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Friday, 28 July 2017

Rethinking Economics and the Econocracy

Yesterday, after I had issued my lament for society on this blog: in which I specifically deplored the large number of students who receive degrees in Economics, I opened my TIMES to find a piece by Richard Barwell and Anthony Yates in which the 'basics' of Econocratic dogma are defended against the relative attractiveness of 'fashionable concepts'. Yates is a professor of Economics in Birmingham and Barwell is 'senior Economist' in a bank, and the article makes it pretty clear that students in Birmingham are not going to be encouraged to dabble with the growing international network which sometimes uses the descriptor Rethinking Economics. 

Yates and Barwell deny that Economics has become a narrow programme of dogma, which takes comfort in adapting simplified versions of mathematical models that have been tested and proven in Physics and Engineering, apparently to vindicate their assertions about how aspects of the economy can be understood. They refer to awards of a pseudo-Nobel Prize [called the 'Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics', and endowed by a group of bankers many decades after the real Nobel Prizes were set up] to individuals in various 'applied' areas of Economic comment and research. The Times writers imply that students can - if they so wish - divert their attention to the byways around Economics that have been explored by some of these pseudo-Nobel 'laureates' [this is my summary of their point] but such deviant study does not help them to become Econocrats.

To be gazetted as an Economist, apparently, the student must accept that the models developed by their teachers upon the work of their teachers are uniquely logical because they are mathematical. This is a re-run in these depressing times of economic failure of the argument that was first advanced in the eighteen-sixties, a period of great economic optimism, by one of the first Economists. William Stanley Jevons who held the professorship of Political Economy in Owens College, the forerunner of the University of Manchester, wrote that if Political Economy was going to be developed into a real science it must become mathematically based. He had himself come to Political Economy from a base in science. As a young man he had experienced the thrilling period of the Australian gold rush when - as in California and the Yukon - the news that gold nuggets were to be found lying on the ground and at the bed of streams brought a rush of hungry, ambitious men from all over Europe to try their luck. Jevons went to the gold field as an assayist, verifying gold discoveries and frequently disappointing those who had not found the real thing. He had plenty of time to observe the weather, the sky and the common astronomical phenomena. At that time, there was a high level of sunspot activity; which was very visible from Australia. Jevons was not the first person to form the notion that the level of sunspot activity affected the amount of solar radiation coming to the earth, and that this must surely affect the weather; but he extended the notion to become a putative explanation of the trade cycle. He wrote extensively on the applicability of statistical data to the economy, and thus earned his professorial chair. He even caused the creation of a Royal Commission - the highest level of government inquiry - by his publication of The Coal Question a book in which he declared that the entire prosperity of the United Kingdom since the first stirrings of the industrial revolution had depended on the development of steam power [both in locomotives and ships, and in stationary engines in mines and mills]. Steam power was derived from coal. Coal was still abundant in Britain in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, but demand was increasing and Jevons recognised that if the coal ran out, the economy would come to a full stop. Thus he tried to calculate the nation's coal reserves, set this against expanding demand, and concluded that well before the date when the lines expressing the depletion of reserves and the rising demand for coal converged, the national debt must be paid off and a whole new energy basis for the economy would have to be found. The Commission took evidence, cogitated, and decided that the crisis was far enough in the future not to be bothered with the issue in the short term. Jevons' two most significant attempts to cause the economy to be managed according to statistical data to which he had access were unsuccessful, but as the university system expanded teachers of Political Economy preferred to be called Economists, and tried better to develop Jevons' insight that their subject could gain credibility if it was shown to align with statistical data and mathematical models.

The first half of the twentieth century was disfigured by two world war and the removal of Russia from the normal world economy. The half-century after 1950 saw a divided human community, where the 'capitalist' states tried the flawed 'neo-Keynesian' model for economic management until it led to the chaos of the seventies, then the 'rational markets' [monetarist] model which gave the world the crash of 2007-8 [which the Econocracy did not foresee]. Economics has never given society at large any models that align with reality and with political imperatives. Thus the assumption by Barwell and Yates that the way for students to gain a broad understanding that will help them to serve humanity usefully is by learning the models that the professoriat have a vested interest in, carries no credibility. Hence contemporary students from Jevons' old stamping ground of Manchester began the challenge to the Econocracy which is simply based on the assumption that 'enough is enough'.

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