Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Economic Regularities and "Laws" and the Riksbank Prize too

I've been reading The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn by Avner Offer, Gabriel Söderberg, an interesting critique of the use of the Nobel Prize to undermine the Welfare State, essentially by conservative groups in Sweden, that were influential within the Central Bank (Riksbank), that disliked the Social Democratic policies in place in the 1960s. I have been critical of the Riksbank prize before (see, for example, here or here; check also Lars Syll's blog who often discusses the limits to the Nobel in economics), and this book is an interesting discussion of the socio-political forces behind the creation of the prize. I highly recommend it.

Having said that, I should note that the alternative to mainstream marginalist (neoclassical) economics is not Social Democracy. I guess one can actually be Social Democratic (Liberal in the US  New Deal sense of the word) and neoclassical. A good chunk of the Old Keynesians of the Neoclassical Synthesis sort were, and there are a few New Keynesians that are like that (many are simply Neoliberal). The alternative to marginalism, in my view, is a combination of the old surplus approach (classical political economy), particularly regarding value and distribution, and the Keynesian (and Kaleckian) analysis, regarding macro.

Also, I'm somewhat troubled by Offer and Söderberg tendency to read the Kuhnian ideas on the growth of knowledge in a nihilistic way, suggesting that economics cannot be seen as 'scientific' (surely a loaded term with more than one definition), and that there are no regularities in economics. They, for example, say that:
Feynman began by ‘looking for a new law’. But after three centuries, economics has yet to come up with a single non-obvious ‘law’, or universal regularity.
Don't get me wrong, regularities in economics are historically constrained, but there are more than a few. As any regular reader of this blog would know, I'm particularly fond of Okun's Law (and also of its inseparable fraternal twin Verdoorn's Law). I do think there is an important regularity behind the so-called Thirlwall's Law (that developing countries without a reserve currency face a balance of payments constraint more often than not), even if I don't think it is a "law" like the other two. In particular, I think that if one thinks of the persistent forces that operate within a particular mode of production, there are many other regularities that should (and to some extent are) part of economic analysis.

There are many mechanisms that capture the workings of those regularities in the economic system, like the multiplier and the accelerator. Theoretical constructs that are measurable, even if that is difficult and open to criticism. I guess I'm okay with the use of the term economic law, in a certain context. I suppose Marx also thought that capitalism, and other modes of production, were to some extent amenable of analysis on the basis of certain regularities, certain laws of motion, if one prefers (and, yes, that opens a discussion about determinism, but I'll leave that for another post).

Kindleberger (who I was lucky to see giving a talk in honor of Heilbroner years ago) wrote a little book on economic laws. The Iron Law of Wages, that Kindleberger discusses in his book, is very problematic (some discussion of that here), like the law of supply and demand, or the law of diminishing returns (they are not laws in my view, if that needs to be clarified). The other two Kindleberger discusses are much better, namely: Engel's Law and Gresham's Law. At any rate, for what is worth, I do think that there are many regularities that make economics scientific. Yes, sure social sciences are not like the hard sciences, but we do not live in post-modern world in which no regularities exist. But that does not undermine the authors' critique of the Riksbank prize, I might add.

1 comment:

  1. Prof. Vernengo

    It's surprising how things that interest you often not only interest me, but I am currently wondering about them.

    This subject of economic laws is one of them, precisely because of the determinism thing.

    I'm looking forward to any future posts on that!


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