Martin Wolf: Why Economists Failed as “Experts”—and How to Make Them Matter Again

Yves here. Even though Martin Wolf’s post makes many important observations, I feel the need to take issue with his conclusion. Economists have been and continue to be enormously successful as experts. PhDs in economics make roughly twice as much as those in other social sciences. Economists are the only social scientists to have a seat at the policy table. And they continue to do so, despite their colossal failure in the global financial crisis, with no serious change in the discipline and no loss of reputation of any prominent economists.

Neoclassical economics became important in large measure to show that markets delivered efficient outcomes, and efficiency was seen as tantamount to socially desirable. That’s before considering that highly efficiency almost always comes at the expense of safety and robustness, and that efficient solutions may not be equitable.

The importance of economists as policy advisers grew in the post World War II era, after the USSR managed the impressive feat of industrializing in the 20th century. US officials were concerned that a command and control economy could beat a messy, consumer oriented capitalist one, and turned to economists to give guidance on how to achieve high growth rates so as to produce enough guns and butter.

As for the specific impetus for Wolf’s article, it appears to be due to voters ignoring  the dire warnings made by the Remain campaign during the Brexit referendum campaign that Brexit would have large economic costs. But based on reports after the vote came in, that repudiation came not just because the public might well have good reason not to believe economists as a result of the crisis, but how the Remain campaign carried itself in the debates. That side apparently made arrogant-seeming, data heavy arguments, while the Leavers made stirring appeals about sovereignity….a UK version of MAGA.

By Martin Wolf, Associate Editor and Chief Economics Commentator, Financial Times. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

“I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”
-Michael Gove

Michael Gove, winner of the Brexit referendum (though loser in the game of politics, having failed to become leader of his party, and so, maybe, no true expert either) hit the nail on the head. The people of this country have, it seems, had enough of those who consider themselves experts, in some domains. The implications of this rejection of experts seem enormous. That should be of particular significance for economists, because economists were, after all, the “experts” against whom Mr. Gove was inveighing.

Yet it is not really true that the people of this country have had enough of experts. When they fall ill, they still go to licensed doctors. When they fly, they trust qualified pilots. When they want a bridge, they call upon qualified engineers. Even today, in the supposed “post-fact” world, such people are almost universally recognized as experts.

So, maybe the proper distinction to be made is between “trustworthy” experts and “untrustworthy” ones. The question then become what makes experts trustworthy—not, I should stress, intrinsically trustworthy, but rather perceived by the public to be so.

One might make three, admittedly speculative, points about this distinction between experts deemed by the public to be deserving of trust and those who are not.

The first is that some forms of expertise appear simply to be more solidly based than others in a body of theory and/or evidence, with recognizable successes to their credit. By and large, doctors are associated with cures, pilots with keeping airplanes in the sky and engineers with bridges that stay up. Such successes—and there are many other comparable fields of expertise—self-evidently make people with the relevant expertise appear trustworthy.

The second is that some forms of expertise are more politically contentious than others. Nearly everybody, for example, agrees that curing people, flying airplanes and building bridges are good things. Social and political arrangements—and economics is inescapably about social and political arrangements—are always and everywhere contentious. They affect not only how people think the human world works, but also how it ought to work. These forms of expertise are about values.

The third point is that trust in expertise seems to be quite generally declining. This is partly perhaps because education is more widespread, which makes possession of an education appear in itself less authoritative. It is also partly because of the rapid dissemination of information. It is partly because of the easy formation of groups of the disaffected and dissemination of conspiracy theories. The internet and the new social media it has spawned have turned out to be powerful engines for the spreading of disinformation aimed at manipulation of the unwary.

It might be encouraging for economists that they are not the only experts who are mistrusted. Consider the anti-vaccination movement, hostility to evolutionary theory, or rejection of climate science. All these are the products of doubts fueled by a combination of core beliefs and suspicion of particular forms of expertise. The anti-vaccination movement is driven by parents’ concerns about their children. The hostility to evolution is driven by religion. The rejection of climate science is clearly driven by ideology. Every climate denier I know is a free marketeer. Is this an accident? No. The desire to believe in the free market creates an emotional justification for denying climate science. In principle, after all, belief in free markets and in the physics of the climate system have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

So economists are in good company with other forms of politically or socially contentious expertise. But they have a special difficulty. Not only are they engaged in an essentially controversial, because political, arena, and so also an inherently ideological one, but they suffer to a high degree from the first point I made above: their “science”, if science it is, just does not look to the public to be solidly based. It does not work as well as the public wants and economists have claimed. Economists claim a certain scientific status. But much of it looks to the outsider more like “scientism”—the use of an incomprehensible intellectual apparatus to obscure ignorance rather than reveal truth.

This does not mean that economists don’t know useful things. It is quite clear that they do. Markets are extraordinary institutions, for example. Economists’ elucidation of markets or of the principle of comparative advantage is a great intellectual achievement. Yet suspicion of economics and economists is both long-standing and understandable.

The problem became far more serious after the financial crisis. The popular perception is that the experts—macroeconomists and financial economists—did not appreciate the dangers before the event and did not understand the longer-run consequences after it. Moreover, the popular perception seems to be in large part correct. This has damaged the acceptance of the expertise of economists to a huge extent.

So how, in this suspicious contemporary environment, might economists persuade the public they are experts who deserve to be listened to?

I decided to ask my colleagues this question. One answered that:

1. Good economists have a clear (if incomplete) understanding of how the world works. This is a pre-requisite to making it a better place.

2. Economists have a sense of scale. They understand the difference between big and small and how to make that distinction. This is vital for policy.

3. Economics is all about counterfactuals. It understands the relevant comparators even if they are difficult to work out.

4. Economists are experts on incentives and motivations and empirically try to measure them rather than relying on wishful thinking.

5. Generally, good economists are expert in understanding the limits of their knowledge and forecasting abilities.

Another colleague added:

The general public usually associate economists with:
-A small set of macroeconomic forecasts (growth, inflation mainly), and
-A belief that markets always produce perfect outcomes

And they attribute failure to them if either:
-point forecasts (inevitably) prove wrong, or
-markets produce some bad outcomes

Whereas the expertise of economists is really in the building blocks that enable you to construct sensible forecasts and to understand how people are likely to behave and respond to a given set of circumstances/policies. This structure for understanding the world allows economists to take on board new developments, understand whether they reflect a rejection of their existing theories or merely a (possibly tail) outcome that was consistent with their “model,” and push forward their understanding of the world from there. Rather than throwing away all existing wisdom when circumstances change somewhat.

I agree with these propositions. Properly understood, economics remains very useful. One realizes this as soon as one is engaged with someone who knows nothing at all about the subject. But I still have four qualifications to make.

First, a large part of what economists actually do, namely forecasting, is not very soundly based. It would be a good idea if economists stated that loudly, strongly, and repeatedly. Indeed, there should be ceaseless public campaigning by the professional bodies, emphasizing what economists don’t know. Of course, that would not—as economists might predict—be in their interests.

Second, in important areas of supposed economic expertise, the analytical basis is really weak. This is true of the operation of the monetary and financial systems. It is also true of the determinants of economic growth.

Third, economists are not disinterested outsiders. They are part of the political process. It is crucial to remember that certain propositions favor the interests of powerful people and groups. Economists can find themselves easily captured by such groups. “Invisible hand” theorems are particularly open to such abuse.

Finally, the division between economic aspects of society and the rest is, in my view, analytically unsound. The relationship between, say, economics and sociology or anthropology is not like that between physics and chemistry. The latter rests upon the former. But economics and anthropology lie side by side. I increasingly feel that the educated economist, certainly those engaged in policy, must also understand political science, sociology, anthropology, and sociology. Otherwise, they will fail to understand what is actually happening.

If I am right, the challenge is not just to purify economics of exaggerated claims, though that is indeed needed. It is rather to recognize the limited scope of economic knowledge. This does not mean there is no such thing as economic expertise: there is. But its scope and generality are more limited than many suppose.

Michael Gove was wrong, in my view, about expertise applied in the Brexit debate. But he was not altogether wrong about the expertise of economists. If we were more humble and more honest, we might be better recognized as experts able to contribute to public debate.

With this in mind, what should be the goal of an education in economics at the university level? A part of the answer will come from developments within the field. In time, the incorporation of new ideas and techniques may make the academic discipline better at addressing the intellectual and policy challenges the world now confronts.

Another part of the answer, however, must come from asking what an undergraduate education ought to achieve. The answer should not be to produce apprentices in a highly technical and narrow discipline taught as a branch of applied mathematics. For the great majority of those who learn economics, what matters is appreciation of both a few core ideas and of the complexity of the economic reality.

At bottom, economics is a field of inquiry and a way of thinking. Among its valuable core concepts are: opportunity cost, marginal cost, rent, sunk costs, externalities, and effective demand. Economics also allows people to make at least some sense of debates on growth, taxation, monetary policy, economic development, inequality, and so forth.

It is unnecessary to possess a vast technical apparatus to understand these ideas. Indeed the technical apparatus can get in the way of such an understanding. Much of the understanding can also be acquired in a decent, but not inordinately technical, undergraduate education. That is what I was fortunate enough to acquire in my own years studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford in the late 1960s. Today, I believe, someone with my background in the humanities would never become an economist. I am absolutely sure I would not have done so. It might be arrogant to make this claim. But I think that would have been a pity—and not just for me.

In addition, it would be helpful to expose students to some of the heterodox alternatives to orthodox economics. This can only be selective. But exposure to the ideas of Hyman Minsky, for example, would be very helpful to anybody seeking to understand the macroeconomic implications of liberalized finance.

The teaching of economics to undergraduates must focus on core ideas, essential questions, and actual realities. Such a curriculum might not be the best way to produce candidates for PhD programs. So be it. The study of economics at university must not be seen through so narrow a lens. Its purpose is to produce people with a broad economic enlightenment. That is what the public debate needs. It is what education has to provide.

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  1. greg

    I am afraid a worse problem with economists is that they don’t seem interested in anyone’s opinions except their own.

    They even hold ecology in disdain, not having any interest in learning what is, in fact, the foundational system of their own ‘science.’ The booms and busts of capitalism show familiar patterns to ecologists. Why, ecologists even have equations for them!

    But I guess ecology is just too simple for the attentions of economists: Stupid animals. They don’t even use money! What kind of economy can that be?

    So economists look for models everywhere except where to find them. The hubris of humanity, not needing to give due attention to the economies of ‘animal’ societies.

    1. Sanxi

      To Yves. Well, I nearly lack the heart to respond, but I feel I must. Taking yesterday’s NC’s lessons of looking at a human facing and having eye contact to remain human online, I now do both – a human sits next to me. I read aloud to her.

      Ok, you are a strong advocate of becoming a certified economist. Because 1.they make a lot of money and 2. only they sit at the policy table.

      Further claims made in your preamble: in no particular order of importance: something about efficient outcomes that may not be equitable; command & control and guns and butter; and sadly an analysis of Brexit voters in either camp.

      (One exception to all that I say is those using MMT, certified, with a degree or not. Again something I first learned about on NC.)

      Yesterday, somewhere in the NC collective was the notion that the above mentioned economists tell tho’ we may be so out of balance with the world that our extinction as a species is a legitimate issue to discuss, that in the end there ain’t any money to not only not fix the problem but not even deal with it. And these guys/gals you laud? I and others have argued this gang provided the intellectual nonsense that put us where we are now.

      What is your point that Econ grads make the most amount of money compared to what? Philosophy majors? True or not I still say it’s a waste of a life. Not the knowing, but the being of one. I don’t see what value there is for civilization in general but specifically that just because they make a lot of money, it’s good?

      All social science grads you say v Econ grads make more money. I doubt that. Seems every school district requires a PhD in Education, and a PhD in Business is very lucrative (not saying useful, just pays well).

      The policy table. I’m truly baffled as to what you refer. If they are the only ones at said table then it follows they are the only ones at it. In my long life I’m trying to think were we ever let an economist have the final say, or even a moderate say in any political, governmental, or military policy. Some input yes, but deterministic, no. If they were sitting at their own table, when asked they came to table with those that had the votes, give their opinion and then left. Sociological impact statements had far bigger influence on policy. And policy is no more then the data we can agree on to make decisions.

      Sure, many governments, NGOs, multinationals all have jobs for economists but in someway this is self serving, not a necessity. Kuhn’s book on “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, does a good job of explain how authority gets established, vested, and in the end becomes useless. That it exists is not an argument that it is necessary or good. That there needs to be some way to define and explain things economic I no have issue with, that outside of MMT that is has been, using system theory I don’t see it.

      As to efficient outcomes that may not be equitable that speaks for itself. It doesn’t. No ‘may not’ about it, said with respect.

      As to command & control and guns and butter, seems like a long time ago. A long time ago, using science to help in making decisions was new and it took awhile to get it right, or at least to get it working.

      (Small note, I have dual US & UK citizenships)

      An analysis of Brexit voters in either camp. I can tell you why I voted the way I did but I need to make an appeal to Stephen Pinker’s, “The Blank Slate”. Either I have the free will to make a decision and accept responsibility for it or I don’t. I believe I do and did. I voted to leave and yes their are economic impacts, as well as social, political, historical, psychological, and philosophical. As did in electing Trump. As did the 1776 revolution, as in the US Civil War, almost anything. Money is not everything nor the only thing. And the future isn’t what it used to be. The Long Emergency is here.

      1. skippy

        Hayek liked banding around watery terms like freedom and liberty … its when he stopped being an economist [political theory in times past] and jointed the ranks of ideologues ….

        Pay check included … oops and health care ….

      2. Yves Smith Post author

        Boy are you shooting the messenger. I’m not saying the way the economics discipline has become influential is a good thing, but that is the way it is. How economics operates as a discipline is great for economists, so why should they change? So what if their prescription fail way too often? For instance, there haven’t been any bad consequences to anyone who didn’t see the crisis coming and (even worse) advocated bank deregulation, starting with Larry Summers (but he had plenty of company).

        And you are simply wrong about the influence economists have. In the US, CBO budget scoring is fundamental to how Congress views various proposed programs, even though we have described how the CBOs methods are crap and the CBO operates as an a big enforcer of deficit hysteria (as in they play a politicized role). The Fed and other central banks, the most powerful single government economic actors, are all run by monetary economists. The IMF, another very powerful institution, has deeply embraced and implements neoliberal policies, namely, balanced budgets and squeezing labor (labor “reforms”). In the US, economists in op eds and even in Congressional testimony (see Bernanke for instance) argue for balanced budgets and argue the supposed necessity of cutting Social Security and Medicare and NEVER mention cutting military spending. They are acting not just as enforcers of overall spending, but by advocating what to cut, are influencing priorities.

    2. Avery T

      Back in my former life as an economist-in-training, I ran into ecological economics as a branch of natural resource economics. It was completely backwards – the extent ecological theory was brought in didn’t extend beyond simple predator-prey-plant models, and the goal was to find the macroeconomic general equilibrium of biomass in the ecosystem.

      That was probably just the most striking example of the institutional close-mindedness I saw back among the economists.

      1. greg

        Yes. They tend to substitute useless concepts for useful ones. Their notion of efficiency is not the one a physicist would appreciate: The ratio of real benefits to real costs. Rather how ‘efficiently’ capital is being used, how busy the factory is, even if the average cost increases, and the benefits to society decline. And thus the ratio of benefits to costs also declines.

        Productive efficiency is sacrificed for allocative efficiency in each particular market, even though it means wasted and mis-allocated resources in the economy as a whole. Which apparently is unimportant to an economist..

  2. deplorado

    Mr Wolf says, among the important concepts are “externalities”… Like everything that supports economic activity. Economics reduces the real world to “externalities” and simple equations about things measured in crude tokens – money. How good can it be then.

    Also, “Such a curriculum might not be the best way to produce candidates for PhD programs” – is that a goal in itself? Like, the world needs a certain amount of economics PhDs produced? What for?

    Prof. Michael Hudson, Prof. Richard Wolff and others have long ago explained what’s wrong with mainstream economics, but that can’t be said in FT.

    This reminds me of the party press during the Perestroika in the 80ies talking about reform in a similar soft and obfuscatory of the truth way, full of wishful recommendations, striking a demurely optimistic tone supposed to convey integrity. It was bullshit and when the real things started happening, everybody forgot about it, because it had no depth and no bearing on real life.

    1. diptherio

      It seems obvious to most people that not all values are commensurable with each other. For instance, things like literary and artistic quality, friendships, and human lives cannot defensibly be measured in dollar terms. However, this is just what economics attempts to do. Hence, environmental economics simply aims to put a dollar value on environmental quality (or degredation). Hence, the entirety of my Labor Economics course was focused on how you place a monetary value on a human life, when the human happens to die because of their job.

      So, I tend to agree with you. The whole discipline is of questionable value, so long as economists refuse to accept some very basic truths and incorporate much more than money into their analyses.

      1. JEHR

        That comment strikes me as strange because one of the weaknesses of classical economic models was the fact that how money works was not part of their inquiry.

  3. The Rev Kev

    In trying to judge the abilities of an expert, the best that most people can do is to see the results on what they practice. If a doctor has a reputation of getting his patients drug-addicted, then you would not go to them. If an engineer built a building but the roof constantly leaked, you would think twice about giving them another contract. But let us think about how well economists are judged. You might say that a lot of people in the UK discounted their advice during Brexit but it has been noted that a lot of the Leave campaign was based in depressed areas. Why were so many areas depressed? Because the people knew that the government was using the advice of economists as to which areas to prioritize for resources. And usually that meant London and its outer areas – which voted Remain.
    People are fully aware of what happens too when WTO economists go into a country – social services are cut, public transport is cut way back, the cost of living for the poor skyrocket while the rich seem to be protected. And take a look at the economic state of the United States. Wages have flatlined since the 70s, infrastructure is falling into disrepair, whole swathes of the country are abandoned to their own devices, de-industrialisation is a fact, etc, etc etc but the point is that the people that were giving all the advice to have this done were economists like Ken Rogoff and his wonky austerity study. It may have been the politicians that pulled the trigger but it was economists that were loading the gun.
    if you want a breed of economists more grounded in reality, then I would suggest having them work in a fulfillment center for a week to show the the consequences of what happens when you get priorities wrong. Certainly they need to study the work of economists like Hyman Minsky and Susan Strange who had gone out of fashion before the crash but the long and short of it is to see what works and what does not work. I do not mean to be insulting here but as far as I can see, modern economic theory has really been a theory for the top 20% and not for the rest of the population. And now we are seeing the result up close and personal and until this changes, people will not feel the need to take the advice of economist, even when they should. Martin Wolf is fortunate in having also a humanities background but how true is that nowadays?

  4. Jos Oskam

    The sentence “…So, maybe the proper distinction to be made is between “trustworthy” experts and “untrustworthy” ones…” is important. Unfortunately, in the article I miss a key aspect in making that distinction.

    I seem to notice that the “trustworthy” areas of expertise in general tend to be removed from political ideas or preferences. Left or right, liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, it does not affect the way in which trustworthy experts go about their business. It does not influence the way in which a doctor cures patients, a pilot flies a plane or an engineer constructs a bridge. However, as soon as we start discussing things like the economy, talk is full of “liberal” or “left” economists as opposed to “conservative” or “right” economics. I have never heard of one bridge being more at risk of collapse because it was designed by a liberal engineer versus a conservative one, or the other way round. When discussing the strength of a bridge political leanings simply do not come into play, it is not a factor like the strength of the steel used. But for all economic debate, these leanings often seem to be the essence of the discussion.

    Given the general public’s intensifying distrust of politicians and all things political, it does not surprise me that disciplines tainted by political colouring (like economics) are considered “untrustworthy” compared to disciplines where political colouring is not a factor (like the aforementioned doctors, pilots and engineers).

    Since economics *is* in fact very interwoven with politics, I think the general public will always treat economists the same way they treat politicians, that is with a healthy dose of distrust. And who can blame them?

    1. Ptb

      Yes, ability vs integrity.
      And you can take 10 of the most honest and well meaning people, dedicated to the public good and advancement of learning, employ them in a structure set up to profit first and ask questions second, and the whole is going to be not the same as the sum of the parts.

    2. bruce wilder

      I’d say an unhealthy dose of distrust is more likely and more common.

      People tend to treat conventional econospeak as so much blah, blah, blah and then turn around and credit or discredit what has been said on the basis of the tone with which it was said.

      Economists working for the kleptocracy get a lot of mileage out of sounding serious, while talking complete rubbish. And, sadly, many economists working the left, get away with lame one-liners and a rudderless iconoclasm.

  5. SJ

    I had an e-mail exchange with Mr. Wolf many years ago – before the 2008 crash – where he basically told me that we live in the best of all possible worlds and that nothing needs to change – he has changed his tune since then, I suppose to try to avoid looking like a complete idiot and also to try to deflect criticism on to others. Maybe he has öearned something in the meantime, but maybe he is just faking for the sake of appearences.

    1. deplorado

      I think he is faking it. It’s the party line. It is the beginning of the neoliberal Perestroika (see also Brad DeLong).

      I quite like to look at it this way – it is very clarifying (as I lived in the Perestroika) and I recommend it. Don’t for a moment trust the Perestroika – it is half-measures at best and purposeful deception at worst.

  6. johnf

    “… The answer should not be to produce apprentices in a highly technical and narrow discipline taught as a branch of applied mathematics….” With apologies to Mr. Richter, economics is taught more like a branch of mathematical sophistry, and that is slighting the original sophists.

    I was an undergraduate studying applied mathematics at the time and place, present day neoclassical economics was being developed, published and starting to be taught. I can think of just one economics-and-finance classmate who continued to study mathematics beyond first year calculus – which everyone had to take.

    Our introductory numerical analysis professor was scathing about his colleagues at the other side of the Quads. He made it quite plain that we could not skip the rigor and “try to prove something like an economist”. Pretty much all the econ students dropped his course when they discovered that. The specific problem they could not address, can be simply stated. If you know a number but don’t know its error, you don’t know the number. The difficulty the great mass of economists have with just that, excludes economics as a branch of applied mathematics.

    1. bruce wilder

      interesting insight

      pretty much the sum total of neoclassical economics is trying to work out the counterfactual of how the economy would work if everyone had more-or-less complete information to work with.

      introduce genuine uncertainty, and pretty much the whole apparatus turns topsy-turvy and all the “laws” of economics disappear or become highly contingent on circumstances unlikely to obtain.

  7. Thuto

    “Fixing” economics must start with a wholesale divestment from the idea of this profession being a “science”, said divestment openly promoted by economists themselves. All manner of hardwired, warped thinking, to say nothing of obstinacy in changing one’s views when confronted with contradictory evidence, results from people believing that they’re scientists practising a real science. When such thinking seeps into the subconscious, the obstinacy is locked into place and even events of the scale of the GFC aren’t enough to shake loose the erroneous biases held by the mainstream profession.

    How else would an entire profession place so much faith in the predictive powers of its models if not having such faith resting on a (supposed) firm foundation of science? An engineer designing a beam for a bridge has justifiable faith in continuum mechanics (a real science) as a sound foundation for their work, economics is devoid of such sound foundations and its time the profession loudly and publicly declared this in an unprecedented act of intellectual honesty.

    Additionally, we see weak to non-existent culpability enforcement when policy recommendations put on the table by economists wreck lives (as they have over decades), this in stark contrast with e.g. an engineer designing a bridge that collapses and kills hundreds. In other words, economists have outsized influence in matters of policy out of proportion with the amount of actual skin they have in the game. On the other side, this “economics is a science” narrative disarms a public already deficient in the marginal capacity for independent, critical thinking to question anything economists say, said public including politicians who, as aptly put by the Rev Kev, pull the trigger of a policy gun loaded by economists.

    1. cnchal

      >. . . economics is devoid of such sound foundations and its time the profession loudly and publicly declared this in an unprecedented act of intellectual honesty.

      Not one economist, with their ass planted firmly on their throne at the policy table, will admit to that. The operating principle is venality.

      Now that they have lost the respect of the peasants, I don’t want them to matter again. What I would like to see is mass firings of eclownomists, so they can experience life as lived by the peasants, just once. It may even free up resources to pay people to actually do good things instead of perpetuating one failure after another, and being grossly rewarded for those failures.

  8. dearieme

    I think he gets the wrong end of the stick here: “Consider the anti-vaccination movement, hostility to evolutionary theory, or rejection of climate science.”

    No doubt there are occasions when vaccinations can do serious harm: a niece of mine was excused a standard vaccination because of a contra-indication in her family medical history.The anti-vaxers, though, seem to have elevated some small kernel of truth into a stupid all-encompassing doctrine without giving the matter enough critical thought.

    The anti-evolutionists seem to have failed to devote any critical thought to the matter at all.

    But the sceptics about “climate science” have deployed critical thinking to identify this new religion as being composed largely of incompetence, dishonesty, and hysteria. It’s the likes of old Wolfie who are lacking in critical thought on this issue. Maybe he’s one of those people who is uneducated in science, and so too easily swayed by chaps shouting excitedly about models, measurements, and so forth.

    It’s very odd. Goebbels Warming is now old enough that you can check the historical record of its predictions of dreadful tipping points, of the disappearance of snow from Britain, of the flooding of this and that Pacific island group, and so on. All false. So why should anyone rational believe a word of it? After all, almost from the beginning its proponents believed that the science was settled – it was inarguable. In which case why have their predictions proved so lousy?

    Consult a poet: humankind cannot bear very much reality.
    Consult an economist: incentives matter.

  9. mle detroit

    Dearie me, Dearieme, your comment appears to lack sources, citations, examples. Please provide.

  10. Steve Ruis

    So, Yves, you are saying (“Economists are the only social scientists to have a seat at the policy table,” etc.) that economists are like weathermen. They still have a time slot on the evening news and are respected, even though their accuracy is abysmal. They make a lot of money doing this.

    Basically, this is because we expect very little of economists and because they have stopped using ordinary language professionally, they have the status equivalent to someone actually helpful.

    I think economics has become an asocial science with too many economists willing to provide some sort of academic cover for whatever the plutocrats want to do.

    1. Arthur Dent

      I think the analogy to meteorologists is interesting. As an engineer, I have some perspective on this.

      In engineering design, frequent failure of what we design is generally undesirable. So we have our analytical tools based on both scientific theory and empirical data, and then apply a factor of safety (sometimes called factor of ignorance, but more accurately is a recognition that there is a probabilistic distribution of outcomes and the factors of safety shift the design towards success instead of high probability of failure).

      Airline pilots operate similar to engineers in that they aren’t flying close to the edge of the airplane’s flight characteristics. Instead they stay in a zone quite a ways away from what the airplane could potentially do. This is one of the reasons that airplane travel is very safe, especially compared to car travel.

      Meteorologists are trying to make predictions of the most likely scenario which means they are trying to hit the center of the distribution of the potential outcomes. As a results, they frequently are shown to have “missed” in that some other lower probability event occurred instead. Over the past couple of decades, we have gotten used to seeing weather forecasts with probabilities or ranges of outcomes.

      I think the public presentation of economics has two separate problems, but both undermine economics credibility.

      First, economics is a field that is trying to predict the most likely event and the range of potential outcomes, similar to the weather forecasts, but does not present the predictions this way. So people don’t cut economists slack because their public presentations don’t recognize the range of potential outcomes and the frank recognition of the inaccuracy of their predictions that we are used to with the weather people, especially once they get past 24 hrs of predictions.

      Second, many of the economists that make public predictions are funded by interest groups. When we see a lawyer on TV, we know that he is being paid by a client to be an advocate and that is his job as a lawyer. So we may disregard what he has to say but we understand the context he is speaking in. However, the economists don’t say who they are being paid by and so they are presumed to be independent experts when they are sometimes not. I believe this is a fundamental ethical issue within the economics profession.

      So when the economics predictions (e.g. effects of tax cuts) fail to be accurate, it needs to be parsed out if it was simply a lower probability event or if the predictions were intentionally biased to begin with. None of this is well-addressed by the economics profession, which greatly undermines credibility.

  11. jfleni

    I was just getting used to the idea that economists are like clocks: right twice a
    day — at Noon and sundown!

  12. Ptb

    Economists also use the term ‘efficiency’ to denote pareto optimality, which causes much confusion.

    Especially when communicating with both analytical people of a hard-sciencey or engineering background (efficiency = a context specific figure, some-measure-of-output/some-measure-of-input, strict limits in how far you can generalize), and business people (efficient = low cost)

    1. bruce wilder

      economists also routinely distinguish the allocative efficiency they focus upon almost exclusively from the kinds of technical or managerial efficiency that most of the rest of the world focuses upon, but they rarely admit that their focus is so narrow and does not generalize to encompass common sense notions of cost and efficiency — it is almost as if they want to avoid the critical examination engineering enables while providing double-talk as cover for business people trying to privatize the profits while socializing the costs.

  13. Matthew G. Saroff

    Let me start by saying that I object to the term “Dismal Science” for economics.

    This is not because of the “dismal” part, it’s because of the “science” part.

    That being said, the devaluing of expertise is due in large part to something not mentioned by Mr. Wolf: corruption, particularly for the field of macroeconomics.

    We have seen this repeatedly in the past few decades, where nominally independent researchers have been found to slant their research to accommodate the results desired by their patrons. (The sad state of pharma and medical research come to mind as well)

    In fact, ACCORDING TO THEIR OWN “RATIONAL ACTOR” THEORIES, academics in general, and economists in particular,will behave in ways that will most strongly benefit themselves, and not in ways that serve the truth or reality. (Studies have shown that economists are the most selfish academics)

    I believe that if you discuss the devaluation of knowledge and expertise without discussing the pervasive corruption in western society, you are ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room.

    1. john Wright

      I object to the “Dismal” part.

      Economic Science is very optimistic that what they characterize as “economic growth” in using up the world’s resources in its pursuit, is a “good thing”.

      Economists are selling a limitless planet on which humans will always “pull the rabbit out of the hat”, to solve any resource issue, including climate change and overpopulation.

      That being said, I view the economic profession, as largely practiced by its well-paid members, as a mechanism to justify what the political and business elite want to do.

      The elite are simply getting what they pay to hear.

  14. Steven Greenberg

    I worked on simulation software for integrated circuits. My friend studied economics with all the famous people. When I described to him what I did if there seemed to be a discrepancy between what my simulator said and how the integrated circuit behaved in real life or the intuition that an electrical engineer had about how it would behave in real life he was amazed. I was amazed that he was amazed. How could you possibly believe a simulator that necessarily has bugs in it, if you don’t track down discrepancies to understand which is right, your intuition or the simulator?

    Sometimes, I had to be very inventive to find another way to make a complex calculation in a way that would test out if the simulator was right. If economics students are taught the math, but not how to check their work, and the necessity of checking their work, then they shouldn’t be in positions to make policy recommendations.

    1. bruce wilder


      Many economists avoid operational modeling of the processes of the actual, institutional economy. And, that which does take place in narrowly conceived research by specialists is never allowed to feed back on the methods or theories embodied in the core doctrines.

        1. bruce wilder

          One way mainstream macroeconomics defeats its own feeble efforts at empiricism is to set the problems in a frame of time-series regression analysis of highly aggregated data: national GDP and its high-level components year-by-year or quarter-by-quarter.

          The behavior of tens or hundreds of millions of people reduced to statistics for largely formless accounting conventions relating to a single somewhat amorphous entity (a country) over time. History, however it happens, only ever happens one way, so there’s always zero degrees of freedom in the aggregate time-series.

          There is so little information left in the data, even the most clever econometricians would need a thousand years of data to “test” the most basic hypotheses. It is absurd to approach the task in the way they do.

          Is it necessarily as difficult a task as they make it, to learn something useful about the way the economy works?

          The problems of statistical aggregation and time-series are not rooted in the object of study — the actual political economy — so much as they are created by the conceptual apparatus.

          In short form, economists have an analytic theory — in form and epistemic status, something akin to Euclid’s geometry. A geometry is not itself a map of the world and no one doing geometry confuses geometry with cartography or land surveying, but most economists do not understand that their theory is not itself a model of the actual political economy. Someone like Paul Krugman actually thinks he has “a map” of the political economy in, say, IS/LM . No student of geometry expects to find a dimensionless point in the bathroom or an isoceles triangle growing in the garden. Yet, economists regularly purport to casually observe perfectly competitive markets in equilibrium or the natural interest rate.

          I think economists could do as well as, say, meteorologists or geologists in developing an empirically grounded understanding of the observable political economy, if they focused their attention on concrete and measurable mechanisms of the institutional economy and stopped talking meaninglessly about formless “markets” that have no existence.

  15. Reality Bites

    This article reminds me of why I stopped reading The Economist after the GFC. The Economist was quite explicit in advocating for a weak regulatory environment. I remember articles talking about how great it was for the Office of Thrift Supervision to regulate banks alongside others like the Fed because regulatory competition was good. After the GFC they were writing articles about how they opposed this all along.
    It’s not just that so many economists are wrong. It’s that many times their models and predictions are wrong and they claim that it is either not what they argued for or ‘externalities’ intervened. Of course they never mentioned such externalities before. Many just outright conjure up unicorns. There were no shortage of economists claiming that the housing bubble was not a problem and the economy will grow to the point where things just naturally level off. Of course there was no accountability for those peddling these falsehoods.

  16. Candy

    I love the way people shrink down what Michael Gove said.

    Here is his full exchange with his interviewer:

    Gove: I think the people in this country have had enough of experts, with organizations from acronyms, saying—

    Interviewer: They’ve had enough of experts? The people have had enough of experts? What do you mean by that?

    Gove: People from organizations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.

    Inteviewer: The people of this country have had enough of experts?

    Gove: Because these people are the same ones who got consistently wrong what was happening.

  17. shinola

    Perhaps it’s changed since I started out as an econ. major in the mid ’70’s, but what disillusioned me was the total disregard for actual human behavior. Real people do NOT always behave rationally or honestly. Emotions/psychology do figure greatly in real people making “economic” decisions – just ask anyone who makes their living based on selling something.

    Every economic model should be prefaced with “In an ideal world…” (or perhaps more honestly “In an economist’s construct of an ideal world…)

    1. Arizona Slim

      I share your disillusionment, shinola. I was a late 1970s econ major. By the time I graduated, I was done with economics.

    2. hunkerdown

      Real people don’t, but they should, say those who hire economists. If the algorithm doesn’t work, change the inputs.

  18. Wukchumni

    How many brand name economists up and quit in disgust 11 years ago when the powers that be decided to go against everything they stood for, and bailed out those that deserved to go down in financial flames?

    …not a one

  19. bruce wilder

    A parenthetical lifted from Randy Wray’s post responding to DeLong on MMT:

    an exasperated Wynne Godley came into my office a couple of decades ago and announced that every [mainstream model] he had looked at was incoherent

    That’s the base problem, imho: economists are very successful as “experts” in a sociological sense, slotting into the role with firm claims on salary, status and ritual respect, as Yves Smith observed, but economics as a civic doctrine and a common frame of reference for political discourse is incoherent and economics as a scholarly discipline or “social science” fails methodological or epistemic standards.

    There is a history of imperviousness to absolutely devastating critiques that isn’t explained. Is that persistent “wrongness” related to professional success or only a by-product of an unfortunate pedagogy? Who puts the dogmatism into a dogma . . . and keeps it there?

    (disclosure: i was a professional economist myself many years ago — neither ambitious nor particularly successful, but I did attend ruling class schools for what that was worth)

  20. deplorado

    Prof. Richard Werner has a fantastic talk (at the Russian Academy of Sciences) about, among other things, “the unresolved puzzles of modern economics” – to me the most striking there was how he dispenses with concept of “equilibrium”.
    He talks about the “puzzles” ~30 min in.

    It is enough to see that and know that mainstream economists are little more than the high priests of the peculiar modern religion guiding our society.

  21. Adam1

    “The teaching of economics to undergraduates must focus on core ideas, essential questions, and actual realities.”

    Sadly Mr. Wolf suffers from the same delusions that so many mainstream economist suffer. They think they have actually considered “actual realities”.

    Yet the foundations of mainstream economics ignores these ACTUAL REALITIES…
    – Assumes Loanable Funds yet the Bank of England & the Bundesbank both publicly published research say endogenous money is correct. Loans create Deposits. They are clueless as to how finance works. I recall the infamous intro to econ question… “If I double you income and double prices for beer, how much beer can you now purchase?” The standard econ answer is the same amount of beer. But in the real world the correct answer is you don’t know. The professor never told you how large the fixed debt payments of the person were which most definitely impacts the amount of disposable income you have to buy beer. But then again most economists would likely fail any advanced accounting class. Long gone are the days when undergraduate economics students in economics had to take 2 or 3 semesters of accounting. Even my alma mater which is definitely heterodox in faculty and has MMT / UMKC taught faculty only require 1 these days. You need a strong foundation in accounting to be stock flow consistent in your modeling of a highly monetary modern economy.
    – Assumes upward sloping supply curve is the market norm. At least 3 economic studies have attempted to measure this on large cross industry scales and every time concludes that over 1/2 of all businesses face downward sloping cost curves (natural monopoly stuff, and we wonder why industry concentration is the norm) and another 1/3 face flat cost curves. An upward sloping supply curve, for those not taking advanced or graduate level economics IS the assumed upward sloping marginal cost curve of the industry or nation if you’re crazy enough to apply it at the macro level.

    There are dozens more piss pore assumptions that underpin mainstream economics. In this day and age far more EMPIRICAL, real word data can be used to confirm what really makes an economy work, but sadly what we teach in college is garbage where the ACTUAL REALITIES are ignored.

  22. Steven

    Soddy (paraphrasing John Ruskin) yet again:

    … a logical definition of wealth is absolutely needed for the basis of economics if it is to be a science.”

    2nd edition, p. 102
    Economists and financiers seem to be incapable of understanding we live on a finite planet. Nor do they seem to be able to get beyond equating money with wealth. It is much easier to just put a price on something like a Beethoven symphony (or call it ‘priceless’) than to attempt a definition of wealth. But for most of us the ingredients of a definition are much simpler. Topping the list has to be energy. You can’t create it but you can dissipate it, i.e. render it useless, by for example manufacturing useless junk that falls apart quickly enough for people who run or own the business to make a lot of money.

    Or if your customers can no longer afford the junk because you have automated or off-shored their jobs, you can sell guns and bombs to your wholly owned government – to use in blowing up people who stand in the way of your accumulating more of the money created by your bankers, financiers and politicians. Then there is the basic intelligence required to run the machinery and discern better – i.e. more energy and resource efficient – ways of doing things. With real wealth creation comes power. The Chinese may have figured this out. The West’s 1%, its economists, bankers and politicians don’t appear to have a clue.

  23. RBHoughton

    Did Kenneth Rogoff apologise for his hit on Iceland and his subsequent dismay defense in Ferguson’s “Inside Job”? At least one of the Chicago boys (Jonathan Sachs) has resiled from the opinions of Friedman and rejoined the human race but only after a raft of countries were ground down by the mill of the moneymen. Chile and Poland seem to have survived at horrible social cost but what of the others?

    The plaint is partly true. When governments were advised by economists, they replaced the wishes of the electorate. The economist brought along their army of lawyers who instantly appeared as mercenary terrorists to browbeat and coerce officials with various threats to do as the moneymen asked and cease attending to the people. This is still the state of play in UK and USA and those core paper-issuers drag the ‘also rans’ along with carrots and sticks.

    I believe the fault lies in lazy officials who seldom run trials on new ideas in limited areas but drop the entire country into one speculative foray after another. Its a shame that its not mentioned. There is no good reason why the whole country has to be volunteered for these new scheme. Why has the UK Treasury shut down every competing form of banking to the high street banks – the trust banks, coop bank, post office bank, municipal banks, mutuals – all thrown away as infringers of the BoE’s monopoly. The country needs an Oliver Cromwell or Napoleon to lead it not the present bunch of ragamuffins and hooligans.

    That brings me to the second problem the disastrous state of the representation. It is mainly due to the control factions have brought to bear on the selection of candidates for office. That has to stop and the way to do it to have primary assemblies of every 200-300 people who select one of their number to represent them. He’s a school friend or neighbor and a known quantity. Several primary assemblies select a chap to represent them and so on up this new structure of democracy to the top.

    The business community have sought to keep everyone’s nose to the grindstone with statistics justifying under payment by understating inflation. That has to stop. The economics trade belongs with astrology and weather forecasting until it acknowledges the fundamentals that drive prices.

      1. RBHoughton

        Apologies to Mr Rogoff and grateful thanks to Yves for the correction. I’ll take a pill now

  24. Cal2

    It seems to me from my citizen’s non-professional perspective that the only real economists are experts in resource extraction, manufacturing and end use of same.

    IOW, a forester, mining, petroleum, construction engineer and even a naval admiral, sitting around a table, all beholden to and obeying the supreme chairmanship of an ecologist, would be a better and less destructive thing for the world than a bunch of money only maximum value extraction Wall Streeters controlling the engineers mentioned above.

    Can there even be an economy without resource extraction? It seems like most new economic schemes are attempting this with humans bodies, credit ratings and bank accounts being the last available commodity.

  25. Sound of the Suburbs

    The economists got Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, but they missed this:

    “The interest of the landlords is always opposed to the interest of every other class in the community” Ricardo 1815 / Classical Economist

    What does our man on free trade mean?
    He was an expert on the small state, unregulated capitalism he observed in the world around him. He was part of the new capitalist class and the old landowning class were a huge problem with their rents that had to be paid both directly and through wages.

    Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)

    Employees get less disposable income after the landlords rent has gone.
    Employers have to cover the landlord’s rents in wages reducing profit.

    Ricardo is just talking about housing costs, employees all rented in those days.

    Employees get their money from wages and so the employer pays through wages.

    Look at the US cost of living:
    The cost of living = housing costs + healthcare costs + student loan costs + food + other costs of living

    Employees get their money from wages, so it is the employer that pays through wages, reducing profit and driving off shoring from the US.

    Maximising profit requires minimising labour costs; i.e. wages.

    China, Asia and Mexico look good, the US is awful.

    (This is Michael Hudson’s argument in a slightly different from)

    There are some fundamental problems with today’s economics, like this and the fact it doesn’t look at money, debt or banks.

    Also, it hasn’t worked out financial markets are not like other markets.

    The supply of stocks stays fairly fixed and central banks can create a “wealth effect” by just adding liquidity. More money is now chasing a fairly fixed number of financial assets and the price (e.g. stock market) goes up.

  26. Martin - Victoria, BC

    I fear that, for the most part, this is a “bought” profession and that far from being a science, economics is merely, to paraphrase Clausewitz, the pursuit of politics by other means. (For the 1%, almost entirely.)

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