Why mathematics and modeling should not be equated with economics and human action

A long way from the pin factory

A very intelligent friend of mine of markedly different political persuasions said the other day that he avoided “technical economic arguments” with me as I’ve just graduated with a degree in economics. I was rather sad to hear this.

The simple truth is that after doing a module called, say, ‘Introduction to Economic Principles and Policy’, you will not study very much more which will add greatly to your understanding of the subject. Beyond that, in an ‘Intermediate Microeconomics’ course for example, you are simply ladling mostly unnecessary algebra onto the subject.

Take this from a course in ‘Intermediate Macroeconomics’ for example:

This is actually some of the more accessible math involved in modern economics. Furthermore, the concepts it is dealing with, constant returns to scale and the per worker production function, are pretty straightforward. Yet many, including almost all university economics lecturers, will tell you that this is economics. It is, in fact, simply applied algebra – mathematics looking for a real world application. Economists eager to give their art the patina of science and mathematicians searching for real world relevance have combined to render economics impenetrable.

This trend also stems from the view of economics as the study of a mechanism. People may now laugh at the model of the economy A.W. Phillips built in the basement of the London School of Economics in 1949 with its gurgling pipes full of different coloured liquids representing money literally sloshing around an economy controlled by sluice gates. But it isn’t conceptually different from the computerised models that are in use today guiding research and government policy.

These models often fail. If your model is based on erroneous assumptions, such as the creation of phantom capital called Quantitative Easing actually stimulating an economy, you will get erroneous outputs; Garbage In Garbage Out as they say. But there is a more fundamental problem. There is no exogenous ‘thing’ called ‘The Economy’ which can be quantified and controlled, there is only each of us doing what we do every day. That is why Ludwig von Mises called his great treatise on economics ‘Human Action’. Or as Friedrich von Hayek rapped recently “The economy’s not a car. There’s no engine to stall. No experts can fix it. There’s no “it” at all. The economy is us”.

It is little wonder that even intelligent people feel themselves cowed and run in terror from the thicket of abstraction that shrouds modern economics. It needn’t be like this. The great works of the discipline, those of Adam Smith or Carl Menger for example, managed to lay the foundations of the subject without it.

And it is sad that people like my friend feel put off because the economy affects all of us and, to return to the point made by the rapping Hayek, it is the study of all of us. Given this we all have economic insights by virtue of being human beings, the very subject of economics itself. As von Mises wrote:

Economics must not be relegated to classrooms and statistical offices and must not be left to esoteric circles. It is the philosophy of human life and action and concerns everybody and everything. It is the pith of civilization and of man’s human existence.

Do not leave economics to the abstract eggheads. Pick up Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, Free to Choose: A Personal Statement by Milton Friedman or even Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics by P.J. O’Rourke: writers who, in these books and others, passed the economist Armen Alchian’s test of whether they truly understood the subject – they could explain it to someone who doesn’t know a darn thing about it.

Economics is about you. It is your subject. Reclaim and enjoy it.

This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre

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Riots and earthquakes are good for business

What would Bastiat say about that?

Several thoughts pirouetted across my mind as I watched the coverage of Saturday’s protest and riots.

I wondered why anti-capitalists were wearing clothing with prominent labels (don’t they know their Naomi Klein?); I wondered why defenders of the public sector were attacking publicly owned banks; I wondered how one protester could say, when interviewed, “Of course, we all know there need to be cuts” while a sea of people drifted past her waving signs saying ‘No cuts’; I wondered why Ed Miliband, a bloke without an alternative, was addressing the March for an Alternative.

But most of all I was struck by what a boon this all was for the economy, or so some would tell you. The standard Keynesian narrative of the Depression of the 1930’s, for example, holds that it was all about a collapse in aggregate demand which was only solved by, first, New Deal spending, and then war spending. As Paul Krugman once put it

Faced with the Depression, institutional economics turned out to have very little to offer, except to say that it was a complex phenomenon with deep historical roots, and surely there was no easy answer. Meanwhile, model-oriented economists turned quickly to Keynes — who was very much a builder of little models. And what they said was, “This is a failure of effective demand. You can cure it by pushing this button.” The fiscal expansion of World War II, although not intended as a Keynesian policy, proved them right

The fact that large swathes of the planet’s human and physical capital was blown to atoms represented simply an ‘opportunity for growth’.

So surely all the random destruction in the West End should be a good thing? Perhaps not. Back in 1850, Frédéric Bastiat asked “Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James B., when his careless son happened to break a square of glass?” In his classic, Economics In One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt took up the story

A young hoodlum, say, heaves a brick through the window of a baker’s shop. The shopkeeper runs out furious, but the boy is gone. A crowd gathers, and begins to stare with quiet satisfaction at the gaping hole in the window and the shattered glass over the bread and pies. After a while the crowd feels the need for philosophic reflection. And several of its members are almost certain to remind each other or the baker that, after all, the misfortune has its bright side. It will make business for some glazier. As they begin to think of this they elaborate upon it. How much does a new plate glass window cost? Fifty dollars? That will be quite a sum. After all, if windows were never broken, what would happen to the glass business? Then, of course, the thing is endless. The glazier will have $50 more to spend with other merchants, and these in turn will have $50 more to spend with still other merchants, and so ad infinitum. The smashed window will go on providing money and employment in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be, if the crowd drew it, that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor.

Now let us take another look. The crowd is at least right in its first conclusion. This little act of vandalism will in the first instance mean more business for some glazier. The glazier will be no more unhappy to learn of the incident than an undertaker to learn of a death. But the shopkeeper will be out $50 that he was planning to spend for a new suit. Because he has had to replace a window, he will have to go without the suit (or some equivalent need or luxury). Instead of having a window and $50 he now has merely a window. Or, as he was planning to buy the suit that very afternoon, instead of having both a window and a suit he must be content with the window and no suit. If we think of him as a part of the community, the community has lost a new suit that might otherwise have come into being, and is just that much poorer.

The glazier’s gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor’s loss of business. No new “employment” has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. They will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.

The resilience of palpable nonsense is staggering. If, as Bastiat and Hazlitt demonstrate, the idea that the trashing of businesses is good for business, then consider what Clinton-era Treasury Secretary Larry Summers said about the Japanese earthquake recently

It may lead to some temporary increments ironically to GDP as a process of rebuilding takes place. In the wake of the earlier Kobe earthquake Japan actually gained some economic strength

This is crass rubbish. Lots of new building activity may take place in Japan but they will simply be restocking on, say, housing. Rebuilding the house you have just watched destroyed does not make you better off.

Yet this drivel has the imprimatur of The Master himself who wrote in The General Theory

Pyramid-building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth

That will no doubt come as a great comfort to West End workers and homeless Japanese.

This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre