Thursday, 22 November 2012

Does economics need saving from economists?

In a piece in December 2012 issue of The Magazine Coase writes about Saving Economics from the Economists. He opens his article by noting,
Economics as currently presented in textbooks and taught in the classroom does not have much to do with business management, and still less with entrepreneurship.
He continues,
The degree to which economics is isolated from the ordinary business of life is extraordinary and unfortunate.
He goes on to write,
That was not the case in the past. When modern economics was born, Adam Smith envisioned it as a study of the “nature and causes of the wealth of nations.” His seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, was widely read by businessmen, even though Smith disparaged them quite bluntly for their greed, shortsightedness, and other defects. The book also stirred up and guided debates among politicians on trade and other economic policies. The academic community in those days was small, and economists had to appeal to a broad audience. Even at the turn of the 20th century, Alfred Marshall managed to keep economics as “both a study of wealth and a branch of the study of man.” Economics remained relevant to industrialists.

In the 20th century, economics consolidated as a profession; economists could afford to write exclusively for one another. At the same time, the field experienced a paradigm shift, gradually identifying itself as a theoretical approach of economization and giving up the real-world economy as its subject matter. Today, production is marginalized in economics, and the paradigmatic question is a rather static one of resource allocation. The tools used by economists to analyze business firms are too abstract and speculative to offer any guidance to entrepreneurs and managers in their constant struggle to bring novel products to consumers at low cost.
My own experience as someone with an interest in the theory of firm certainly is one where "production is marginalized in economics". In New Zealand the production side of the economy receives much less emphasis than the demand/consumer/government parts of the economy. Coase sees the lack of interaction between the working economy and economics as damaging to both.
Since economics offers little in the way of practical insight, managers and entrepreneurs depend on their own business acumen, personal judgment, and rules of thumb in making decisions. In times of crisis, when business leaders lose their self-confidence, they often look to political power to fill the void. Government is increasingly seen as the ultimate solution to tough economic problems, from innovation to employment.

Economics thus becomes a convenient instrument the state uses to manage the economy, rather than a tool the public turns to for enlightenment about how the economy operates. But because it is no longer firmly grounded in systematic empirical investigation of the working of the economy, it is hardly up to the task. During most of human history, households and tribes largely lived on their own subsistence economy; their connections to one another and the outside world were tenuous and intermittent. This changed completely with the rise of the commercial society. Today, a modern market economy with its ever-finer division of labor depends on a constantly expanding network of trade. It requires an intricate web of social institutions to coordinate the working of markets and firms across various boundaries. At a time when the modern economy is becoming increasingly institutions-intensive, the reduction of economics to price theory is troubling enough. It is suicidal for the field to slide into a hard science of choice, ignoring the influences of society, history, culture, and politics on the working of the economy.
As I have said before,
I see it as a social science with close relationship with moral and political philosophy, political science, psychology etc. But this it seems is a minority view.
and I would argue that to include the "the influences of society, history, culture, and politics on the working of the economy" economics need to expand its interaction with the other social sciences and not just see itself as purely a handmaiden to management and accounting, as others I know seem to think.

Peter Klein argues that the inductive method being utilised by Coase has its limits,
Economics provides general principles, or laws, about human action and interaction, mostly stated as “if-then” propositions. Applying the principles to concrete, historical cases requires Verstehen, and is the task of economic historians (as analysts) and entrepreneurs (as actors), not economic theorists. Deductive theory does not replace judgment. Without deductive theory, however, we’d have no principles to apply, and nothing to contribute to our understanding of the economy except — to quote Coase’s own critique of the Old Institutionalists — “a mass of descriptive material waiting for a theory, or a fire.” To be sure, Coase’s own inductive method has led to several brilliant insights. Coase himself has a knack for intuiting general principles from concrete cases (e.g., theorizing about transaction costs from observing automobile plants, or about property rights from studying the history of spectrum allocation), though not perfectly. But, as I noted before, Coase himself is probably the exception that proves the rule — namely that induction is a mess.
Coase turns 102 in December and yet he can still generate and stimulate debate about big issues in economics.

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