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Issue no. 10;  7 December 2001                                     back issues at www.paecon.net

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                    In this issue:                    

                    - Anne Mayhew,  Some Old But Good Ideas
                    - Bruce Edmonds,  Against: a priori theory. 

                                                     For: descriptively adequate computational modelling

                    - Jason Potts,
                      John Nightingale,
  An Alternative Framework for Economics

                    - Alan Shipman,  Ignoring Commercial Reality

                    - Steve Keen,  The Russian Defeat of Economic Orthodoxy






Some Old  But Good Ideas
Anne Mayhew   (University of Tennessee, USA)


As Post-Autistic Economics moves beyond criticism and on to the task of building a more
relevant and robust economic science, one challenge is to develop a theoretical framework
that will guide pluralistic borrowing from a variety of disciplines and approaches.  Some
useful guidelines for development of such a framework may be found in the history of
American economic  thought as it developed and flourished in the first half of the 20th
century.  During the first five decades of that century a group of economists who taught at
a number of the major American Universities created the reasonably coherent, pluralistic
and non-autistic approach to the study of economies and economic issues known as
institutionalism, an approach that dominated American economic thought during the
interwar years.

Four basic themes characterized this approach:

(1)   Regularities in the organization of both production and distribution are the same as all
other social regularities in that they are human creations and are subject to change by
human intervention. In other words, there is no “natural economy” and there is no reason to
assume that an idealized market system is historically or morally prior to other social
systems.   This perception was rooted in American pragmatic philosophy which saw
individuals as recipients of inherited ideas, but also as active agents capable of perceiving
problems and imagining new possibilities.  The basic autistic assumption of isolated
individuals interacting from the beginning of human history through exchange, but little
changed by it, was rejected in favor of the notion that humans are always social beings. 
Mind, thought, and consciousness are products of active processes of human interactions,
processes that do not end, but evolve through time. 

This understanding of the social and inquiring nature of humans is crucial to two tasks that
must confront post-autistic economic analysis: the understanding of variation in economic
organization across time and space, and variation in human understanding and behavior
across the lifetime of individuals.  The idea that we all start with a set of inherited ideas and
perceptions is crucial to explaining economic and all other forms of social behavior.  A
simple example: young American children learn at an early age that food can be acquired
by spending money and that money is acquired by “hard work and thrift.”  They may learn
that beggars without money for food are victims of hard luck; they are as likely to learn that
such beggars are undeserving of receiving money because they have not worked hard or
been thrifty.  In this process the idea of a market economy with justified and even desirable
income inequality is instilled.   Young children in other times and places have learned
different things and have different understanding of distribution and its relationship to

What the pragmatists and institutional economists also stressed is that all people are
capable of questioning the ideas that they inherit.   We all know that many Americans
come to question the conventional wisdom that the poor have earned their own economic
fate, but note that the questioning itself is via a social process of questioning, of contact
with others with different ideas (contact that is now global as well as local), and of formal
learning.  In the process, ideas of what constitutes justice and injustice are changed, as
are ideas of how to achieve justice.    It is this active process that produces the evolution
of thought and consciousness and that leads to change in human culture and organization.

(2)   It follows from #1 that as humans create their economies, they can change those
economies to solve perceived problems.  A central part of economic analysis should
therefore be the identification of problems, which is to say to patterns of production and
distribution that do not accord with the goals of society.   This analysis should lead to
reasoned advocacy of reform through normal political and social processes.  This aspect
of pragmatism underlay the reform activities of the 1920s and 30s in the United States,
activities that included creation of the Federal Trade Commission, the Social Security Act
that provided income security to the elderly, unemployment compensation, regulation of
securities trading and much, much more. 

  While the Institutional economists saw their role as one of criticism and advocacy,
they did not purport to offer permanent solutions or design of utopias.  They were reformers,
not revolutionaries who could advocate permanent solutions.  Instead, the pragmatic
solutions to problems were offered with the sure knowledge that these solutions would
create new problems, and with the sure knowledge that as science and technology
changed the interaction of humans with the physical world so too would that change alter
the relationship of humans with each other.  Central to institutionalist thought was the
perception that the advent of industrial as opposed to craft production had altered the
relationship of producers of products and of producers to consumers.  New rules,
regulations and patterns of interaction were required and those very rules, regulations and
patterns of interaction themselves created new conflicts that would lead to more change
via a process of cumulative causation.  Not only was the path of change difficult to predict,
but it was impossible to formulate an ideal toward which such change tended.  In other
words, it was futile to speculate on the conditions that would prevail in an ideal economy.

(4)   In order to understand the processes of ongoing change, and in order to understand the
human organization of production and distribution, a variety of tools were found to be useful. 
Wesley Mitchell, one of the most active of institutionalists and founder of the National
Bureau of Economic Research was a strong advocate of descriptive statistics and of
statistical analysis as a way of discovering the actual (as opposed to idealized) patterns of
economic behavior.   Others borrowed the methods of anthropology and sociology to
discover patterns of behavior through rough observation and participation.   Studies of the legal
system as a working system of evolving human rules was central to the approach taken by
John R. Commons and his students. The study of economic history was vital for
understanding patterns and processes of change.  In all of the institutionalist work, the
tools were just that: ways to achieve the goal of understanding the patterns of human
behavior and how they changed.   The tools did not define the discipline. 

There is much to be learned about the early 20th century American economy from reading
Thorstein Veblen, John R. Commons, Wesley C. Mitchell, John Maurice Clark, Rexford
Tugwell and the others who brought the pragmatist approach to the study of economics. 
What is more important is that these authors and others offer rich examples of how to
build an economic science that would, in the words of Tony Lawson, describe and explain
event regularities.   They can teach us much about how to do non-autistic economic science.


Anne Mayhew (2001) “Some Old But Good Ideas”, post-autistic economics review : issue no. 10, December, article 1.  http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/review/issue10.htm 









New from Routledge's
econo0mics as social theory
Intersubjectivity in Economics:
Agents and Structures
£22.99 / $36.95  

Editor: Edward Fullbrook
Frank Ackerman, John B. Davis, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Armin Falk, Ernst Fehr, Edward Fullbrook, Shaun P. Hargreaves Heap, Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Frédéric Lebaron, Thierry Levy, Paul Lewis, Roger Mason, Anne Mayhew, Paul Ormerod, Ralph William Pfouts, Jochen Runde, S. Abu Turab Rizvi, Laurent Thévenot, Peter Wynarczyk 

Readers' Comments:
”All the contributions of this book share the same theoretical conviction: if we want to understand economic interactions, we need to go beyond the opportunistic and superficial approach that has dominated the discipline for half a century or more.  The result of the book is full of promises for the future.”  André Orléan, École Normale Supérieure/CEPREMAP

”Edward Fullbrook has edited an excellent set of essays in which economic concepts are debated in terms of their intellectual significance.  The authors show a rare capacity to use, in clear language, the most advanced outcomes of economics theory.  In this way they develop a critique that touches upon the very assumptions sustaining the body of conventional economics.  Human needs and desires emerge as stronger concepts that the notion of commodities-based utility.”  Joseph Halevi, University of Sydney and Université Pierre Mendès, France

“This collection is a major contribution to intersubjectivity studies.  Veblen would applaud, but so too must all those interested in the psychology of economic activity and the methodological problems and opportunities of a world comprised of problematic, relativist, and combined deliberative and nondeliberative activities.”  Warren J. Samuels, Michigan State University

”If you are an economist you need to read this book, because economics needs to start treating its “agents” and “actors” as people.  The “Prudence-Only” model we’ve had since Bentham gets better as science when it acknowledges life.  Without controls on Love and Justice and Courage the “Prudence-Only” agent is just bad economic science.  Be a good scientist: get the book.”  Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago 

This volume tackles the most important issue facing the theoretical foundations of economics, namely the need to go beyond the tools and concepts bequeathed to us by the early neoclassicals.  It’s very much about time.”  James K. Galbraith, University of Texas at Austin  

Available Online at:                                                                                                      Amazon.com                                                                                                                          
Blackwells  (includes summary and contents list)
Barnes & Noble US




Against: a priori theory
For: descriptively adequate computational modelling
Bruce Edmonds   (Center for Policy Modelling, UK)

Autistic economics is rightly held in disregard by an increasing number of people.
Unfortunately it has sullied the reputation of all kinds of formal social modelling by
association.  On the other hand there is sociology and discursive social theory but here
there is a huge gap between its thorough and detailed observation and its abstract
theoretical terms.  I suggest that the way forward is not to abandon all types of formal
modelling but rather to use expressive computational systems to build descriptive models
of observed dynamic processes.  This aims to combine the relevance and realism of social
observation with the rigour of formal computational models [6]. This is a bottom-up attempt
to bridge the gap and move towards a science of social phenomena (see [4] for a discussion
of this). This is a consequence of accepting that economics will have to be more like biology,
which employs lengthy observation and description before modelling, than physics (or, at
least, than the economist’s perception of physics). This is what some of the researchers in
the new field of social simulation are attempting to do (for an insight into this field see
JASSS [1]).

Modelling complex systems

Complex systems are precisely those for which it is extremely difficult to deduce its
behaviour from first principles. For example, it is extremely unlikely that one would be able
to predict the behaviour of a particular animal purely from a priori principles, rather one
would have to spend a lot of time observing and describing its actions to get a hold on the
intricate contingencies of its actual behaviour. With complex systems, observation and
description must come first and only much later (when the detailed behavioural mechanisms
are well understood) is it sometimes possible to encapsulate some of these in a predictive
model. It seems likely that much economic behaviour is complex in this way. This would not
be surprising since it arises as the consequence of the intricate interactions between
members of a species that is characterised by the variety and contingency of its behaviour.

But if we are to give up the chimera of numerical predictive models built using a priori
principles, doesn’t that mean we have to give up formal models and rigour? I would say that
we do not. What it does mean, however, is that we have to use formal and computational
models that are capable of capturing the detailed behaviour as it is observed. We then need
to constrain these models as much as possible using observations of the relevant
phenomena, both in terms of the trajectories of the causal processes as well as the
outcomes; in terms of qualitative information (such as anecdotal accounts) as well as
quantitative data. Pinning down our models using only the verification of predictive outcomes
and an insistence on formal simplicity will not be enough. We will need to capture the
workings of the processes stage by stage as they are observed.

In order to perform this feat we will need systems that are up to the task of expressing the
qualitative cognitive and social processes that economic phenomena are rooted in. These
more expressive systems come at a price, they are not simple and they allow for multiple
representations of the same outcomes. However there is no need for them to be any less
formal than a set of differential equations.

I am suggesting that we should attempt to construct models of quite specific sets of
observations that are more akin to a description than a theory. It is, of course, impossible
to lose all assumptions in the construction of any model, but the point is to move towards
using fewer and less drastic a priori assumptions and use more qualitative and quantitative
constraints derived from observation the processes under study. The purpose is to provide
an unambiguous framework for the exploration of the possible processes within these
constraints so as to inform the direction of further observation and modelling (I attempt this
in [5]). This is not merely static description, for we are not concerned with static phenomena,
but dynamic description of particular sets of observations using the techniques of
computational and cognitive modelling. The extent to which such models are generalisable to
other phenomena will only become apparent when it is compared with other descriptive
models, just as the general characteristics and markings of a species of animal may only
become clear when several descriptions of the animals are compared.

To many my position will seem too pessimistic. They may be still hoping for some brilliant
‘short-cut’ to a predictive model, that will allow them to miss out the laborious business of
observing and describing the underlying processes. However, I would point out that the
science of biology has become enormously successful using the methods I am suggesting
and, once we have accepted the amount of field work that our subject matter entails, equal
success might be achieved in economics.

Using agent-based models

The move to agent-based models in economics can be seen as part of a transition to a more
descriptive style of modelling. An agent-based model must, by its very nature, model a real
actor with a computational agent (in some way), so there should be a one-one correspondence
between actors and agents. It is not necessary to assume that the law of large numbers will
iron out the messy details. The model can allow the global properties to emerge (or not)
without having to assume these details away. Real economic actors are (almost always)
encapsulated, i.e. they will have an inside where the decision making is done which is largely
hidden from view, and a series of ways in which they interact with the outside environment
which are more easily observable. The agents that are used to model these actors are
encapsulated in a directly analogous way.

However, many agent-based modellers do not see the need for any greater descriptive
accuracy than this. Thus when inspecting the learning, inference and decision making
processes that an agent uses in such a model, one often finds something as unrealistic as
a simulated annealing algorithm or standard genetic algorithm. These are algorithms that
have been taken from the field of computer science, regardless of their descriptive
appropriateness for the actual economic actors being modelled. Now it is possible that in
some circumstances such algorithms will give acceptable results for some purposes, but
at the moment we can only guess whether this is the case. It is not only that we do not
know the exact conditions of application of each algorithm, we do not know of even a single
real circumstance where we could completely rely on any of these ‘off-the-shelf’ algorithms
to give a reasonable fit.

To be clear, I am not criticising looking to computer science for ideas, structures and
frameworks that might be used in modelling. Being a bounteous source of possible types
of process is one of the computer science’s great contributions to knowledge. What I am
criticising is the use of such algorithms without either any justification of their
appropriateness or modification to make them appropriate.

Thus many agent-based models fail to escape the problems of more traditional models.
They attempt to use some ensemble of interacting agents to reproduce some global
outcome without knowing if the behaviour of the individual agents is at all realistic. The wish
for the ‘magic’ short-cut is still there.

Constraining our models

Clearly what is needed is some way of modelling the behaviour of economic actors by
computational agents in a credible way. As noted above, real economic actors are probably
complex in the sense that it is unlikely that we will be able to deduce their actions using a
principles. What we can do is to constrain our models as much as possible from what
we do know. There are several sources of such knowledge.

1. We can ensure that the global outcomes of the model match the global outcomes of real
actors in the standard way.

This is a start, but when one is using a more expressive formal system like a agent-based
computational one then this is unlikely to sufficiently constrain the possible models. In other
words, there are likely to be many computational models which produce the same global

2. Ensure that the actions of the individual actors match those of our agents’ behaviour as
they learn and interact.

Axtell and Epstein [2] set out some criteria for the performance of multi-agent simulations
in [6] In this: level 0 is when a model caricatures reality at the global level through the use
of simple graphical devices (e.g. animations or pictures); level 1 is when the model in is
qualitative agreement at the global level with empirical macro-structures; level 2 is when
the model produces qualitative agreement at the agent level with empirical micro-structures;
and level 3 is when the model exhibits quantitative agreement at the agent level with
empirical microstructures. The constraint I am suggesting corresponds to their level 3 with
an emphasis on the agreement over time.

3. Look to the emerging guidelines coming from cognitive science as to the sort of learning
and decision processes humans might use.

Now the task of the cognitive scientist is difficult, but such scientists are able, at least, to
exclude some mechanisms for modelling behaviour and make suggestions for the
mechanisms derived from a lot of observation. It is notable that many successful sciences
take their ultimate grounding for the behaviour of their components from outside their
discipline (e.g. chemistry is grounded in physics).

4. Simply ask the actual actors why they made the decisions they did and how they learnt
what they learnt, i.e. use some of  techniques of business history.

This method has its known drawbacks, but can be successfully used, especially when
confirmed by other methods. In any case it is likely to produce more useful and accurate
information about the real behaviour of actors than is implicit in many of the  assumptions
used in economics.  Edmund Chattoe has recently written a more thorough catalogue of
the ways in which we can collect social data to properly constrain our modeling [3].


Bad science starts with a technique and changes the problem to fit it, good science starts
from the problem and chooses the appropriate technique.  With the advent of cheap
computational power and flexible modelling software we have the appropriate techniques for
performing that essential abstraction task called description.  In this case it is a description
that captures the dynamic, emergent and complex cognitive and social processes we
observe to be involved in economic exchange. 

1. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation (JASSS), http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk.
2. Axtel, R.L. and J.M. Epstein, Agent-based Modelling: Understanding Our Creations. The Bulletin of the Sante
Fe Institute, 1994. Winter 1994: p. 28-32.
3. Chattoe, E., Building Empirically Plausible Multi-Agent Systems - A Case Study of Innovation Diffusion, in
Socially Intelligent Agents - creating relationships with computers and robots, K. Dautenhahn, et al., Editors.
In press, Kluwer. p. Chap. 13.
4. Conte, R., et al., Sociology and Social Theory in Agent Based Social  Simulation: A Symposium. Computational
and Mathematical Organization Theory, In  press.
5. Edmonds, B., Towards a Descriptive Model of Agent Strategy Search. Computational Economics, 2001. 18(1).
6. Moss, S., Relevance, Realism and Rigour: A Third Way for Social and Economic Research. 1999, Centre for
Policy Modelling, Manchester Metropolitan University: Manchester.

Bruce Edmonds (2001) “Against: a priori theory  For: descriptively adequate computational modelling”, post-autistic economics review : issue no. 10, December, article 2.  http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/review/issue10.htm



An Alternative Framework For Economics
John Nightingale,  
(University of New England, Australia)
Jason Potts,   (University of Queensland, Australia)

The award of the Nobel Prize in Economics for Information Economics gives an opportunity
to illustrate why this form of economic analysis is a dead end. The theories advanced by the
Prize winners, Akerlof, Stiglitz and Spence, are ad hoc auxiliary assumptions tacked onto
the neoclassical, and neowalrasian, hard core. The work of these auxiliaries is mainly ex
post rationalisation rather than prediction or explanation.

Is modern economic theory just a morass of special cases? It is important that some
alternative framework be found to allow valid generalisation to once again characterise
economic theory, and this time, not fail to provide robust empirical results in the absence
of ad hoc auxiliaries.  Is there such an alternative?  We can report that there is, and that it
promises all that is missing from orthodoxy.

The autism of orthodoxy stems from its treatment of the human agent, who is mindless and
does not interact with other agents.  The broad solution then is to develop a framework in
which agents carry knowledge and interact with other agents to use and create knowledge. 
This is the essence of the new evolutionary economics (e.g. Loasby, Knowledge, Institutions
and Evolution in Economics
, 1999).  In The New Evolutionary Microeconomics, Potts (2000)
argues that all heterodox thought shares a common ontological foundation in the view that
the dynamics of evolving economic systems are in the space of connections.  An economy
is a complex system of interactions, and the dynamics of an economic system involve
change in the connective structure of the system. Three main themes can be found to share
this common foundation.

The first is the evolutionary economics revived by Nelson and Winter (1982).  This builds on
Book IV of Marshall’s Principles, and on Schumpeter’s theories of cycles and innovation,
creative destruction and greed for monopoly profit. Market capitalism is a restless system
of experimentation in pursuit of sustainable rents based on private knowledge.  This is
fundamentally a neo-Darwinian approach.  It has been argued in Nightingale and Laurent
(Darwinism and Evolutionary Economics, Edward Elgar, 2001), that social and cultural
theory is ultimately swallowed by Darwin’s ‘universal acid’, as Dennett so tellingly put it
(Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1995).  Complexity and self-organisation theory is the
most recent advance of the neo-Darwinian project (Foster and Metcalfe, Frontiers of
Evolutionary Economics
, 2001).

The second is the New “Old Institutionalism”, which is about how agents with minds
construct and use complex systems of rules.  Current orthodoxy has largely ignored the
cognitive dimension of human behaviour.  This strand of course began with Veblen, finding
new life in the development of both evolutionary thought and its application to human
institutions. American Institutionalism saw the difficulties of Veblen’s imprecision and
contradictions, and neglected the biological metaphor introduced by Veblen in favour of a
vague developmental notion of institutions as historical determinants of economic outcomes. 
Current research on Veblen’s themes often ignores his contribution, but continuity of ideas
remains clear.  Organisational ecology, and other resource and systems based views of the
firm, is one such well-defined field on inquiry.  Evolutionary psychology is another (L.
Cosmides and J. Tooby, (1994) ‘Better than Rational’ AER, 84: 327–32). Both these are
converging in the economist’s sphere, seeking explanations of selection processes and
system regularities in habits, routines and the causes for organisations’ and other institutions’
persistence as well as entry and exit.  The means by which knowledge is conserved as well
as transformed and created is at the centre of this program.

The third is the complex systems view of economic systems. Methodological Individualism
is one of the principles on which modern orthodox economics is based, as an article of faith,
and a justification for the reductionism that has bedevilled areas such as macroeconomics. 
The antithesis of this is an organic approach that can be traced to, among others, the
American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.  In essence, the concept of a
system rather than some atom within an aggregation of atoms, as the entity of interest,
distinguishes the organic approach from MI.  Geoff Hodgson’s Economics and Evolution
(Polity Press, 1993) has an extended exposition of the importance of this branch of theory. 
Reductionism, one of the fundamentals of MI, insists on ‘micro foundations’ for any
explanation.  An organic, systems or hierarchical approach insists that this demand is not
only irrelevant but misleading. Such a demand results in attempting to use inappropriate
theory, and has long been abandoned in the physical and life sciences (ever heard of a
sub-atomic theory of ocean waves?). 

This range of heterodox economic theories, all of which are close relatives of very orthodox
theories in other fields of science, are united against the neowalrasian orthodoxy, even with
the ad hoc auxiliaries added by this year’s Nobel prize winning information economists, by
a single critical feature. They are all theories of connections between knowledge carriers,
be these individuals (in a theory of intra-household decisions), firms (in a theory of market
structure), or sectors or national economies (in a theory of macroeconomic performance). 
They are all dynamic theories of systems evolving endogenously, subject to external
shocks, of course. They are theories in which knowledge rather than information is key. 
They are not Newtonian field theories, in which every point is connected to every other. 
They can all be subsumed analytically as elements and the connections between them.
These dynamic systems theories of evolutionary organisation are all graph theory constructs.
In other words, using the language of graph theory, the geometry of elements and connections
provides a unifying frame with which to develop these alternative economic theories.

This, then shows there is a progressive alternative to autistic neoclassical/neowalrasian
economics. The emerging synthesis of evolutionary and self-organizational approaches into
a framework of complex systems theory is a solid basis upon which to build. It connects
evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology to evolutionary economics (for a popular
science account, see, for example, Stuart Kauffman's At Home in the Universe, 1995). It
provides analytic methods in discrete mathematics and multi-agent simulation models. It
is the study of the emergence of order, rather than continuous equilibria.  It is ontologically
well-founded in a growth of knowledge framework where connections are the prime variables
in an economic system. Such a unified heterodox synthesis may underpin a broad front of
research advances that do not close off alternatives, but open more to scientific development.
Jason Potts is the author of
The New Evolutionary Microeconomics: Complexity, Competence, and Adaptive
(2000).  John Nightingale is the co-editor of Darwinism and Evolutionary Economics, Edward Elgar, 2001.


Jason Potts and John Nightingale (2001) “An Alternative Framework for Economics”, post-autistic economics review : issue no. 10, December, article 3.  http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/review/issue10.htm









Ignoring Commercial Reality
Alan Shipman

Consumers confronted with a legal monopoly shop around for cost-effective alternatives.
Rival producers innovate around the patent to supply them. They are helped by the
monopolist’s growing distance from competitive reality, leaving it to churn out, ever less
efficiently, products ever fewer people want. If mainstream economists still bought this
‘Austrian’ story, they’d see their own monopoly in a starring role. People seeking to
survive in the economy look to journalists for information, financial commentators for
advice and business schools for education. Academic economists, finding little market
for their tales of the market, are left chasing shrinking public subsidy – or privately
dispensing consultancy and forecasts built on different principles from those they teach
in class.

Inside business schools, the research and teaching for which companies and students
willingly pay looks very different from those economists peddle. Management courses and
journals mix their economics with sociology, psychology, natural and computer sciences,
ethics, and any other discipline whose information and ideas help undertake or understand
the running of enterprise. Their presentation ranges from macro- and micro-econometrics
and statistically strip-mined survey data to cross-disciplinary syntheses, case studies,
anecdotes and sectoral straw polls. Their authors are an equally diverse mix of full-time
researchers, practising managers, consultants with a foot in each campus and gurus with
their heads in the sky. They probably resemble the economics departments of fifty years
ago, with research posts and products accessible to anyone with informed interest,
however convoluted their career path or maverick their method.

Yet while business literature has much to say on the corporate strategy, organisational
and consumer behaviour, technology choice, expectation and regulation which drive the
modern economy, mainstream economists pay it little attention  - even when published in
journals as rigorously refereed as their own. Dialogue has died because neoclassical
economists speak an increasingly exclusive language. Like early industrialists, they have
found a way of discussing the enterprise by its financial flows, in splendid isolation from
human and physical stocks. Accounting made it possible to run a company by numbers,
tracking money and materials to avoid touring plants and talking to employees. In the
pioneer industrialisers (and de-industrialisers) Britain and the US, accountants still
outnumber engineers in middle and senior management, and ‘strategy’ offshoots of the
big accounting/auditing firms have wrested the consultancy market from those who once
practised what they preach.

In the same way, mainstream economists seek knowledge through numbers to stop the
messy reality of people, processes and politics dirtying their invisible hands. Missing or
hard-to-measure variables are conveniently proxied (e.g. model-consistent predictions for
expectations, volatility for risk). Unmeasurable variables, if theory requires them, are
hammered into measurable shape (e.g. aggregate capital derived from a whole-economy
‘production function’, bounded rationality recast as rationally chosen rule-of-thumb). More
usually, what’s not in the National Accounts doesn’t count. In the neoclassical division of
labour, theorists condense the economy into algebraic symbols, opening its components
(firms, households, governments) to much more apparently precise analysis than that of
classical theorists, who debated these phenomena in the raw. Applied economists can
then ‘calibrate’ the models and ‘compute’ the general equilibrium, their forecasts’
correctness to two decimal places somehow forgiving their incorrectness when reality
catches up.

A diplomat posted to a new country studies its history, language, political system and
social conventions, often taking years to acclimatise before daring to make big decisions.
An economist flown in by donor government or multilateral lender studies its national
accounts, and is often dispensing expert advice a lunch-hour after stepping off the plane.
Just as airline pilots take their cockpit gauges as accurate summaries of external
conditions, the more ambitious economists claim to fly an economy by financial newswire
– leaving seat-of-the-pants driving to ‘less developed’ social disciplines, and blaming any
wrong turns or crashes on faulty statistics, or failure of political passengers’ nerve.

Models have helped the mainstream clarify key concepts (like output gaps and imperfect
information), explain away anomalies (persistent unemployment becoming ‘voluntary’),
and turn vague tendencies into quantified causal links. By nailing conflicting approaches
to a common framework, they pinpoint deductive mistakes, and pare down complex debates
(‘Keynesian’ vs ‘monetarist’, mark-up vs marginal pricing) to disputes over parameter values.
They establish a standard reporting style [reassuringly close to that of natural science]
which makes papers easy to read and write, for those who’ve mastered the maths. Most
importantly, they establish a common debating language. Alternative contributions remain
imprecise, incomprehensible and dispensable, until ‘formalised’ into a neoclassical model
(and, preferably, estimated from available data).

Thus Marxism can re-enter mainstream debate if formalised as a macro-model with ‘rational
choice’ foundations (indeed, Bowles’ and GintisAER-published model of capitalist labour
incentives was one of the foundation stones of orthodox principal-agent theory). March and
Simon’s ‘bounded rationality’ moved from marginalized management science to mainstream
microeconomics once reformulated as a ‘transaction cost’ to be optimised alongside
production cost. But such heresies as Austrian economics (tarring the rational-expectations
modelbuilder with the same brush as the all-knowing central planner), post-Keynesianism
and Sraffianism (with non-marginalist price theories), the Cambridge criticism (dismantling
marginalism’s aggregate capital), institutionalism (denying that all social structures can be
traced to repeated game-play), or classical Marxism (where capitalists’ individual rationality
sums to collective disaster) fall outside the mainstream’s logic, despite tackling its central

Economists’ retreat into private language explains their neglect of relevant information and
explanation outside their model-based world. Anthropologists, ethnographers, historians
and philosophers have much to say about origins and varieties of individualism, altruism,
profit maximisation; but these are unnecessary interrogations of neoclassicism’s ‘a priori’
assumptions, irrelevant if they support these and inconvenient if they challenge them.
Sociology, psychology and politics give equally rich insights into internal and external
pressures on (and problems with the outcome of) people’s economic choices. But unless
(like Jonathan Bendor in sociology, Steve Brams in politics or Kahneman and Tversky in
psychology) they spell out their ideas in rational-choice, repeated-game language – so as
to publish in mainstream economics journals – they are firmly repelled beyond the
disciplinary border.

Instead of engaging with alternatives on their terms, the mainstream tries to refashion them
into its own. So where such emerging (and emergent) phenomena as social capital,
market-mediating institutions, interdependent expectations and path-dependent technical
change appear at all, they do so in selectively interpreted, model-translated, neoclassically-
readable form. This complicates the presentation (to anyone unschooled in neoclassical
language and its unspoken assumptions), while often oversimplifying the argument, by
ditching what cannot be distilled to simultaneous equation.

This ‘imperial’ battle has reached its height in the confrontation between neoclassical
economics and evolutionary psychology (EP). Like neoclassicism, EP offers an all-embracing
explanation for unrestricted individual action having functionally efficient, ‘natural’ outcomes;
and for all attempts to guide or manipulate that action being doomed to inflict collective as
well as individual damage. But whereas neoclassical ‘competitive selection’ works in the
market period, ensuring that behaviour persists where best suited to the present time, EP
appeals to paleontological periods, resulting in persistence of behaviour better suited to
prehistorical than post-industrial times. To turn EP from usurper into ally, neoclassicists
must assume that the traits ‘hard-wired’ into evolved human minds are fully consistent
with individual rational choice and rational expectation. Hence the current quest for game-
based models and simulations equating ‘evolutionary stable strategy’ with winning
noncooperative game strategy, ensuring that such EP phenomena as altruism and group
selection amount to nothing more than clever manifestations of humanity’s universally selfish

While economists play these games, management schools continue capturing staff,
students, and research funds from them, because what they teach and publish is what
their sponsors and customers want to know. They do so without narrowing the syllabus
down to neoclassical nostrums – because underconsumption crises, technological
upheavals and panics and persistent disequilibrium are real threats to those working in
the economy, even if irrelevant to those working on it, and Marx’s assessment is as
acceptable as Samuelson’s if it helps to steer a way through. Most bookshops have
emptied their Economics shelves to make room for a bulging Business section. Business
research passes a ‘market test’ which mainstream market champions know they would
fail – and so prefer to pass up, in favour of ‘peer review’ which judges quality by conformity
to accepted method, rather than usefulness of results. The consequent financial rationing
helps neoclassical department heads restrict recruitment to researchers in their own image.
But it means the mainstream’s abstract art is painting itself into an ever more (literally)
marginal corner.


Alan Shipman is the author of Transcending Transaction: The Search for Self-Generating Markets (Routledge, Nov. 2001)


Alan Shipman (2001) “Ignoring Commercial Reality”, post-autistic economics review : issue no. 10, December, article 4.  http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/review/issue10.htm








The Russian Defeat of Economic Orthodoxy
Steve Keen   (University of Western Sydney, Australia)

Many armies have followed a triumphant march into Russia with an ignominious
withdrawal. Orthodox economics is merely the latest invader to succumb to this
dismal tradition. But this theory did more damage to the Russian Bear than most
military invaders.

Neoliberals were jubilant at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not only had capitalism proved
superior to communism, but the economic theory of the market economy had, it seemed,
proved superior to Marxism. A task of transition did lie at “the end of history”—though not
from capitalism to communism as Marx had expected, but from state socialism back to
the market economy.

Such a transition was clearly necessary. In addition to the clear political and humanitarian
failures of centralized Soviet regimes, economic growth under central planning had failed to
maintain its initial promise. Once impressive performances gave way to stagnant economies
producing dated goods, whereas the market economies of the West had grown more rapidly
(if unevenly), and with far greater product innovation.

As the most prominent intellectual advocates for the free market over central planning,
neoclassical economists presented themselves as the authorities for how this transition
should occur. Above all else, they endorsed haste. In a typical statement, Murray Wolfson
argued that

market systems are much more stable than most people who have been brought
up in a command economy can imagine. The flexibility of market systems permits
them to absorb a great deal of abuse and error that a rigidly planned system cannot
endure. (Wolfson 1992, “Transition from a command economy: rational expectations
and cold turkey”,
Contemporary Policy Issues, Vol. 10, April: p. 42).

The terms “abuse” and “error” were unfortunately prophetic—for the rapid transition imposed
a great deal of abuse and error on the peoples of Eastern Europe. A decade later, incomes
have collapsed, unemployment is at Great Depression levels, poverty is endemic. The
transition has in general been not from Socialist to Capitalist, but from Socialist to Third World.

Wolfson is far from being a leading light of neoliberal economics. But his arguments in
favour of a rapid transition are indicative of the naivety of those whom Joseph Stiglitz would
eventually blame for abetting the theft and destruction of Russia’s wealth. Their key failing
was a simplistic belief in the ability of market economies—even proto-market economies
—to rapidly achieve equilibrium. This led them to recommend haste in the transition, and
especially in privatization of state assets—a haste which effectively handed over state
assets to those in a position to move quickly, the old Party appartachiks and organized crime.

Reading these pro-haste papers one decade after the transition debacle, one can take little
comfort in realizing how different the outcome of this rapid transition was to the expectations
economists held:

“Even though we favour rapid privatization, we doubt that privatization will produce
immediate, large increases in productivity... Nonetheless, we believe that in order
to enjoy these enormous long-term gains, it is necessary to proceed rapidly and
comprehensively on creating a privately-owned, corporate-based economy in Eastern
Europe” (Lipton & Sachs 1990: “Privatization in Eastern Europe: the case of Poland”,
Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2: 1990, p. 295)

“The motivation for comprehensiveness and speed in introducing the reforms is clear
cut. Such an approach vastly cuts the uncertainties facing the public with regard to
the new ‘rules of the game’ in the economy. Rather than creating a lot of turmoil,
uncertainty, internal inconsistencies, and political resistance, through a gradual
introduction of new measures, the goal is to set in place clear incentives for the new
economic system as rapidly as possible. As one wit has put it, if the British were to
shift from left-hand-side drive to right-hand-side drive, should they do it gradually
… say, by just shifting the trucks over to the other side of the road in the first round?” 
(Sachs, 1992. “The economic transformation of Eastern Europe: the case of Poland”,
The American Economist, Vol. 36 No. 2: p. 5)

It might be thought that, since speed was such a key aspect of the recommendations
economists gave for the transition, they must have modeled the impact of slow versus fast
transitions and shown that the latter were, in model terms at least, superior. But in fact the
models economists took their guidance from completely ignored time: they were equilibrium
models that presumed the system could rapidly move to a new equilibrium once disturbed.

The period of transition coincided with the peak influence of the concept of “rational
expectations” in economic theory. This theory argues that a market economy is inhabited
by “rational agents” who have, by some presumably evolutionary or iterative learning
process, developed complete knowledge of the workings of the market economy and who
can therefore confidently predict the future (at the very least, they know what will happen
in response to any policy change by the government). The workings of the market economy
happen to coincide with the behavior of a conventional neoclassical model, so that the
economy is always in full employment equilibrium.

When this theory is put into a mathematical model, it results in a dynamic system known
as a “saddle”, because the system dynamics are shaped like a horse’s saddle.

In conventional dynamic modeling, a saddle is an unstable system: the odds of the system
being stable are the same as the odds of dropping a ball on to a real saddle and having it
come to rest on the saddle, rather than falling off it. But if you were so lucky as to drop the
ball precisely onto the saddle’s ridge, and it stayed on that ridge, it would ride up and down
it for quite a while until it finally came to rest.

In rational expectations modeling, the saddle system that sensible dynamic models would
say is unstable becomes stable but cyclical. The “rational agents” of the models all know
the precise shape of the saddle, and jump onto its crest instantly from wherever they may
have been displaced by a government policy change. Then the economy cycles up and
down the ridge of the saddle, eventually coming to rest in full employment equilibrium once
more. This is how devotees of rational expectations explain cycles, given their belief in the
inherent equilibrium-seeking nature of a market economy: the system cycles up and down
the sole stable path until coming to rest until it is once again disturbed.

These perspectives on individual behavior, the formation of expectations, and the behavior of
a market economy, are dubious enough in their own right. Rational expectations “logic” is
truly worthy of the moniker autistic, since it is based on a proposition that, if properly handled,
negates its own predictions. This is the proposition that, as Muth put it:

Information is scarce, and the economic system generally does not waste it. (John
Muth, “Rational Expectations and the Theory of Price Movements”: )

Since in neoclassical economics, scarcity is the basis of value, then information should
according to this theory have a cost. If it has a cost, then agents should economize on its
use—they will not use “all available information” but only the subset of information that
they can afford, given their preferences for knowledge. Therefore individual agents will not
know the full character of the economy, and most will certainly not know its “stable manifold”.
Rational agents therefore cannot be expected to jump immediately to the equilibrium path
of the economy unless they are irrational enough to expend the enormous amount of
revenue that would be necessary to buy all the scarce information.

The foundations of “rational expectations” economics are thus internally inconsistent, and
the fact that they were taken seriously in the first place is a clear sign of how truly autistic
economic theory has become.

But if it was autistic to give this theory credence in the West, how much more so was it to
apply this model to the behavior of people in an economic system in transition between
central planning and market capitalism?

How can the “agents” in a transitional system develop a mental model of a market economy
with which they predict the future behavior of the actual economy, if they have not previously
lived in a market economy? Are we to presume instead that people can instantly develop the
understanding of something as complex as a market economy—and are we to grace this
belief with the adjective “rational”?

Lest this seem an overly harsh rhetorical flourish, consider the following discussion of how
fast the transition should be from Wolfson’s 1992 paper. He begins with a statement that a
sensible person might expect would lead towards the conclusion that people must be given
time to learn how to react to market signals:

“Indeed, when government actions become so large that their effect on prices causes
wide divergence from individual choices, one cannot determine what those choices
would have been. As a result, no reliable guidelines exist for government choice. Even
with the best of intentions, unlimited collective choice destroys the very information
base for rational decisions.” (Wolfson 1992: 37).

But instead, he immediately follows up this apparently sensible statement with the following

Central planners seemingly should at once resign their posts and close their offices.
Their departure simply would signal the market to move immediately to equilibrium.”
(Wolfson 1992: 37)

What market? But oblivious to logical contradictions, he elaborates:

“For example, suppose the government were planning a gradual transition from a
regime of administered prices to market prices to take place a year from now. What
would happen 364 days hence? Obviously, people would refuse to make any but the
most urgent transactions at the old prices, or an illegal market would immediately
jump to the new prices. Those individuals who would have to sell their goods and
services at a lower price on day 365 would find no legal customers on day 364.
Similarly, those who would receive higher prices at day 364 would not sell legally on
day 363, 362, 361, and so on. The economy would either come to a complete stop
or would legally or illegally anticipate the future. In the face of rational and reasonably
knowledgeable economic agents, delay invites disaster.” (Wolfson 1992: 37)

“Rational and reasonably knowledgeable economic agents”? Where did they come from,
and how did they acquire so profound a knowledge of the market system they have not as
yet lived in that they can predict its behavior  (and prices in it a year into the future) before
they experience it? Yet presuming their existence and their intimate knowledge of the
behavior of an economic system that does not yet exist, Wolfson advises that

A rational expectations conclusion is that quitting communism Cold Turkey is the
only way to get from A to B. In practice, governments must make the national
currency convertible and allow it to float on legal as well as black markets, abolish
the system of subsidies and direct plans and quotas, close plants that cannot
compete, come quickly to a privatization of industry even if some inequities result,
strictly control the money supply, and allow goods and services to find their own
price on national and international markets. (Wolfson 1992: 39; Wolfson does qualify
his arguments with some concessions to reality, but in the end his recommendations
are all for speed on the basis of a belief in the self-adjusting properties of the market

While there were significant differences in how the program of transition was implemented,
in general this rapid and complete exposure of the once relatively closed economies of the
East to the West was the rule. Away from the fantasies of rational expectations economics,
what this rapid exposure to international competition did was give ex-socialist consumers
instant access to Western goods, and expose Eastern European factories to open
competition with their Western counterparts.

As Janos Kornai details so well, the soft budget constraints of the Soviet system had
resulted in “cashed up” consumers on the one hand, and technologically backward and
shortage-afflicted factories on the other. The consumer financial surpluses, accumulated
during the long wait between placing orders for consumer durables under the Soviet system
and actually receiving the goods, were rapidly dissipated on Western consumer goods. The
Eastern businesses, now forced to compete with technologically far superior Western firms,
were rapidly destroyed, throwing their workers into unemployment. With accumulated buying
power dissipated and freely floating currencies, exchange rates collapsed—for example,
Romania’s Lei has gone from about 1,000 to the US dollar in 1993 to 32,000 to the dollar today.

A sensible dynamic analysis of the plight of the ex-socialist economies—one that really did
take time into account—would have predicted this outcome from a too rapid transition. Even
if the technological advantages of the market system over Soviet-style industrialization had
amounted to just a one percentage difference per annum in productivity, the forty five year
period of socialism would have given market economy firms a 55 per cent cost advantage
over their socialist counterparts. And of course, the product development aspect of
technological innovation had made far greater differences than this merely quantitative
measure of costs—Western firms would have decimated socialist ones on product quality
alone, even without a cost advantage.

A time-based analysis would therefore have supported a gradual transition, with substantial
aid as well to assist Eastern factories to introduce modern production technology and
process control methods. It should also have been obvious that for a market economy to
develop, one needs the minimum distributive systems of a market: systems of wholesale
and retail distribution, respect for written contracts, systems for consumer protection, laws
of exchange—all things which take a substantial time to put in to place.

With the obscene haste with which the actual transition was implemented, the only
non-market systems that could rapidly develop were those that were already in place in the
preceding socialist system—the systems of organized crime that had always been there to
lubricate the wheels of the shortage-afflicted Soviet system, just as market intrusions once
permeated the feudal systems out of which capitalism itself evolved in Europe.

It is of course too late now to suggest any alternative path from socialism to the market for
these no longer socialist economies. The new transition they must make is from a
de-industrialized Third World state back to a developed one, and that transition will clearly
take time.
Steve Keen is the author of Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences  (Zed Books
[US/UK] & Pluto Press).

Steve Keen (2001) “The Russian Defeat of Economic Orthodoxy”, post-autistic economics review : issue no. 10, December, article 5.  http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/review/issue10.htm




EDITOR: Edward Fullbrook
CORRESPONDENTS: Argentina: Iserino;  Australia: Joseph Halevi, Steve Keen:  Brazil: Wagner Leal Arienti;
France: Gilles Raveaud, Olivier Vaury; J. Walter Plinge;  Germany; Helge Peukert;  Japan: Susumu Takenaga;
Spain: Jorge Fabra;  United Kingdom: Nitasha Kaul; Michael Murphy;  United States: Benjamin Balak,
Daniel Lien, Paul Surlis:  At large: Paddy Quick

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