By James Kwak
One point I try to be clear about in my new book is that economism—the assumption that simple Economics 101 models accurately describe the real world—is not the same as economics. There are people who think that all of economics, or at least all of modern, mathematically inclined, “neoclassical” economics, is at fault for the growth of neoliberal capitalism and the increase in inequality in rich countries. I am not one of them.
In my mind, the problem is knowing just a little bit of economics—the proverbial little bit of knowledge. (My favorite form of that proverb, despite its religious origins, is the following: “A little knowledge is apt to puff up, and make men giddy, but a greater share of it will set them right, and bring them to low and humble thoughts of themselves.”) When you learn more economics, you learn that the world has more than just supply, demand, price, and quantity.
Matt Yglesias has even tried to argue that “on a whole lot of issues the basic econ 101 view supports the liberal position.” I think he’s exaggerating his point—on a whole lot of issues, Economics 101 tells you that market failures are possible, but that doesn’t necessarily dictate a liberal policy outcome. But whatever is actually in an introductory textbook, the problem is that what people think they remember—or what people who never took economics think the subject teaches—is that competitive markets produce optimal outcomes. As Paul Samuelson wrote in the first edition of his textbook (and I never tire of quoting), the idea that “any interference with free competition by government was almost certain to be injurious … is all that some of our leading citizens remember, 30 years later, of their college course in economics.”
The historical development of economism, and its divergence from economics, is the subject of chapter 3 of my book, and also of my new article in the Chronicle Review. The article also includes some of my thoughts on how the teaching of economics might be modified to give students a richer and more balanced understanding of the discipline. For more, head on over there.
By James Kwak
Economism—the simplistic, unreflecting application of Economics 101 models to complex, real-world issues—is particularly influential in the law, including both legal academia and actual court opinions that decide important questions.
Noah Smith, for example, points to a paper by a law professor arguing that forced prison labor deters crime because it effectively raises the price of crime in a supply-and-demand model. The problem with this model is that it doesn’t accurately describe criminal behavior. Smith quotes economist Alex Tabarrok on what happened when the United States dramatically increased the harshness of punishments:
In theory, this should have reduced crime, reduced the costs of crime control and led to fewer people in prison. In practice … the experiment with greater punishment led to more spending on crime control and many more people in prison.
By James Kwak
Today, you may be getting your copy of Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality in the mail. Or you may even be able to buy it in a bookstore. But before you crack it open, I want to tell you something.
I hate typos.
I try to read each of my book manuscripts carefully before submitting them. I hire my own line editor to go through my writing for grammatical and stylistic errors. The publisher then does a copy edit. When I get the “galleys” back from the publisher, I hire my own proofreaders to scour them again for mistakes. But inevitably typos sneak into the published books. Here’s one from 13 Bankers:
(That should be “economic policy,” in case you’re wondering.)
Furthermore, I am almost incapable of reading anything that I’ve written before. It’s just too boring when you already know what the next sentence is going to say; at best I can skim. So it’s very hard for me to catch mistakes in anything that I’ve published. Out of sympathy to my fellow writers, I often circle typos when I find them in books that I am reading. Sometimes I even email the author out of the blue with a list of mistakes, if there is still time to fix them in the paperback version.
So, before you start reading, I’d like you to know about the Economism Typo Contest. If you are the first person to find and tell me about a mistake, I will send you a limited edition, spiral-bound, 5×8 notebook with the jacket cover of Economism on the front (signed on the inside if you like). Or, if you prefer, I will pay you ten dollars in cash money.
The detailed rules and instructions for submitting mistakes are over at the version of this post over at Medium.
Thanks for your help.
By James Kwak
I haven’t written much about the election itself (except to point out that the same data can be interpreted in diametrically opposing ways). That’s because the election was so close that the fact that Clinton lost can be explained by any number of but-for causes, and much of the Democratic Internet has been a cacophony of people insisting that their preferred cause (Comey, Russian hacking, not enough attention to African-Americans, too much attention to minorities, not enough attention to the white working class, too much emphasis on Trump’s personality, etc.) was the One True Cause.
I do think, however, that if Democrats (a group in which include myself) want to return to power and change the overall political dynamics of this country, one thing we need to recognize is that Republicans have been crushing us on the economic messaging front for decades. We have adapted by becoming Republicans Lite—no longer the party of jobs and the working person, but now the party of minimally intrusive market regulation, technocratic expertise, and free trade agreements.
This is the subject of my article in Literary Hub today, “The Failure of Democratic Storytelling.” Now that Democrats are out of power virtually across the board, we have the opportunity to develop a new vision, without having to compromise with Joe Manchin, Arlen Spector, and Susan Collins to squeak legislation through Congress. The question is what we make of that opportunity.
By James Kwak
There was one moment, when I was finishing up the manuscript of Economism, that I thought someone had already said what I was trying to say in the book. This is what I read:
“The beauty and the simplicity of such a theory are so great that it is easy to forget that it follows not from the actual facts, but from an incomplete hypothesis introduced for the sake of simplicity. … The conclusion that individuals acting independently for their own advantage will produce the greatest aggregate of wealth, depends on a variety of unreal assumptions …
“Individualism and laissez-faire could not, in spite of their deep roots in the political and moral philosophies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, have secured their lasting hold over the conduct of public affairs, if it had not been for their conformity with the needs and wishes of the business world of the day. …
“These many elements have contributed to the current intellectual bias, the mental make-up, the orthodoxy of the day.”
By James Kwak
Noah Smith (along with a fair section of the Internet) has some concerns about Larry Kudlow as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers: he’s overconfident, too much of a partisan, and fixated on nonexistent problems (e.g., inflation). I’m not so worried that he’s on Team Republican; after all, Donald Trump gets to pick the advisers he wants, and they shouldn’t be rejected solely because they take political sides. But I am worried about what Kudlow’s appointment means for the relationship between economics and policy.
The world is a complicated place. Anyone who studies society in depth should learn to have respect for that fact. At any given moment, we have only a hazy understanding of what combinations of transitory phenomena and underlying structural factors produce what outcomes. (For Exhibit A, see the election that took place on November 8.) This tweet at the beginning of Game 7 of the Cubs-Indians World Series, channeling the great French historian Fernand Braudel, is one of my all-time favorites:
By James Kwak
Forty years after John Bogle launched the Vanguard 500 Index Fund, passive investment funds now account for about one-third of the mutual fund and ETF market. You would think this would pose a threat to traditional asset managers that charge hefty fees for actively managed mutual funds, and this is true in part. On average, index funds charge 73 basis points less than active funds, and the average expense ratios for actively managed funds have fallen from 106 bp to 84 bp over the past fifteen years (Investment Company Institute, 2016 Investment Company Fact Book, Figure 5.6).