13 July 2017

Best Analogy Ever

Dean Baker, who called the housing bubble collapse, and sold his house before it happened has a remarkably evocative and accurate description of modern economics. He calls them the inept firefighters club:
Suppose that our fire department was staffed with out-of-shape incompetents who didn’t know how to handle a fire hose. That would be really bad news, but it wouldn’t be obvious most of the time because we don’t often see major fires. The inadequacy of the fire department would become apparent only when a major fire hit and we were left with a vast amount of unnecessary death and destruction. This is essentially the story of modern economics.

The problem is not that modern economics lacks the tools needed to understand the economy. Just as with firefighting, the basics have been well known for a long time. The problem is with the behavior and the incentive structure of the practitioners. There is overwhelming pressure to produce work that supports the status quo (i.e. redistributing to the rich), that doesn’t question authority, and that is needlessly complex. The result is a discipline in which much of the work is of little use, except to legitimate the existing power structure. In terms of the poor quality of work, it is easy to point to the failure to recognize the size and risks posed by the housing bubble in the last decade. This failure has been unbelievably costly to the United States and the rest of the world. If we compare the most recent estimates of the potential GDP of the U.S. economy from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) with the projections made in 2008, before the severity of the crash was recognized, the difference is $1.8 trillion. This is an annual figure; it implies a loss of $18 trillion over the course of the decade. This amount averages out to more than $54,000 for every person in the country. Other countries have seen even larger losses.


I have suggested that economists who prescribe policies that turn out badly, or who can’t see multi-trillion dollar housing bubbles coming whose collapse sinks the economy, ought to pay a price in terms of their careers. Invariably people think I am joking. When they realize I am serious, they think I am crazy or vindictive.

Leaving aside motives, let me just speak to the economics. If we have a profession in which people are rewarded with high pay and career advancement for saying the same thing as everyone else, and never face any consequences when the accepted wisdom proves to be wrong, then we should expect to see economists like the firefighters mentioned at the beginning of this piece. They aren’t qualified to do the job and our only hope is that we don’t see any more major fires.
Read the rest of the article, because it addresses some more serious deficiencies in economics, particularly the tendency of people in the field to take simple concepts and obfuscate.


Stephen Montsaroff said...

They are academics.

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