Mar 3 JDN 2458546
I recently attended the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) Young Scholars Initiative (YSI) North American Regional Convening (what a mouthful!). I didn’t present, so I couldn’t get funding for a hotel, so I commuted to LA each day. That was miserable; if I ever go again, it will be with funding.
The highlight of the conference was George Akerlof‘s keynote, which I knew would be the case from the start. The swag bag labeled “Rebel Without a Paradigm” was also pretty great (though not as great as the “Totes Bi” totes at the Human Rights Council Time to THRIVE conference).
The rest of the conference was… a bit strange, to be honest. They had a lot of slightly cheesy interactive activities and exhibits; the conference was targeted at grad students, but some of these would have drawn groans from my more jaded undergrads (and “jaded grad student” is a redundancy). The poster session was pathetically small; I think there were literally only three posters. (Had I known in time for the deadline, I could surely have submitted a poster.)
The theme of the conference was challenging the neoclassical paradigm. This was really the only unifying principle. So we had quite an eclectic mix of presenters: There were a few behavioral economists (like Akerlof himself), and some econophysicists and complexity theorists, but mostly the conference was filled with a wide variety of heterodox theorists, ranging all the way from Austrian to Marxist. Also sprinkled in were a few outright cranks, whose ideas were just total nonsense; fortunately these were relatively rare.
And what really struck me about listening to the heterodox theorists was how mainstream it made me feel. I went to a session on development economics, expecting randomized controlled trials of basic income and maybe some political economy game theory, and instead saw several presentations of neo-Marxist postcolonial theory. At the AEA conference I felt like a radical firebrand; at the YSI conference I felt like a holdout of the ancien regime. Is this what it feels like to push the envelope without leaping outside it?
The whole atmosphere of the conference was one of “Why won’t they listen to us!?” and I couldn’t help but feel like I kind of knew why. All this heterodox theory isn’t testable. It isn’t useful. It doesn’t solve the problem. Even if you are entirely correct that Latin America is poor because of colonial and neocolonial exploitation by the West (and I’m fairly certain that you’re not; standard of living under the Mexica wasn’t so great you know), that doesn’t tell me how to feed starving children in Nicaragua.
Indeed, I think it’s notable that the one Nobel Laureate they could find to speak for us was a behavioral economist. Behavioral economics has actually managed to penetrate into the mainstream somewhat. Not enough, not nearly quickly enough, to be sure—but it’s happening. Why is it happening? Because behavioral economics is testable, it’s useful, and it solves problems.
Indeed, behavioral economics is more testable than most neoclassical economics: We run lab experiments while they’re adding yet another friction or shock to the never-ending DSGE quagmire.
And we’ve already managed to solve some real policy problems this way, like Alvin Roth’s kidney matching system and Richard Thaler’s “Save More Tomorrow” program.
The (limited) success of behavioral economics came not because we continued to batter at the gates of the old paradigm demanding to be let in, but because we tied ourselves to the methodology of hard science and gathered irrefutable empirical data. We didn’t get as far as we have by complaining that economics is too much like physics; we actually made it more like physics. Physicists do experiments. They make sharp, testable predictions. They refute their hypotheses. And now, so do we.
That said, Akerlof was right when he pointed out that the insistence upon empirical precision has limited the scope of questions we are able to ask, and kept us from addressing some of the really vital economic problems in the world. And neoclassical theory is too narrow; in particular, the ongoing insistence that behavior must be modeled as perfectly rational and completely selfish is infuriating. That model has clearly failed at this point, and it’s time for something new.
So I do think there is some space for heterodox theory in economics. But there actually seems to be no shortage of heterodox theory; it’s easy to come up with ideas that are different from the mainstream. What we actually need is more ways to constrain theory with empirical evidence. The goal must be to have theory that actually predicts and explains the world better than neoclassical theory does—and that’s a higher bar than you might imagine. Neoclassical theory isn’t an abject failure; in fact, if we’d just followed the standard Keynesian models in the Great Recession, we would have recovered much faster. Most of this neo-Marxist theory struck me as not even wrong: the ideas were flexible enough that almost any observed outcome could be fit into them.
Galileo and Einstein didn’t just come up with new ideas and complain that no one listened to them. They developed detailed, mathematically precise models that could be experimentally tested—and when they were tested, they worked better than the old theory. That is the way to change a paradigm: Replace it with one that you can prove is better.