Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Friday, March 26, 2010

Nobody Can Know Anything, Ever

Shorter David Brooks: Our elite are not to blame for this economic disaster; economists failed because nobody can know anything, ever.

Did I mention that one of David Brooks' favorite economics blogger is Megan McArdle?

The establishment — and yes, this week there really is such a thing — is saying we have to pass [Bush's bank bailout] even if it’s ugly. The greater risk is inaction, not bad action. I happen to agree with this position, for what it’s worth, influenced by the brilliant economic blogger Megan McArdle, who points out that given how bad the Great Depression was, it’s probably worth taking heroic measures to prevent another.

The elite say we have to give tax-payer money to the banks so we must do what they say. But our elite economists were wrong. But that's not their fault because economics is an art, not a science, and now our elite say economics is broken. But our elite will figure out the solution. All they have to do is look back to earlier elites, who will tell the present elites what to do, so they can tell David Brooks, who can then tell us.

This amounts to rediscovering the humility of an earlier time. After all, Adam Smith was a moral philosopher, Friedrich von Hayek built his philosophy on an awareness of our own ignorance, and John Maynard Keynes “was not prepared to sacrifice realism to mathematics,” as the biographer Robert Skidelsky put it. Economics is a “moral science,” Keynes wrote. It deals with “motives, expectations, psychological uncertainties. One has to be constantly on guard against treating the material as constant and homogenous.”

In Act IV, in other words, economists are taking baby steps into the world of emotion, social relationships, imagination, love and virtue. In Act V, I predict, they will blow up their whole field.

Economics achieved coherence as a science by amputating most of human nature. Now economists are starting with those parts of emotional life that they can count and model (the activities that make them economists). But once they’re in this terrain, they’ll surely find that the processes that make up the inner life are not amenable to the methodologies of social science. The moral and social yearnings of fully realized human beings are not reducible to universal laws and cannot be studied like physics.

Sociologists and theologians might disagree, but Brooks is busy creating a new reality here, and the old reality will just have to suck it up.

Once this is accepted, economics would again become a subsection of history and moral philosophy. It will be a powerful language for analyzing certain sorts of activity. Economists will be able to describe how some people acted in some specific contexts. They will be able to draw out some suggestive lessons to keep in mind while thinking about other people and other contexts — just as historians, psychologists and novelists do.

At the end of Act V, economics will be realistic, but it will be an art, not a science.

That's one powerful assessment of failure there. Our economics didn't fail us, economics failed our economists-our elite. Who are never wrong, even when they are.


zeppo said...

Wha....?? "...brilliant economic blogger Megan McArdle"?!? Seriously, WTF?

Downpuppy said...

After all, a lesser blogger wouldn't have recognized that another Great Depresssion might be a bad thing.

Euripides said...

Reading the internets...

New issue of 'Real-World Economics Review' (Real-World as opposed to Neo-Liberal Orthodoxy)...

An article here called Racism and Economics, looks interesting, clickity click...

Oh it seems to be about Adam Smith, that great moral philospher...

Quote: Plantations, in other words, were part and parcel of the economic system that created the wealth that Adam Smith enjoyed when he was collecting material for his book The Wealth of Nations. Instead of telling us this history, which he knew not only because he would have witnessed it as a resident of Glasgow, but also because he met for years with the Glasgow merchants of tobacco, he tells us the story of the butcher, brewer, and the baker.

This image of economics, and others like it, such as the invisible hand or the “natural” dynamics of markets, has dominated the past decades of Anglo-American economics. The combination of Smith not telling us how wealth was actually created in his city, and of supplying images of commerce that left no room for such stories, created a legacy of market optimism that continues to shield us from seeing how the economy really functions today.

It is truly amazing that in the many current books on Adam Smith’s political philosophy, his ethics, and even his economics, one finds a total absence of reference to the Glasgow tobacco lords, or to the slave-based tobacco trade.

After all, one of the first principles of understanding a text is to understand the context in which it was written. It is as if Smith’s context was as invisible as his “invisible hand’ of the market. Still, one must admit that if one only studied the written text, one would not know that the “opulence” Smith enjoyed in Glasgow came largely from the exploitation of the kidnapped Africans who labored on tobacco plantations in Virginia and Maryland. As a consequence of not knowing this story, or at least not admitting it, Smith’s economics have been used as the basis for believing that an unfettered market economy promotes human freedom.
End quote

Source here

Looks like Mr Brooks is not reading the same 'Real-World' Economists as I am, Susan!

bulbul said...

Once this is accepted, economics would again become a subsection of history and moral philosophy.
Hey, I'm all for it, as long as economists assume the same position with regard to government as historians and moral philosophers. And if all the ecomomics departments at universities will be treated the same way history and philosophy departments are now, I will be a happy man.