The linked article below, by Evan Davis, assesses the state of economics. He argues that economics has had some major successes over the years in providing a framework for understanding how economies function and how to increase incomes and well-being more generally.
Over the last few decades, economists have …had an influence over every aspect of our lives. …And during this era in which economists have reigned, the world has notched up some marked successes. The reduction in the proportion of human beings living in abject poverty over the last thirty years has been extraordinary.
With the development of concepts such as opportunity cost, the prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage and the paradox of thrift, economics has helped to shape the way policymakers perceive economic issues and policies.
These concepts are ‘threshold concepts’. Understanding and being able to relate and apply these core economic concepts helps you to ‘think like an economist’ and to relate the different parts of the subject to each other. Both Economics (10th edition) and Essentials of Economics (8th edition) examine 15 of these threshold concepts. Each time a threshold concept is used in the text, a ‘TC’ icon appears in the margin with the appropriate number. By locating them in this way, you can see their use in a variety of contexts.
But despite the insights provided by traditional economics into the various problems that society faces, the discipline of economics has faced criticism, especially since the financial crisis, which most economists did not foresee.
Even Davis identifies two major shortcomings of the discipline – both beginning with ‘C’. ‘One is complexity, the other is community.’
In terms of complexity, the criticism is that economic models are often based on simplistic assumptions, such as ‘rational maximising behaviour’. This might make it easier to express the models mathematically, but mathematical elegance does not necessarily translate into predictive accuracy. Such models do not capture the ‘messiness’ of the real world.
These models have a certain theoretical elegance but there is now an increasing sense that economies do not evolve along a well-defined mathematical path, but in a far more messy way. The individual players within the economy face radical uncertainty; they adapt and learn as they go; they watch what everybody else does. The economy stumbles along in a process of slow discovery, full of feedback loops.
As far as ‘community’ is concerned, people do not just act as self-interested individuals. Their actions are often governed by how other people behave and also by how their own actions will affect other people, such as family, friends, colleagues or society more generally.
And the same applies to firms. They will be influenced by various other firms, such as competitors, trend setters and suppliers and also by a range of stakeholders – not just shareholders, but also workers, customers, local communities, etc. A firm’s aim is thus unlikely to be simple short-term profit maximisation.
And this broader set of interests translates into policy. The neoliberal free-market, laissez-faire approach to policy is challenged by the desire to take account of broader questions of equity, community and social justice. However privately efficient a free market is, it does not take account of the full social and environmental costs and benefits of firms’ and consumers’ actions or a fair distribution of income and wealth.
It would be wrong, however, to say that economics has not responded to these complexities and concerns. The analysis of externalities, income distribution, incentives, herd behaviour, uncertainty, speculation, cumulative causation and institutional values and biases are increasingly embedded in the economics curriculum and in economic research. What is more, behavioural economics is becoming increasingly mainstream in examining the behaviour of consumers, workers, firms and government. We have tried to reflect these developments in successive editions of our four textbooks.
- Write a brief defence of traditional economic analysis (i.e. that based on the assumption of ‘rational economic behaviour’).
- What are the shortcomings of traditional economic analysis?
- What is meant by ‘behavioural economics’ and how does it address the concerns raised in Evan Davis’ article?
- How is herd behaviour relevant to explaining macroeconomic fluctuations?
- Identify various stakeholder groups of an energy company. What influence are they likely to have on the company’s behaviour?
- In an era of social media, web-based information and e-commerce, why might it be necessary to rethink the concept of GDP and its measurement?
- What is meant by an efficient stock market? Why may the stock market not be efficient?
Many of you reading this will be embarking on an economics degree. During your studies you’ll be developing the skills that economists bring to observing and analysing the world around us and considering the policy options to achieve various social and economic objectives. You’ll be learning how to become an ‘economic detective’ and to do ‘forensic economics’.
Identifying the nature of economic problems; collecting and examining the evidence; using the economist’s ‘toolkit’ of concepts and ideas to make sense of the evidence; looking for explanations; constructing hypotheses and theories; considering what can be done to tackle the problems and prevent them occurring in the future – these are the sorts of things you will be doing; and they involve detective work.
The podcast below looks at the methods of Sherlock Holmes. These are the sorts of methods successful economists use. John Gray identifies three types of reasoning. The first two are probably familiar to you, or soon will be.
1. Induction involves looking at evidence and then using it to construct general theories. So, for example, if you observe on many occasions that when the prices of various goods rise, the quantity demanded falls, you can then hypothesise that whenever the price of a good rises, the quantity demanded will fall; in other words, you induce that price and quantity demanded are inversely related – that demand curves are downward sloping. This is known as the ‘Law of demand’. Induction, of course, is only as good as the evidence. Nevertheless, inductive methods are logical and it can be demonstrated how the theories follow from the evidence.
2. Deduction involves using theories to draw conclusions about specific cases. So, for example, you could use the law of demand to deduce that when the price of a specific good rises, the quantity demanded of that good will fall. You would also assume that nothing else had changed that could influence the demand for the good. In other words, you assume ‘ceteris paribus‘ or ‘other things being equal’. As long as you have not made any logical errors, deduction is foolproof. As John Gray puts it:
Deduction is infallible as long as the premises are true, while induction yields probabilities that can always be falsified by events
But there is a third type of reasoning and this is where the true economic detective comes in. This is known as ‘abduction’. This is the type of logic that is used when evidence is thin or where there are lots of scraps of seemingly contradictory evidence. And this is the type of logic employed so successfully by Sherlock Holmes.
3. Abduction involves making informed guesses or estimates from limited evidence. It is using the scraps of evidence as clues as to what might be really going on. It is how many initial hypotheses are formed. Then the researcher (or detective) will use the clues to search for more evidence that can be used for induction that will yield a more robust theory. The clues may lead to a false trail, but sometimes they may allow the researcher to develop a new theory or amend an existing one. A good researcher will be alert to clues; to seeing patterns in details that might previously have been dismissed or gone unnoticed.
Before the banking crisis of 2007/8 and the subsequent credit crunch and recession in the developed world, many economists were picking up clues and trying to use them to develop a theory of systemic risk in financial markets. They were using the skills of an economic detective to try to discover not only what was currently going on but also what might be the consequences for the future. Some used abduction successfully to predict the impending crisis; most did not.
If you are embarking on an economics degree and will possibly go on to a career as an economist, then part of your training will be as a detective. With good detective skills – looking for clues, seeing connections, identifying what more evidence is required and where to find it, and then using it to provide explanations and policy prescriptions – you could make a very successful and sought-after economist. Being a good economist is not just about learning theories and techniques, although this is vitally important; it’s also about being imaginative and thinking ‘outside the box’. Good luck!
Sherlock Holmes and the Romance of Reason BBC: A Point of View, John Gray (17/8/12) (Click here for a transcript.)
Articles and information
Detective work: forensic economics Business:Life, Tim Harford (2/5/12)
The Search for 100 Million Missing Women Slate, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt (24/5/05)
Abduction Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Igor Douven (9/2/11)
Abductive reasoning Wikipedia
- Explain the difference between induction and abduction.
- Identify the various ‘threshold concepts’ in economics. Does an understanding of these concepts help an economist do better detective work?
- How might forensic economics be used for crime fighting?
- Why might elegant and sophisticated economic theory be dangerous in the ‘messy’ and statistically ‘noisy’ real world?
- In trying to establish an explanation for “100 Million Missing Women”, what use was made of abduction, induction and deduction?