Will Economists Escape a Whipping?

It is remarkable how economists have been able to deflect blame for the economic crisis that erupted last September with the sudden collapse of the international banking industry and that continues to afflict the world's economies. Last November, Queen Elizabeth visited the London School of Economics and asked the faculty why "nobody [had] noticed [before September 2008] that the credit crunch was on its way?" Acting in the unhurried English fashion, on June 27 the British Academy convened a forum to examine the Queen's question, and the conclusions of the forum were summarized in a letter to the Queen of July 22 written by two professors at LSE, Tim Besley and Peter Hennessy. The letter, which can be read online at  http://www.docstoc.com/docs/9919279/3e3b6ca8-7a08-11de-b86f-00144feabdc0-1, is complacent. Responsibility for the oversight was attributed to "a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole." In other words, everyone was to blame, which means no one was to blame.

"Everyone seemed to be doing their [sic] own job properly on its own merit" but no one realized that the individual activities of the "many bright people" was creating a risk to the solvency of the entire global financial system. On the contrary, people were lulled into believing that "financial wizards" had purged risk from the system.

There is no reference in the letter to the economics profession, although one of the authors is an economics professor (Besley--Hennessy is a political historian) and the only economic models referred to appear to be "value at risk" models for calculating the risk of loss from an individual transaction.

Yesterday, another letter to the Queen, this one dated August 10 and signed by ten English and Australian economists, was released (it can be read online at http://www.docstoc.com/docs/9919280/queen2009b), also responding to the Queen's question of last November but taking issue with Besley and Hennessy's letter. The August 10 letter states that "their overall analysis is inadequate because it fails to acknowledge any deficiency in the training or culture of economists themselves." The nub of their criticism is that "in recent years economics has turned virtually into a branch of applied mathematics, and has...become detached from real-world institutions and events." They criticize economics education as excessively narrow, "to the detriment of any synthetic vision," and fault Besley and Hennessy for saying nothing about "the typical omission of psychology, philosophy or economic history from the current education of economists" and for mentioning neither "the highly questionable belief in universal 'rationality' nor the 'efficient markets hypothesis.'"

A more focused criticism would, in my opinion, be more effective. The Queen was asking about the failure to foresee the financial collapse of last September, rather than about the health of modern economics in the large. That failure was I think due in significant part to a concept of rationality that exaggerates the amount of information that people have about the future, even experts, and to a disregard of economic factors that don't lend themselves to expression in mathematical models, or are intractable to formal analysis. The efficient markets theory, when understood not as teaching merely that markets are hard to beat even for experts and therefore passive management of a diversified portfolio of assets is likely to outperform a strategy of picking underpriced stocks or other securities to buy and overpriced ones to sell, but as demonstrating that asset prices are always an adequate gauge of value--that there are not asset "bubbles"--blinded most economists to the housing bubble of the early 2000s and the stock market bubble that expanded with it. In modeling the business cycle, economists not only ignored, because difficult to accommodate in their mathematical models, vital institutional detail (such as the rise of the "shadow banking industry," which is what mainly collapsed last September)--often indeed ignoring money itself, on the ground that it doesn't really affect the "real" (that is, the nonfinancial) economy. They also ignored key concepts in Keynes's analysis of the business cycle, such as hoarding and uncertainty and business confidence ("animal spirits") and worker resistance to nominal (as distinct from real) wage reductions in depressions. Lessons of economic history were ignored, too, leading to a belief that there would never be another depression, let alone a collapse of the banking industry. Even when the collapse occurred, in September, many macroeconomists denied that it would lead to anything worse than a mild recession; the measures that the government has taken to recover from what has turned into a depression owe little to post-Keynesian economic thinking; and the economists cannot agree on what further, if anything, should be done, and which of the government's recovery measures has worked or will work.

Besley and Hennessy's letter, when first published, was described in some quarters as a letter of "apology" by English economists. It was not that; nor is the August 10 letter--the latter is a denunciation of mainstream economics.

The notion of a profession's apologizing for its failure in a letter to the monarch is charming, however. It would be an apology to the nation, personified in its monarch. The English monarch does not exercise political power, but does personify the nation, and it is easier to write a letter to a person than to a nation.

The English economics profession failed the United Kingdom; the American economics profession failed the United States. Not that the profession should be equated to its macroeconomic and financial divisions. The study of business cycles is only a small part of modern economics. Other areas of economics bear significantly on the study of business cycles, such as labor economics, without being implicated in the failures of response to the current crisis. But the control of the business cycle had until the present crisis been regarded as a principal triumph of modern economics and justification for regarding economics as the queen of the social sciences. We have no monarch; the President is not a personification of the nation but rather the head of the national government; there is no one to write the letter of apology to. No matter. The urgent need is for the part of the profession that concerns itself with business cycles to acknowledge its inadequacies and reorient its training and research.  

Presented by

Richard A. Posner

Richard Posner is an author and federal appeals court judge. He has written more than 2500 published judicial opinions and continues to teach at the University of Chicago Law School. More

Richard A. Posner worked for several years in Washington during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. He worked for Justice William J. Brennan, Jr, the Solicitor General of the U.S., Thurgood Marshall, and as general counsel of President Johnson's Task Force on Communications Policy. Posner entered law teaching in 1968 at Stanford and became professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School in 1969. He was appointed Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 1981 and served as Chief Judge from 1993 to 2000. He has written more than 2500 published judicial opinions and continues to teach at the University of Chicago Law School. His academic work has covered a broad range, with particular emphasis on the application of economics to law. His most recent books are How Judges Think (2008), Law and Literature (3d ed. 2009), A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression (2009). He has received the Thomas C. Schelling Award for scholarly contributions that have had an impact on public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the Henry J. Friendly Medal from the American Law Institute.

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