Aspiration

Economists must leave to Adam Smith the glory of the Quarto, must pluck the day, fling pamphlets into the wind, write always sub-specie temporis, and achieve immortality by accident, if at all.

This blog is a record of my half-formed thoughts and ill-conceived diatribes, composed while I should have been working on my PhD thesis.

Economics is a discipline I can’t seem to escape. It turns me out but then it turns me on all over again. Sometimes I can’t stand the sight of it. In theory, it’s often ill-founded, precisely backwards, or not even wrong. In practice, it’s arrogant, narcissistic and irremediably inept. Yet I can’t look away.

He is a loathsome offensive brute, yet I can’t look away.

So why persist? To cheapen another great line of Larry David’s, I’m not a self-loathing economist. “I do hate myself, but it has nothing to do with being an economist.” Depending on how personal this blog becomes, we might discover more about that in time. It could well turn out to be a psychological thriller for all of us!

But I choose to do economics simply because I believe the subject matter is too important to be entrusted to economists. Certainly, determining the existence, stability and uniqueness of equilibria is a worthy end, if you’re into that sort of thing. But there’s probably going to be just as much unemployment, inflation, inequality, environmental degradation, poverty, etc., when you write Q.E.D. as when you picked up your pencil. And if you call yourself an economist, you should have at least been pretending to make an effort with these things. In short, economics needs to sort out its priorities. We can do the ‘fun’ stuff later. Well, the rest of you can.

In addition to ‘putting the big rocks in first‘, most economics would also benefit from some more appropriate ontological foundations. If you want realistic conclusions, you should start with realistic premises. It’s nothing short of a miracle when economic models yield vaguely plausible results from often hilarious assumptions. Whether this is achieved by dumb luck, observational equivalence, or some good old-fashioned unfalsifiability, I’m consistently impressed.

My philosophy is slightly different, in that I try to apply some lessons from my father. He’s an eminently practical person, who’s always tried to instil in me that, whenever you’re working with a machine, be it a spinning top or an automobile, you should make an effort to discover how each component works, how they fit together, and what to do when they don’t function as expected. That’s why, for instance, I’m more interested in what happens in the dealing room of a central bank than in its analysis department. I could never quite place this in Mankiw’s economics scientists/economics engineers dichotomy, so I suppose I’d identify as an ‘economics mechanic.’ Learning by doing, starting from first principles, interested in the minutiae if they’ll help improve the system, and sceptical, vaguely standoffish, and perhaps a little insecure about what the scientists and engineers bring to the table.

Freamon: the father we need, but not the one we deserve.

So how should you interpret the kind of economics that this blog will promulgate? Let’s relate it in glib phrases that didn’t make it as bumper stickers. I’d rather do behavioural economics than behavioral economics. I’d rather satisfice than optimise. Complex choices are more predictable than simple choicesPrices cause moneyIn the long run, we are simply in another short runA dog called investment wags his tail labelled savings. Cryptic enough yet?

This series of reflections might situate me within particular schools of thought, but I’d rather identify with the messiness and beautiful indeterminacy of reality than with any club that’d have me as a member. Where possible–and in economics it often isn’t–I’d rather argue for what’s right than for what’s popular.

All this being said, I’ve elected to call the blog Pamphlets into the Wind. Borrowed from the Keynes quote at the beginning of this page, it should remind us of two things. Firstly, that the blog post is perhaps the ideal medium for economic discussion. Secondly, that all things must pass. As important as economic debate seems, economic imperialism only extends so far. The Hicks criterion is explained below.

  1. Hello, Newman. | Pamphlets into the Wind

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