1. groo

      I apologize for some mis-spellings in my post.
      Please correct them mindfully, and spare me shoes or tomatoes.
      thank You.

  11. groo

    I’d like to cite some more Ruskin.

    None of these terms are yet defined so as to be understood by the public.

    —so he says.

    Now, the economical usefulness of a thing depends not merely on its own nature, but on the number of people who can and will use it.
    A horse is useless, and therefore unsaleable, if no one can ride, — a sword, if no one can strike, and meat, if no one can eat.
    Thus every material utility depends on its relative human capacity.

    Similarly: The agreeableness of a thing depends not merely on its own likeableness, but on the number of people who can be got to like it. The relative agreeableness, and therefore saleableness, of “a pot of the smallest ale,” and of “Adonis painted by a running brook,” depends virtually on the opinion of Demos, in the shape of Christopher Sly. That is to say, the agreeableness of a thing depends on its relatively human disposition.(19*)
    Therefore, political economy, being a science of wealth, must be a science respecting human capacities and dispositions.
    But moral considerations have nothing to do with political economy (III. i. 2). Therefore, moral considerations have nothing to do with human capacities and dispositions.

    and on it goes.

    This is a sensible evaluation of the human condition.

    So why are modern economists so ignorant of the human condition?
    They either
    1) dont care
    2) serve other masters than humanity at large.
    You guess who they are.

    1. psychohistorian

      Unfortunately, we need to get millions of us like minded sort on the streets.

      Got a clue how to get there from here?

      Laugh the global inherited rich out of control of “Western Democracies” and into rooms at the Hague.

      1. René

        “For me the process of finding my voice and speaking up has required a combination of insight, courage, humility, and compassion.

        I remember one day Foster came in the room really flustered and said, “How do I tell people their hair is on fire without freaking them out?!?” My reply was: “First you say, look at this great bowl of water you have right here, and by the way, your hair is on fire.”

        We actually used that as the template for how to tell the story of THRIVE and for our conversations now. People want to know that there is something we can do – and are doing – about the dangerous consolidation of power in order to be open to the information and to be leveraged in their solutions.”

        1. F. Beard

          “First you say, look at this great bowl of water you have right here, and by the way, your hair is on fire.” René

          Good approach! Many people are unwilling to admit there is a problem if they see no solution.

          1. René

            You are exactly the one I wanted to ask a question, F. Beard.

            “The governmental and judicial systems within the United States of America, at both federal and local state levels, is owned by the “Crown,” which is a private foreign power.”

            How accurate is this statement? If you could me some sort of indication? Much appreciated.


          2. F. Beard


            I don’t keep up with that sort of thing. Who cares what the Queen thinks she owns in the US? Let her enforce her claim with her military if she can.

          3. René

            Oh, that is pity. Are you afraid the people here won’t take you serious anymore :-) Its not the Queen by the way.

            This whole economic hit men thing is going on for a long time, not something that got started with John Perkins or Kermit Roosevelt. Certain groups financed the Nazis to power. There are some questions in how far the American military is under the influence of the City.

      2. groo


        the tribe of deluded economists seems small enough to take them on, and expose their silly nonsense.
        A couple of thousand, plus a factor of ten more mindless minions?

        On the other hand, as Ruskin shows, 150 years of fighting, seems to amount to next to nothing.

        Nevertheless it gives me some satisfaction to see, that we Don Qixotes are a tribe of our own, constantly fighting the windmills of stupidity.

        Who gets the ultimate laugh, I dare not say.

        We even do not know whether there is an audience, worth the name, besides ourselves.

        1. groo

          btw, Ruskin so embarrassed his fellow upperclass Englishmen, that he finally published his rants himself.

          He was lucky enough to have a sizeable inheritance of 150 000 pounds, which gave him the opportunity to realize some of his ‘crazy’ ideas.

          One in ten Millionaires/Billonaires questions his condition.

          There must be a lucky universe out there in the vast multitude of universes, where everything is just right.

          We are not part of this lucky lot.

          We have a glimpse of what could be, but never reach it by the design of our universe.

          This is the ‘modern view’.
          Gives us a special sort of laugh.

  12. Numenius

    I’m curious about what mainstream macroeconomists think about the use of agent-based simulations as an alternative to DSGE models. Following the crisis of 2008 there’s evidently been some work exploring the use of agent-based macroeconomic models, but is such an approach generally seen as heterodox?

    1. groo

      as far as i know, there is no response from the orthodoxy.

      The physcicalists, as far as I can see try to model swarms of agents with different agents, along the character-caricatures in computer-games.

      The question then is:
      Converge the ‘real’ people onto their models, or is its the other way round?

      Both options are possible.

      We devolve into a cartoon character, if the models prevail.

      As interesting as despicable.

      The Cartoon-character is not an evolution, but a devolution

      This seems to be in the range of possibilities constrained by the anthropic principle.

      The random universe, which we are thrown into, allows for both possibilities.

      We have the possibility to wreck the whole universe and ultimately prove the Fermi-paradox.

      High probability.

      Economists are not bothered by that.

      They are not bothered by anything but their defunct models.

      Count this as un-understandable.


  13. rotter

    Where is P.P. to confer “cult” status on DSGE “acolytes”?? If theres an economic theory which requires a rainbow and a pair of ruby slippers to get home with, this is it.

  14. ECON

    The continuing economic and financial crisis has directed much froth at the macroeconomics due to the inability to predict the debacle by educated and trained economists. Many foresaw and warned of the impending issues. What about the CEOs of every industry in America? Many of the comments assert that just knowing the financial mechanisms in the model is sufficient to realize predictive capability to avert crisis. Mere knowing does not assure predictive capability.
    The “Captains of Industry” ie: the one percent, apparently were caught unawares despite their vast knowledge of their markets and business intelligence. How could we predict Lehman goes under without the essential foreknowledge of the corrupt accounting practices in the firm? Much in economics attracts criticism but much is on the periphery of the core. In fact the sociology and psychology of American management can tell us more than DSGE.

    1. groo

      how about that:
      recognizing the TRUE currency of society: trust.
      Then build a calculus of trust.
      How do you call this?
      Ethics, as far as I know.

      No wonder that one of the best ‘economists’ today actually is a criminologist –Bill Black.
      Other are historians (Hudson), engineers(Keen), anthropologists (Graeber).
      Ruskin was a polymath and arts critic.

      How come that a profession does not know/care about its foundations itself?
      Or completely deludes itself?

      Maybe instead of being awarded a fake Nobel-price they should get awarded an entrance-card into some mental asylum.

      1. ECON

        As I noted…more froth and fury…duly note that there are few if any economist CEOs…little to be had with fire-aim-ready. There is much to criticize about the core but there not many CEOs who actively engage in economic intelligence. Hell to read/analyze any articles in the American Economic Review is proof of misplaced presumptions about economics.

    2. Fiver

      What makes you think the 1% was caught unawares? They have clearly made enormous gains in their % ownership of all assets and cemented their grip on power since the crisis. We should all have it so bad.

  15. Lafayette


    This is not the place to run through the tortured history of orthodox neoclassical macroeconomics, from the ‘neoclassical synthesis’ through Friedman’s monetarism to ‘New Classical’ to ‘real business cycles’ to ‘New Keynesians’, and thus finally to DSGE.

    Well, in fact it is.

    But the same turgid results will occur, which is why the debate inconclusively goes on and on and on … ad nauseam.

  16. Lafayette


    This is not the place to run through the tortured history of orthodox neoclassical macroeconomics, from the ‘neoclassical synthesis’ through Friedman’s monetarism to ‘New Classical’ to ‘real business cycles’ to ‘New Keynesians’, and thus finally to DSGE.

    Well, in fact it is.

    But the same turgid results will occur, which is why the debate inconclusively goes on and on and on … ad nauseam.

  17. groo

    to put more emphasis onto the core of the issue, I would like the good professor to investigate the term ‘value’.

    Marx struggled on that one, quite unconvincingly.

    What is it?

    However you call it, it is the everchanging chamaeleon beneath all economic theorizing.

    ‘Value’ is not a constant, however you try to term it in the first place.
    As a recent example, the breast implant, which had some ‘value’ of 8000€, suddenly gets a negative ‘value’ of -3000€, to remove it.

    Both add to GDP, right?

    So what is going on here?
    Replacing GDP by GHP (G Happiness P) helps a bit, but really does not cure the disease.

    I really do not know the answer, but at least I have a feeling that somewhere there must be the -well- ‘solution’.

    Happiness correlates with trust.
    This I am sure.
    Do’nt know.

    I would very much like to delegate questions like this to an economics of the future, which deserves its name.

  18. Fiver

    Check out this excerpt from the bit re Chari’s model worlds:

    “All of them are explicit about the constraints imposed by nature, the structure of markets and available information on choices to households, firms and the government. From this perspective DSGE land is a very big tent. The only alternatives are models in which the modeler does not clearly spell out how people make decisions. Why should we prefer obfuscation to clarity?”

    This is what happens when you get too close to the Truth and the Model sucks you in – this poor man is now convinced he’s one of his own simulations, and, operating as smoothly as only harmony with one’s restraints affords, pulls out the “obfuscation to clarity” bullshit as if we were all phase-shifted or somethin’.

    Our minds’ ongoing fusion with our technologies is getting us into deeper and deeper shit by the day.

  19. groo

    I have a pet theory.
    Let me explain.

    Considering that 95% of ‘standard’ economist’s predicitions on the big issues are typically false, whereas even ancient folk rules about the weather are typically 60% right, and hard science is typically 99.x% right (think hard-disks or bridges), what could that mean?

    Well, at first I would suppose, that this is an elaborate scheme to delude some 99%.

    To be clear, there have been the 5%, who, for various reasons have been correct, and if it was the predictive value of a standing clock.

    Considering the massaging of economic data, which seems to intensify (see shadowstats), this system seems gradually come to an end.

    If we arbitrarily start with Adam Smith, one has to say in hindsight, that he was a member of the Scottish upperclass, had good intentions, and wanted to teach his upperclass fellows a lesson on how to operate a society in early industrialization effectively, including some ‘moral sentiments’.

    This intention was successively lost in the following couple of hundred years.
    With some rare exceptions like Veblen or Keynes.

    Now we have a system in operation, designed by the likes of Milton Friedman, with a little help by his sister in spirit, Ayn Rand, which looks like a ‘rational’ nightmare.

    It is the ‘rationality’ of the psychopath, designed for obfuscation, deception and ultimately self-deception about the underlying motive, which is domination and exploitation.
    ‘Rational man’ is shaped in the image of the sociopath. Some 90% of them, science says, is rational and ONLY that. They have to reconstruct what is going on in their fellow human beings, whom they actually do not understand.
    The vehicles designed, e.g. money and the corporation, are manifestations of this onedimensionality.
    ‘Value’ is material -the completely commodified world is the ideal one-.
    ‘Trust’ is unnecessary, because everybody is rational.
    To reign in conflictiing interests, one has the M.A.D. strategy, which, under the assumption of rational players, actually should work. We were lucky in the cold war.

    As all complex systems have positive and/or negative feedbacks, in this case the loop goes from the normative to the factual and back.
    For a certain time the factual bows under the imperative of the normative.
    Until it does’nt.
    Think of Aztecs, sacrificing more and more children to please their gods.
    Nonsense feeds nonsense until it explodes into madness, and finally collapses, including the nonbelievers.

    From this develops a long story of connecting the dots, which I spare you.

    The dear professor does a good job debunking the higher strata of all that, like Keen, Black and Hudson.

    This beast is not easy to kill.
    It takes a lot of collective effort.
    Hold on!

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