Economists are often criticised for making inaccurate forecasts and for making false assumptions. Their analysis is frequently dismissed by politicians when it contradicts their own views.
But is this fair? Have economists responded to the realities of the global economy and to the behaviour of people, firms, institutions and government as they respond to economic circumstances? The answer is a qualified yes.
Behavioural economics is increasingly challenging the simple assumption that people are ‘rational’, in the sense that they maximise their self interest by weighing up the marginal costs and benefits of alternatives open to them. And macroeconomic models are evolving to take account of a range of drivers of global growth and the business cycle.
The linked article and podcast below look at the views of 2019 Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo. She has challenged some of the traditional assumptions of economics about the nature of rationality and what motivates people. But her work is still very much in the tradition of economists. She examines evidence and sees how people respond to incentives and then derives policy implications from the analysis.
Take the case of the mobility of labour. She examines why people who lose their jobs may not always move to a new one if it’s in a different town. Partly this is for financial reasons – moving is costly and housing may be more expensive where the new job is located. Partly, however, it is for reasons of identity. Many people are attached to where they currently live. They may be reluctant to leave family and friends and familiar surroundings and hope that a new job will turn up – even if it means a cut in wages. This is not irrational; it just means that people are driven by more than simply wages.
Duflo is doing what economists typically do – examining behaviour in the light of evidence. In her case, she is revisiting the concept of rationality to take account of evidence on what motivates people and the way they behave.
In the light of workers’ motivation, she considers the implications for the gains from trade. Is free trade policy necessarily desirable if people lose their jobs because of cheap imports from China and other developing countries where labour costs are low?
The answer is not a clear yes or no, as import-competing industries are only part of the story. If protectionist policies are pursued, other countries may retaliate with protectionist policies themselves. In such cases, people working in the export sector may lose their jobs.
She also looks at how people may respond to a rise or cut in tax rates. Again the answer is not clear cut and an examination of empirical evidence is necessary to devise appropriate policy. Not only is there an income and substitution effect from tax changes, but people are motivated to work by factors other than take-home pay. Likewise, firms are encouraged to invest by factors other than the simple post-tax profitability of investment.
- In traditional ‘neoclassical’ economics, what is meant by ‘rationality’ in terms of (a) consumer behaviour; (b) producer behaviour?
- How might the concept of rationality be expanded to take into account a whole range of factors other than the direct costs and benefits of a decision?
- What is meant by bounded rationality?
- What would be the effect on workers’ willingness to work more or fewer hours as a result of a cut in the marginal income tax rate if (a) the income effect was greater than the substitution effect; (b) the substitution effect was greater than the income effect? Would your answers to (a) and (b) be the opposite in the case of a rise in the marginal income tax rate?
- Give some arguments that you consider to be legitimate for imposing controls on imports in (a) the short run; (b) the long run. How might you counter these arguments from a free-trade perspective?
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.”
How to be an economist in 2017 The Conversation, Richard Whittle (24/1/17)
- For what reasons has economics been ‘in crisis’? What is the solution to this crisis?
- 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.
- To what extent is economic forecasting like weather forecasting?
- What is meant by cumulative causation? Give some examples. Why does cumulative causation make economic forecasting difficult?
- How is the increased usage of contactless card payments likely to affect spending patterns? Explain why.
- Why is it difficult to forecast the effects of Brexit?
- How can economic advisors help governments in designing policy?
- Why do people tend to overweight high probabilities and underweight low ones?
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.
We economists must face the plain truth that the referendum showed our failings Institute for Fiscal Studies newspaper articles. Paul Johnson (28/6/16)
- In what ways could economists have communicated better to the general public during the referendum campaign?
- For what reasons may people distrust economists?
- Were economists hampered in delivering their message by ‘balanced reporting’?
- 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?’
- Do economists, or at least some of them, need to become more ‘media savvy’?
- 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?
- 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.
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)
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)
- What is it about economics that gives so much material to comedians?
- ‘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?
- Should assumptions in economics always be realistic? Explain why or why not.
- For what types of reason might economists disagree?
- 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?
Business leaders and politicians pay a great deal of attention to economic forecasts. And yet these forecasts often turn out to be quite wrong. Very few economists predicted the banking crisis of 2008 and the subsequent credit crunch and recession. And the recently released 2010 Q4 growth figures for the UK economy, which showed a decline in real GDP of 0.5%, took most people by surprise.
What is more, forecasters often disagree. If, for example, you look at the forecasts made by various panel members for Consensus Forecasts, you can see the divergence between their various predictions.
So why is economic forecasting so unreliable? Is it the fault of economic models? Or are there too many unpredictable factors that can impact on economies – factors such as business and consumer confidence, or political events, or natural disasters, such as the recent floods in Australia, South Africa and Brazil? Will economic forecasting always be a very inexact science?
Davos 2011: Why do economists get it so wrong? BBC News, Tim Weber (27/1/11)
Popular Semi-Science Slate, Robert J. Shiller (24/1/11)
Fed Often Gets It Wrong In Its Forecasts on US Economy American Public Media, Justin Wolfers (26/1/11)
Don’t bet on economic forecasting CNBC, Jeff Cox (21/9/10)
Forecasts for the UK economy HM Treasury
Econ Stats: The Economic Statistics and Indicators Database Economy Watch (large database of worldwide annual statistics, including forecasts to 2015)
World Economic Outlook IMF (follow link in right-hand panel)
OECD Economic Outlook: Statistical Annex OECD
European Economic Forecasts European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs DG
- For what reasons may economic forecasts turn out to be wrong?.
- To what extent is economic forecasting like weather forecasting? Which is harder and why?
- Wo what extent can the poor accuracy of economic forecasts be blamed on the application of the ‘wrong type of economics’?
- How much variation is there in the independent forecasts of the UK economy reported by the Treasury (see HM Treasury link above)?
- Using the HM Treasury link, compare the forecasts made of 2010 in January 2010 with those made of 2010 in January 2011. Attempt an explanation of the differences.