Also published on the Atlantic Monthly’s Business Channel.
John Authers’ recent interview with University of Chicago professor Richard Thaler is a fine example of what I hope are broader trends in economic thought. To some, it might seem like just another interview. But Authers undoubtedly recognizes its significance. Thaler is a professor at the University of Chicago, which is the birth place of the Efficient Market Hypothesis, and Authers is a well-respected columnist for the Financial Times, which is arguably the voice of the free market in the press. And yet, there they are, casting doubt upon the very theories underpinning a generation of thought that have made the University of Chicago the epicenter of free market ideology. In the language of soda-pop-economics, this interview is a “black swan.”
It seems Authers is leaning ever closer towards a world view informed by behavioral economics. While I haven’t done any empirical research into Authers’ work, I do read his column, The Short View, religiously (personally, I recommend you do the same). And as the recent downturn developed, I noticed several articles that suggest he’s come to question at least some of the assumptions underlying the old free market dogmas, particularly the Efficient Market Hypothesis. In my opinion, this is a welcomed development. And I sincerely hope it is part of a broader trend away from grandiose theories about how humans make decisions and towards precise theories which are supported by real-world observations.
Those that have toiled through my writing in the past know that I am a big fan of free markets. Yet, I am not a big fan of the EMH. And in general, I find a lot of economic theory, particularly macroeconomic theory, to be little more than hand-waving. There’s an almost priestly air about it that makes me deeply suspicious of its validity. In gentler terms, Economics lacks a rigorous epistemological theory. That is, economists have no robust system of determining which statements about economics are true, and which are not. This is in stark contrast to say, mathematics. A statement about an alleged mathematical truth is verifiable (putting Gödel and Turing aside for the moment). If you tell me that you have discovered a new mathematical truth, you can sit down and in a finite number of words, provide a logical path from assumptions we both agree are true to your new found conclusions that I must accept as true, else I reject either the assumptions or logic itself. Now, I understand that economics can never be a purely deductive sport, since it is complicated by the nuance and uncertainty of, well, reality. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do better than simply assuming away all of human ridiculousness.
The economics that assumes rational behavior on the part of humanity is, in my opinion, dead. It is simply at odds with everyday experience. It’s arguable that the desire for wealth is itself an inherently irrational impulse for most of the developed world, given that our needs would likely be satisfied on public assistance. That said, those who are able to control their behavior and act rationally do a much better job at generating and accumulating wealth. But once they get the money, they go and do something absurd with it, like buy a fleet of planes. So while reason and deferred consumption might be the means by which we accumulate wealth, the end goal of accumulating wealth seems to be driven by a need to express dominance, or at least an antisocial impulse to be free of society’s constraints. This view finds support in popular culture, which often equates wealth with conspicuous consumption, sexuality, and control. All of this suggests that somewhere buried under all of those pinstripes is a real brute.
If I am correct, and there is a sea change taking place in how economists view human behavior and the markets humans create, then there may be a lot of quackery in the short term. That is, during the intellectual power vacuum that will follow the demise of the old Chicago School, a few crackpots might temporarily seize power as we trace our way from the four humors to phlogiston. But when we finally get our Lavoisier, this time let’s remember to keep his head on, despite our penchant for the irrational.