Saturday, 29 October 2016

If economists want to be useful again they need to redeem themselves

Allister Heath in The Telegraph

Imagine that you kept getting it wrong, not just a little, but completely and utterly.

When times were bad you thought they were good, and when they were good you thought they were bad. You argued against successful solutions, and in favour of failed ones. You predicted a rise when in fact a fall materialised; to add insult to injury, you clung to your old ways of thinking, refusing to change apart from in the most trivial of ways. In normal industries you would be finished: your collection of P45s would fill half a drawer, and you would long since have been forced to retrain into somebody of more value to society.

But not in one profession. Yes, dear readers, I’m referring to the systemic, cultural problems of modern, applied macroeconomics, in the public as well as private sectors, where failure continues to be rewarded.

Economists who make all the wrong calls keep their jobs and big paychecks, as long as their faulty views echo the mainstream, received wisdom of the moment. I spent five years studying economics, and I still love the subject. At its best, economics is the answer to myriad problems, the prism through which to view the vast majority of decisions.

But I’m deeply frustrated with some of its practitioners: all those folk who predicted that the third quarter would see very little or negative growth, when in fact the economy grew by a remarkable 0.5pc, the most important statistic of recent times.

For political and psychological reasons, one small and rather unreliable snapshot had become all-important. Had that (preliminary and approximate number) been in negative territory, or close to zero, the outcry would have been deafening and reverberated around the world. The markets would either have slumped or more likely, bounced back, on the assumption that Brexit would be reversed. Yet the opposite happened, and the economy did well (France grew by just 0.2pc during the same time).

Combined with the news that Nissan will be sticking with the UK, it was a great week for Brexit, made all the better by the announcement of Heathrow expansion. Brexit won the referendum, lost the immediate aftermath, won the next few months and has now won again.

Of course, the war continues, and will do so for years. There are huge challenges looming. But this was the week that the economics profession was further discredited. The forecasts were not just completely wrong – my guess is that they were actually downright harmful, shaving growth in areas where elites that are most likely to be swayed by economists decisions.

Economists have form: most backed the euro, failed to see the financial crisis coming, missed the dot.com bubble and the Asian crisis, loved the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and never understood the Thatcherite revolution.
Previous generations failed just as badly: the vast majority loved Keynesian economics during the 1970s, read and recommended a textbook that thought that the USSR would eventually overtake America, backed corporatism, failed to predict the 1929 crash and provided all of the wrong answers in the 1930s.

One problem is groupthink, another is the inability to be objective. But the biggest problem is a faulty paradigm: a fundamental flaw at the heart of the models and assumptions of the economic mainstream, aided and abated by an academic establishment which excludes dissenters from its journals and top faculties.
So if economists want to be useful again, they should do two things.

First, we need a proper Parliamentary inquiry into the failures of the Treasury model and official forecasting before and after Brexit. There is an argument for this to be extended to the Bank of England and even to the private sector. Economists need to cooperate, if even anonymously: are some under pressure to toe various lines? If not, what is the real reason for such a succession of flawed consensuses?

Second, the real threat to the economy is absurd decisions such as the ruling that Uber drivers should be treated like employees (on the basis that the US firm exerts too much control and direction over drivers, even though they are free to choose their hours and commitment).

If not reversed, this judicial activism will destroy jobs and push up prices; it is a shame that such a good week ended on such a sour note. The Government may need to legislate to make it clear that Uber and other similar enterprises are platforms, not employers. If economists want to redeem themselves, they should explain why flexible markets are good and why it would be a genuine disaster if we kill off the sharing economy with red tape.

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