Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Achilles Heel of (Neoclassical) Economics

Economic theory is counterintuitive for a lot of people. Many just don't like it and think it's a load of hooey. Not understanding something, or just not liking something is not an excuse for throwing out a set of methodologies, and a body of knowledge, that a lot of really smart people have put a lot of hard work into. Economic theory provides a lot of good insights because it's counterintuitive, and provides a good forum for honest discussion among opposing but honestly held views.

But that funny feeling of discomfort can be justifiable. And sometimes economics is the wrong forum for discussion. That won't sit well with anyone who subscribes to a worldview more or less made up of clearing markets, perfect information, and perfectly rational individuals. That's ok, there's no need to accept someone else's views when their ground in what Karl Popper (a neoclassical darling, and smart guy in his own right) would call metaphysics.. Metaphysics can pose as science, but actually isn't. Scientific propositions can be proven wrong, metaphysical ones, propositions in issues such as identity and moral values, cannot be.

Value theory is firmly in the metaphysical camp but it underlies many of the assumptions that allow us to practice economics as we currently do. Sadly, the profession has done little work the implications of these nonscientific assumptions underlying its work. This is partly because there isn't any way to scientifically resolve the issues broached by value theory. This is also because broaching the subject will lead to all types of heated discussion and undermine the scientific legitimacy of the profession in society at large. This is unfortunate, because the profession currently has little insight to offer us on our current "jobless" recovery. In fact, you can't actually understand what an economy is without some understanding of value theory. This article has a very good primer on the value theory of classical political economists such as Adam Smith in contrast with that of the current day orthodoxy from the "marginalist revolution." You can dig into Phil Mirowski's More Heat Than Light for a more (math!) rigorous exposition on the subject.

So if an economist seems like he's being a jerk, it may be because you don't understand what he's saying. Maybe you're the jerk. Or maybe he just is a jerk, and he doesn't understand what he's saying. But at any rate, it pays to know whether the issue at hand can be objectively resolved, or whether you should be discussing legitimate moral and ethical values that underly the disagreement.

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