Saturday, July 11, 2009

Adam Smith Did Not Make Predictions

The Daily Reckoning HERE: carries an post, “Bubble Deniers”, by Bill Bonner, co-author of three New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day, Empire of Debt, and Mobs, Messiahs and Markets:

Long gone are the days when economists thought deeply about how life actually works. Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Anne-Robert Turgot - the great “moral philosophers” - all died hundreds of years ago. Since then, the trade has gone bad. They’re all numbers guys now. An economist, of the modern variety, is a statistician…an extrapolator…and a mountebank.* If numbers go up two months in a row, he predicts they will go up another one. He rarely stops to ask whether his numbers really make any sense. Instead, he merely adds them up and rolls them out. Thus - at the bubbly top in 2006 - he was he able to describe the likelihood of default on a certain derivative instrument as a “Six Sigma event” without laughing. A Six Sigma event happens once every 2,500,000 days. Then again, when the Bubble of 2002-2007 popped, they happened once a week.

The blogs are full of chatter on the subject. What good is the economics profession, asks Paul Samuelson, if it cannot foresee the biggest single economic event in at least a quarter-century?

I agree with the broad sentiments of Bill Bonner with a few caveats.

There are an enormous number of economists working today and it is more than likely that some of them did warn about the pending bubbles before ‘sub-prime’ entered financial discourse. Popular books of the pending stock market crash, like a stopped clock are likely to be right at sometime.

Paul Samuelson, characteristically, hits the nail on the head: why did the economics profession fail to “foresee the biggest single economic event in at least a quarter-century?”

Partly, the answer is that large as it is, economists are not members of a unified science. Many economists focus solely upon in-doors experiments, with real people, or imaginary experiments with equations.

Some do not look out of their windows at all and in fact have been carefully groomed not to do so; most do not look over-the-fence at what closely aligned disciplines are doing or have done (think of sociology, psychology, anthropology and, above all, history), and they suffer promotion-withholding disdain from colleagues if they do so, and are disregarded by the sniffy-nosed severity of those who form tenure committees that pass over anyone showing evidence of a lack of disciplinary-defined gravitas.

For those who master the black arts of econometrics, only as good as the data they sometimes painfully collect, or the harder tests of stratospherically higher mathematics and their fateful misunderstandings of the real world, despite their mastery of their imaginary worlds without humans in them, the result is largely the same - neither the colourful future they arrogantly believe they see (with pay-cheques to match) nor the black-and-white past they virtually invent are connected to the real world.

Prediction in modern economics is the Holy Grail (more like the Devil’s Jest). Adam Smith avoided making predictions; he observed, as was the rightful duty of a moral philosopher, and reported to all who would read his books. He stuck to the humble arts of an influencer; he was not a man hawking a career-winning system.

He held on to humble hopes that legislators and those who influenced them would think about his observations and, slowly and gradually, they might adopt measures to change some of their and their predecessors’ behaviours a step at a time.

His sense of history (surely the great laboratory of human experience), based on a remarkable understanding of the whole range of human behaviours across and at all levels of society throughout history and the present, lowered his expectations as to what was tolerable by ‘so weak and imperfect a creature as man’, contrasted with what was possible if the world perfectly conformed to utopian imaginations, where the people in it behaved impeccably as ‘rational maximisers’ in the manner the out-of-touch theorists believed they would (give-or-take a few heroic, not to say fool-hardy, assumptions). Ironically, Smith is described today as such a philosoper in the image of today's 'rational maximisers!

Readers perplexed by the crisis should consult ‘The Recession: causes and cures’ (2009) by David Simpson, a classical economist. It is available from the Adam Smith Institute:

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Blogger pete said...

Google brought me here when I googled "What good is the economics
profession, asks Paul Samuelson." That is, this blog is the only place that Samuelson's alleged quote shows up.

Where is the primary source of the quote?

4:12 p.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Pete

I have no idea - it was given in the article quoted.

I copied the article which contains the alleged quotation.

It is not that signifcant as I have criticised neoclassical economists along similar lines, bearing in mind the idea that economists can predict the future is absurd. That many claim to do so - and charge fees accordingly - is close to the old snake oil salesmen of yester year and their gullible customers.

6:18 p.m.  

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