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Populism and economics

Economists were generally in favour of the UK remaining in the EU and highly critical of the policy proposals of Donald Trump. And yet the UK voted to leave the EU and Donald Trump was elected.

People rejected the advice of most economists. Many blamed the failure of most economists to predict the 2007/8 financial crisis and to find solutions to the growing gulf between rich and poor, with the majority stuck on low incomes.

So to what extent are economists to blame for the rise in populism – a wave that could lead to electoral upsets in various European countries? The podcast below brings together economists and politicians from across the political spectrum. It is over an hour long and provides an in-depth discussion of many of the issues and the extent to which economists can provide answers.

Podcast
Should economists share the blame for populism? Guardian Politics Weekly podcast, Heather Stewart, joined by Andrew Lilico, Ann Pettifor, Jonathan Portes, Rachel Reeves and Vince Cable (23/2/17)

Questions

  1. Why has globalisation become a dirty word?
  2. Assess the arguments for and against an open policy towards immigration?
  3. In what positive ways may economists contribute to populism?
  4. Do economists concentrate too much on growth in GDP rather than on its distribution?
  5. Give some examples of ways in which various popular interpretations of economic phenomena may confuse correlation with causality.
  6. Why did the proportions of people who voted for and against Brexit differ considerably from one part of the country to another, from one age group to another and from one social group to another?
  7. In what ways have economists and the subject of economics contributed towards a growth in human welfare?
  8. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the trend for undergraduate economics curricula to become more mathematical (at least until relatively recently)?
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Being an economist

Is too much expected of economists? When economic forecasts turn out to be wrong, as they often are, economists are criticised for having inaccurate or unrealistic models. But is this a fair criticism?

The following article by Richard Whittle from Manchester Metropolitan University looks at what economists can and cannot do. The article highlights two key problems for economic forecasting.

The first concerns human behaviour, which is influenced by a whole range of factors and can change very rapidly in response to changing circumstances. Moods of optimism or pessimism can quickly spread in response to a news item, such as measures announced by Donald Trump or latest data on growth or the housing market.

The second concerns the whole range of possible economic shocks. Such shocks, by their very nature, are hard to predict and can quickly make forecasts wrong. They could be a surprise election result, a surprise government policy change, a natural disaster, a war or a series of terrorist attacks. And these shocks, in turn, affect human behaviour. Consumption and investment may rise or fall as the events affect confidence and herd behaviour.

But is it a fair criticism of economics that it cannot foretell the future? Do economists, as the article says, throw up their hands and curse economics as a futile endeavour? Not surprisingly, the answer given is no! The author gives an analogy with medicine.

A doctor cannot definitely prevent illness, but can offer advice on prevention and hopefully offer a cure if you do get ill. This is the same for the work economists do.

Economists can offer advice on preventing crises or slowdowns but cannot definitively prevent them from happening. Economists can also offer robust advice on restoring growth, although when the advice is that the economy has grown too fast and should slow, it is often not welcomed by policy makers.

Helping understanding the various drivers in an economy and how humans are likely to respond to various incentives is a key part of what economists do. But making predictions with 100% certainty is asking too much of economists.

And just as medical professionals can predict that if you smoke, eat unhealthy food or take no exercise you are likely to be less healthy and die younger, but cannot say precisely when an individual will die, so too economists can predict that certain policy measures are likely to increase or decrease GDP or employment or inflation, but they cannot say precisely how much they will be affected.

As the article says, “the true value of the economist lies not in mystical fortune telling, but in achieving a better understanding of the nature of the economies in which we live and work.”

Article
How to be an economist in 2017 The Conversation, Richard Whittle (24/1/17)

Questions

  1. For what reasons has economics been ‘in crisis’? What is the solution to this crisis?
  2. Look at some macroeconomic forecasts for a country of your choice made two years ago for today (see, for example, forecasts made by the IMF, OECD or a central bank). How accurate were they? Explain any inaccuracies.
  3. To what extent is economic forecasting like weather forecasting?
  4. What is meant by cumulative causation? Give some examples. Why does cumulative causation make economic forecasting difficult?
  5. How is the increased usage of contactless card payments likely to affect spending patterns? Explain why.
  6. Why is it difficult to forecast the effects of Brexit?
  7. How can economic advisors help governments in designing policy?
  8. Why do people tend to overweight high probabilities and underweight low ones?
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Economists: have we failed to communicate to the general public?

Before the referendum, economists overwhelmingly argued that the economic case for the UK remaining in the EU was much stronger than that for leaving. They warned of serious economic consequences, both short term and long term, of a Brexit vote. And yet, by a majority of 51.9% to 48.1% of the 72.1% of the electorate who voted, the UK voted to leave the EU.

Does this mean that economists failed to communicate to the electorate? Were the arguments presented poorly or in too academic a way?

Or did people simply not believe the economists’ forecasts, being cynical about the ability of economists to forecast? During the campaign, on several occasions I heard people repeating the joke that economists had successfully predicted five out of the last two recessions!

Did they not believe the data that immigrants from other EU countries to the UK contribute more in taxes they draw in benefits and that overall they make a net positive contribution to output per head? Or perhaps they believed the claims that immigrants imposed a net cost on the economy.

Or were there ‘non-economic’ issues that people found more persuasive, such as questions of sovereignty or national identity? Or was the strain on local resources, such as health services, schools and housing, blamed on immigration itself rather than on a lack of spending on additional resources – the funding for which could have come from the extra GDP generated by the immigration?

Or were there so many lies told by politicians and those with vested interests that people simply didn’t know whom to believe?

Economists will, no doubt, do a lot of soul searching over the coming months. One such economist is Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, whose article is linked below.

Article
We economists must face the plain truth that the referendum showed our failings Institute for Fiscal Studies newspaper articles. Paul Johnson (28/6/16)

Questions

  1. In what ways could economists have communicated better to the general public during the referendum campaign?
  2. For what reasons may people distrust economists?
  3. Were economists hampered in delivering their message by ‘balanced reporting’?
  4. Comment on Paul Johnson’s statement that, ‘The most politically engaged of us spend decades working out how to tweak tax policy, or labour market policy, or competition policy to deliver small benefits. How many times over would our work have been repaid if we had simply convinced a few more people of the basics?’
  5. Do economists, or at least some of them, need to become more ‘media savvy’?
  6. How could institutions, such as the Royal Economic Society and the Society of Business Economists, do more to help economists collectively to communicate with the general public?
  7. Give some examples of the terminology/jargon we use which might be inappropriate for communicating with the general public. Suggest some alternative terms to the examples you’ve given.
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Did you hear the one about Kilkenomics?

The town of Kilkenny in Ireland has just hosted the sixth annual Kilkenomics festival (Nov 5–8) where economics and comedy meet. The festival brought together comedians and economists to take a look at some of the most pressing economic and social issues, such as the refugee crisis, economic recovery, banking and finance, the growth in inequality, the future of the EU, economic power, the environment and personal behaviour.

With stand-up comedians taking a sideways look at economic issues and top economists having their ideas lampooned, or lampooning them themselves, the festival provided a fun, but useful, reality check for the discipline of economics.

The festival attracted some major names in the field of comedy, economics, journalism and politics. Perhaps the biggest draw was the former finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis (see also), who opened the festival with a withering attack on the economic model being pursued by Greece’s creditors (the European Commission, the IMF and the ECB).

Much of the comedy was really aimed, not so much at economics and economists, but more at how politicians pursue economic policies and interpret economic models in ways that suit their own political agenda. But still there was no escape for economists. Much of the humour was directed at unrealistic assumptions and unrealistic visions of how economies function.

Thanks to JokEc for the following:

 •  Economics is the only field in which two people can get a Nobel Prize for saying exactly the opposite thing.
 •  If you rearrange the letters in “ECONOMICS”, you get “COMIC NOSE”.
 •  Economics has got so rigorous we’ve all got rigor mortis.
 •  How many economists does it take to change a light bulb?

I’ll leave you to work out the best answer to that last one – there could be many depending on the school of thought.

Videos and podcasts
Kilkenomics Promo – 2015 Kilkenomics on YouTube (23/10/15)
Kilkenomics: Highlights 1 Kilkenomics on YouTube (27/10/15)
Kilkenomics: Highlights 2 Kilkenomics on YouTube (30/10/15)
Kilkenomics 2014 BBC ‘In the Balance’ (9/11/14)

Articles
Kilkenomics launches biggest programme to date Meath Chronicle (1/10/15)
The subversive wonders of Kilkenomics – where economics meets stand-up The Spectator, Liam Halligan (15/11/14)
Guilty as charged: Irish standup festival puts economics in the dock The Guardian, Larry Elliott (8/11/15)
Ireland no paradigm of successful austerity – Varoufakis The Irish Times, Eoin Burke Kennedy (5/11/15)
Economy of sex … how much are your orgasms costing you? Irish Independent, Niamh Horan (8/11/15)

Questions

  1. What is it about economics that gives so much material to comedians?
  2. ‘The worse it gets the funnier it seems because comedy exists with tragedy.’ To what extent is this true of economics as a discipline or simply of the state of the world economists are studying at any one time?
  3. Should assumptions in economics always be realistic? Explain why or why not.
  4. For what types of reason might economists disagree?
  5. Make up an economics joke and test it on your fellow students. Perhaps there ought to be a vote for the funniest and a prize for the winner. What was it about the winning joke that made it the funniest?
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Lessons for Economics

Should economists have foreseen the credit crunch? A few were warning of an overheated world economy with excessive credit and risk taking. Most economists prior to 2007/8, however, were predicting a continuation of steady economic growth. Inflation targeting, fiscal rules and increasingly flexible markets were the ingredients of this continuing prosperity. And then the crash happened!

So why did so few people see the downturn coming? Were the models used by economists fundamentally flawed, or was it simply a question of poor assumptions or poor data? Do we need a new way of modelling the economy, or is it simply a question of updating theories from the past? Should, for example, models become much more Keynesian? Should we abandon the new classical approach of assuming that markets are essentially good at pricing in risk and that herd behaviour will not be seriously destabilising?

The following podcast looks at these issues. “Aditya Chakrabortty’s joined in the studio by the Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott, as well as Roger Bootle, the managing director of Capital Economics, and political economist and John Maynard Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky. Also in the podcast, we hear from Nobel prize-winning economist, Elinor Ostrom, Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, and UN advisor and developmental economist Daniel Gay.”

The Business: A crisis of economics Guardian podcast (25/11/09)

See also the following news items from the Sloman Economics news site:
Keynes is dead; long live Keynes (3/10/09)
Learning from history (3/10/09)
Macroeconomics – Crisis or what? (6/8/09)
The changing battle grounds of economics (27/7/09)
Repeat of the Great Depression – or learning the lessons from the past? (23/6/09)
Animal spirits (30/4/09)
Keynes – do we need him more than ever? (26/10/08)

Questions

  1. Why did most economists fail to predict the credit crunch and subsequent recession? Was it a problem with the models that were used or the data that was put into these models, or both?
  2. What was the Washington consensus? To what extent did this consensus contribute to the current recession?
  3. What is meant by systemic risk? How does this influence the usefulness of ‘micro’ financial models?
  4. What particular market failures were responsible for the credit crunch?
  5. What is meant by ‘rational behaviour’? Is it reasonable to assume that people are rational?
  6. Is macroeconomics too theoretical or too mathematical (or both)? If you think it is, how can macroeconomics be reformed to improve its explanatory and predictive power?
  7. Does a ‘really good economist’ need to have a good grounding in a range of social sciences and in economic history?
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