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Will we be all right in the end? David Runciman on democracy, fatalism, and the European crisis (LRB)
January 8, 2012 7:22 AM   Subscribe


 
Democracy, fatalism, and the European economic crisis

The three most necessary components of a healthy and nutritious breakfast.
posted by Fizz at 7:25 AM on January 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


It is hilarious that the practitioners of economics, which is formally indistinguishable from pseudo-science, should be referred to "technocrats". And actually part of the problem. Their various nostrums for how to run an economy have been dreamt up during a period of monotonically increasing energy supply. Our entry into the era of monotonically decreasing energy supply is no more the subject of their cartoon sketches of reality, or even of optimism and pessimism, than is the matter of the fish pond drying up to the fish. Of course we won't be alright, as even the most casual glance at a graph of a primary fuel supply which halves every seven years and a population and energy demand which doubles every thirty five will tell you.

This 'underlying suspicion that we will pull back from edge' is just functional illiteracy amongst people who grasp what makes the little duracell monkey bang his drum, and what happens when the battery runs out, but can't make the cognitive leap to apply that knowledge to the global economy.
posted by falcon at 8:16 AM on January 8, 2012 [23 favorites]


Jeez, falcon, could you get it any more wrong? It's ENERGIZER, and it's a BUNNY. That said, the rest of your comment seems pretty spot on.
posted by snofoam at 8:28 AM on January 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


In those circumstances, do temporary autocrats give their power back? Well, you might say, we’re going to find out. But that’s another puzzle about the current European crisis: power hasn’t actually been handed over to temporary autocrats. It’s been given to technocrats, which is different.

The assumption is that experts’ superior knowledge gives them the right to take decisions, and ensures that people will abide by those decisions. Yet we live in an age which is deeply suspicious of experts, particularly of the kind currently trying to sort out the mess in Greece and Italy: economic experts, drawn from the world of banking. The past few years have not been a good advertisement for their particular brand of superior knowledge.


The problem with experts is that they don't work in a vacuum, but they are affected by the political climate. The estimates of the I.M.F for Greece have turned out to be overly optimistic time and time again, but because the current climate favours an approach of muddling along, we get served inconclusive agreements, which are stopgap measures rather than breakthroughs, and let the crisis deteriorate. For instance, the estimates of the Memorandum of Agreement for Greece predicted growth by now even though the economy is in deep recession and the low haircut of the agreement of July 21 was never realised. The October agreement predicts a 120% debt/GDP ratio in 2020 according to estimates, shortly after the failure of the previous short-term estimates. Subsequently, I.M.F. experts are now recommending a higher haircut than the one agreed in October.

The thought of national elections gives Europe’s technocrats sleepless nights, but it’s the thought of Europe-wide elections that really scares them. Ask the people of Europe to elect a president and what would you get? Perhaps something, or someone, worse than the disease you are trying to cure.


It might be worth mentioning at that point that the President of the EU Council and the President of the European Commission haven't played any significant role during the crisis. This reflects the compromises made by the member states which result in the appointment of bland politicians who don't represent any popular or political sentiment or any vision about Europe.
posted by ersatz at 8:35 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Will it all be all right in the end?" That depends on whether you mean banks, currencies, and governments, or ordinary families and kids, doesn't it?
posted by Stoatfarm at 8:37 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Will it all be all right in the end?" That depends on whether you mean banks, currencies, and governments, or ordinary families and kids, doesn't it?

This guy is firmly part of the 1%, he's clearly referring to banks and the national/transnational elite. Notice how he casually swats aside any notion that the Greek and Italian populations may reject austerity measures: "They will have to be able to force their nasty medicine down the throats of kicking and screaming populations. "
posted by T.D. Strange at 8:56 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's a surprisingly stupid article. I guess I expected better from the LRB. Not sure why though.

The article reveals a total lack of awareness of why the crisis happened and without such an awareness it can't possibly hope to answer its headline. Does he really think the crisis is due to external factors akin to the Nazi invasion? Or could it be that an internal elite are largely responsible for the crisis? And might the complete unwillingness of said elite to relinquish power be a significant factor in whether the crisis can be overcome?

And what makes anybody think all European states are really democracies? Democracy implies a certain kind of equality, plurality, and vigorous back-and-forth and compromise -- something that has been missing from Europe for a decade at least. As for functional governments, well, really, Italy is perhaps a year or two away from becoming a failed state. Besides being deeply corrupt there are already chunks of the country that the government simply does not control.

What's really disturbing is the historical ignorance of the author. There are quite a few examples of rich, stable democracies sliding into the abyss. To reduce the question to one of the optimists versus pessimists without seriously examining the real possibility that Europe cannot avert total crisis reveals a remarkable naivete.
posted by nixerman at 9:00 AM on January 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


@snofoam: It's ENERGIZER, and it's a BUNNY

Well now, you see, that is precisely the sort of naive and slavish insistence on descriptive reality that disqualifies you from the profession that has such a disproportionate influence on how we should conduct our affairs. I am, of course, invoking Friedman's principle of Instrumentalism i.e. the less descriptive of reality my analogy, the more powerful and useful it is as I have clearly abstracted from it everything which is irrelevant to the matter in hand. To your objection that I may have abstracted away some essential quality of "BUNNY", I need merely assert: "Assume monkeys are bunnies".
posted by falcon at 9:42 AM on January 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


How does one formally distinguish science from pseudoscience? I thought the test was empirical rather than formal: the real scientists are the ones whose ideas get tested and, most of the time, disproven.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:49 AM on January 8, 2012


How does one formally distinguish science from pseudoscience?

Well, you start by observing that the set of theories comprising any given school of thought can be partitioned into those which claim to generate novel discovery of new information (the "core"), and those which serve to protect the core from criticism (the "protective belt"). Those schools which grow by expanding the set of core theories are science. Those which expand only by growing the set of protective belt theories are pseudo-science.

Neoclassical economics falls into the latter category. On his deathbed, its father Milton Friedman was unable to offer a single example of neoclassical theory which complied with the test of novel discovery.
posted by falcon at 9:56 AM on January 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


On the other hand, he was probably pretty distracted by dying.
posted by maryr at 10:11 AM on January 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


I honestly think its either the end of Economics with a capital E or they should go back and go through all the original assumptions made with a fine tooth comb and hold them up against observations over time. The field has been now been around for long enough and there's enough examples of different types of economies to study.
posted by infini at 10:13 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lately it's been kind of baffling to me when people talk about democracy like it's a real thing. It's starting to seem like the only people who perpetuate that myth fall into two groups: Those who haven't thought things through enough yet, and those who have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion that the plebes have any kind of meaningful control over the system. I thought it was kind of a truism by now that on a national level -- the only one that matters -- there is no democracy: There are only more or less tolerable brands of plutocracy.
posted by Misunderestimated at 10:16 AM on January 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


On the other hand, he was probably pretty distracted by dying.

My mistake. In the exchange of letters between him and (I think) Imre Lakatos at the end of the career, when he was given several opportunities to rebut the claim that neoclassical economics was a pseudo-science by providing some counter examples, which he failed to do. The letters are in the Hoover Institution Archives to which he donated his papers after his death. He was still spritely when invited to defend his life's work.

Anyway, no more sidetracking this thread by me.
posted by falcon at 10:23 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is there a term for this? "Abstractive masturbation" maybe? Sounds like another lament that smart (read: rich) people know what to do, but can't get the commoners to do it, so democracy will yet doom us all.
posted by cheburashka at 10:37 AM on January 8, 2012


Oh come on people. This guy is a Cambridge university lecturer in politics: looking him up on Wikipedia and discovering his grandfather's title does not qualify as discovery about his intellectual capabilities (TD Strange). The article is well written, succinct and full of deep political philosophy insights for our time. Yet either what he is saying is dismissed for "ignorance" and "naivete" (nixerman) or just completely ignored in favour of tired old daytime television repeats about neoliberalism and peak oil.

The article seems right about MeFi at least: fatalism is a degenerative disease and it has taken hold here.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 10:41 AM on January 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


OK, neoclassical economics qua Milton Friedman is a pseudoscience. Could you please avoid saying that about "economics"? We kind of need somebody to study economies, and we need to pay attention to them.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:53 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Quite so, PB. This thread exemplifies why I no linger participate regularly.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:58 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


The three most necessary components of a healthy and nutritious breakfast.

Yeah, didn't Monty Python do that back in the day:

"What's for breakfast, dear?
"Democracy, fatalism, and the European economic crisis."
"Hmmm? Sounds awfully plain."
"And spam."
"Now you're talking."
posted by philip-random at 11:11 AM on January 8, 2012


Mmm. Quite.

PB and/or anigbrowl: Can you pull out some of the "deep political philosophy insights" for me? Nothing here seemed particularly revelatory -- but then again, I am only a lowly undergrad, so I probably missed some of the finer filigree.
posted by Misunderestimated at 11:16 AM on January 8, 2012


Modern Republicans and the austerity economists have a lot in common and in fact are often one and the same. Republicans have been pushing the idea that government is the problem, not the solution. And every time they get a chance, they aim to prove it. That is why they appoint a horse show manager to be the head of emergency response. When things work out badly, that is a feature, not a bug. It proves that you can't rely on the government for help. Discrediting government is a plus.

Likewise the austerity economists push the idea that economic intervention is bad. When their policies fail and there is widespread suffering, that is a feature, not a bug. Discrediting economic intervention is a plus. When people disparage the entire economic profession, they consider it a victory.

In both cases you have a do-nothing mentality. The irony is that the public associates the disastrous results of those policies with the entire profession. This equating of the part with the whole works in favor of the do-nothing crowd.
posted by JackFlash at 11:28 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Insofar as some economic theories generate predictions, you'd think that having those predictions tested would have an impact on those theories. But that just isn't so. Instead, the theories acquire a kind of zombie status, where they become impervious to mere slings and arrows of contradiction, and only a direct shot to the head of the propounder can put it to rest. For a good example, see the running battle Krugman has with the gaggle of guys who keep telling us that inflation is upon us, right around the corner - and have been saying this, at this point, for decades, and are invariably wrong. Or the corner is infinite, like a circle, and so while there is movement around the corner, there is no progress.

If you want a picture of the future of economics, imagine a troop of zombies stamping around a giant column - forever.
posted by VikingSword at 11:35 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


This thread exemplifies why I no linger (sic) participate regularly.

LIL.

But MetaFilter needs posts like these to keep from losing "the 1%" audience before Matt can introduce Platinum Accounts.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:38 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


PB, no offense, but I maintain the article is stupid and no, it doesn't offer any deep insights into the current situation. The point about democracies being flexible is not new and the rest of the article is bunk. The author is just deeply out of touch. People do not fear that "the political system we’ve relied on in the past might not be up to the task at hand" they fear that the political system we've relied on in the past is gone and democracy has been deeply compromised by a very powerful, monied elite. I can't imagine that anybody with half a clue could look over the last decade (or three) and conclude the current debate is between "optimists" and "pessimists". I mean it's just nonsense.
posted by nixerman at 11:46 AM on January 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


Is economics a field that is sometimes a bit challenged in its, erm, empirical applicability? Yes.

Is pretty much the entirety of economic thought based on the idea of being able to dig unlimited energy out of the ground? Yes.

But even ALLOWING for these two things, Europe has done a complete mess of a job fixing this shit. Its "technocrats" basically take the view of U.S. congressional Republicans, save for the inexplicable desire for massive tax cuts on the rich. Cut, cut, cut, cut; it's the only way to fix it! Who cares if our economies just get worse and worse, eventually once we've cut ourselves back to a 19th century standard of living we can pay back this debt we owe ourselves.

Europe's elites are happy to act as if the national deficits are the result of a moral failure of the regular citizen, who must be punished through "brutal" austerity measures. Never mind that the actual profligates were the Greek government and Italian politicians who have been out of power for nearly two decades anyway. Full stop. That's it. Spain, Ireland? Small debt load, no deficits, until the economic elites of the continent pretty much destroyed their economies and then pretended they had nothing to do with it. Ireland was the darling government of the masturbatory center-right "consensus" until it proved just as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, to crisis as any other.

Expansionary austerity is an oxymoronic joke, and even with all the flaws intrinsic in the field of economics Europe (and the US) would be much better served using traditional Keynesian economics, which have never been disproven. The current solutions of the "technocrats" and most conventional politicians wouldn't have worked in 1910, they wouldn't have worked in 1950, they wouldn't have worked in 1970. The failure of their ideology has nothing to do with the constraints on our energy supply and everything to do with the fact that their ideology is stupid and counter-factual.

The whole thing works as a ruse to deflect blame from the people who deserve it: the people who caused the crisis and are currently doing a piss-poor job solving it. And in the end, on both sides of the Atlantic, the people with no money and no power will end up with even less of each.
posted by mellow seas at 11:48 AM on January 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


The article is well written, succinct and full of deep political philosophy insights for our time.

Idiot as I am, I too didn't find the article all that great. I felt that the distinction between technocrat and democrat was not adequately criticized, and discussion of the relationship between the elite and the people seemed reactionary. He also doesn't seem to acknowledge that another, different, democracy might be possible: one that is still democratic, but can solve the current problems. I might go so far as to suggest that this isn't an economic crisis, but an elite crisis, whether they be the democratic or technocratic elite.
posted by Jehan at 11:51 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


PB, the article is well written and can certainly be discussed somewhat better than it has been so far. The implications of "temporary autocracy" are obviously relevant. And its an option that is all too often forgotten, despite having been used at least twice in the US (Civil War, Depression/WW2) and countless more times in Europe.

I think what people are taking exception to is the suffocating orthodoxy of Runciman's views, and his uncritical portrayal of "technocrats" as actual experts who can actually solve anything. That kind of business is starting to get really old for a lot of people, and I can understand why it might be hard for some to see past and discuss the article's more substantive (and interesting) points. Which includes me, I suppose, going by my last post.
posted by mellow seas at 11:53 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are Engineers Natural Libertarians Or Technocrats?

I honestly think its either the end of Economics with a capital E or they should go back and go through all the original assumptions made with a fine tooth comb and hold them up against observations over time.

personally i think you could replace the field with logistics and we'd all be better off! cf. A Marxian Econophysics :P
posted by kliuless at 12:12 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The article is well written, succinct and full of deep political philosophy insights for our time.

This begs the question. The only support you gave aside from this bald assertion is that the author is a Cambridge lecturer. That is an argument from authority. Perhaps you'd like to tell us why we should take this piece seriously?

As far as I can tell, the thesis of this piece is that it is democracratic "fatalism" preventing Europe from resolving its debt crisis, and that decisive elites freed from popular assent are needed. There is little attempt made to support this argument, rather it is taken as almost self-evident.

On the other hand, the dominant view on Metafilter is that it was the policies by and for the elites that caused this crisis, and it is the persistent influence of these elites, like the so-called technocrats, that is preventing a real solution. The author treats this view and others like they doesn't exist. He instead just taking it as a given that democracy is the problem, then proceeding to identify "fatalism" as the source of democracy's trouble in Europe.

And quite honestly, it's not an ad hominem to point out that the person arguing democracy is at fault is a hereditary peer.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:14 PM on January 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


Austerity and intervention are hardly "either/or." In Greece they are being practiced simultaneously -- vast intervention to stave off default, accompanied by broad austerity measures. This template (if it works) would presumably be used for Italy, Spain, Portugal or Ireland should they become unable to sustain interest payments or roll their maturities.

I am not quite sure what his point about democracy is (although perhaps I misread). Democratically-chosen politicians will institute austerity when they lack the money to do otherwise (and, in the rarest cases, when they have money to do otherwise); partisan officials choosing to punt to technocrats is a piece of political theater but it is hardly undemocratic or anti-democratic.

The non-partisan character of crisis technocrats oddly suits the times, because fundamental fiscal policies (good or bad) are always non-partisan in an important sense. One party may have created them, but they become established only when the opposition party comes to power and decides not to reverse them, or tries and fails. To use US facts, the overwhelming long-term fiscal crisis relates to deficits in retirement benefits (Medicare, Social Security, and state and local pensions) which have only grown through Democratic and Republican Congresses and Presidencies.
posted by MattD at 1:19 PM on January 8, 2012


vast intervention to stave off default, accompanied by broad austerity measures

...to reduce employment and consumption and to ensure no hope of the increased demand that companies need to stay in business.
posted by biffa at 1:42 PM on January 8, 2012


biffa -- my parenthetical was "if it works" not "and I'm sure it will."

However, Greece has no magic bullets to keep spending -- it can't collect the taxes it already entitled to collect by statute, and it can't force foreign lenders to keep lending.
posted by MattD at 1:47 PM on January 8, 2012


It is hilarious that the practitioners of economics, which is formally indistinguishable from pseudo-science, should be referred to "technocrats".

Really? Another pile-up on the entire field of economics just because a few asshole economists advised conservative leaders who were already going to implement their horrible policies in the first place?

On his deathbed, its father Milton Friedman was unable to offer a single example of neoclassical theory which complied with the test of novel discovery.

I realize you added the clause neoclassical theory, but here are some classic examples of economic experiments:

First, Prospect theory immediately comes to mind. It explains loss aversion and he endownment effect: that people assign more loss to losing an item than value to gaining an item of equal monetary value.

Game theory is full of experiments that have led to useful theories. The iterated prisoners dilemma has probably been carried out in some form in hundreds of thousands of experiments, both in class and in the lab.

Of course, that's ignoring the social good that has resulted from economics. Mutually assured destruction? Yeah, on the face of it it's a horrible thing, but it also led o a more peaceful world. Deterrence theory to thank for that.

It's not like on the first day of starting an Economics program in university we all stand before a giant banner of Milton Friedman and pledge allegiance to him. Alternative models and schools of thought are constantly competing, and old theories are replaced by new ones. And economics has strong ties and ongoing collaboration between the other sciences. Behavioral economics and psychology, game theory and evolutionary biology, computer sciences, and mathematics, neuroeconomics and neuroscience, economic sociology. The list goes on.

I do agree with you on the use of the term "technocrats" thought. I cringe everytime I hear that word. You want a technocracy? Look to China. Hu Jintao, who graduated with a degree in hydraulic engineering, and Wen Jiabao who studied geomechanics. Not to mention the other majority of communist party top leaders who are engineers. That's a technocracy, and as much a s I hate their human rights policies and would never want to live in such an authoritarian regime, it seems to (currently) be doing better than anything economically we're coming up with.

This isn't the first thread that has been all, LOLEconomics, but it appears to be becoming something of a trend. See languagehat's parting message.

I get it, we all hate the conservative take-over of the world. But don't trash an entire field just because a few of them have been used as pawns to implement plans that were going to be made regardless. Thousands of liberal economists are dedicating their lives to working in agencies like Health and Human Services and HUD/FHA to help implement massive social policies for the greater good. Take a look at the huge number of US federal agencies and realize that most of them probably employ a economist in some form or another.
posted by formless at 2:25 PM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


@ LogicalDash OK, neoclassical economics qua Milton Friedman is a pseudoscience. Could you please avoid saying that about "economics"?

Yes of course. Just as soon as it stops being the default setting for European Government policy makers.
posted by falcon at 2:31 PM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you want neoclassical economics to stop being the default setting, you can help by refusing to speak of it as though it's the default setting.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:49 PM on January 8, 2012


@formless: Our posts crossed or I would not have polluted the thread with two posts. My mistake: I failed adequately to distinguish between "economics" and "neoclassical economics". More accurately, I relied too much on the assumption that everyone else understood that, at government level, there is no distinction to be made.

As it happens I respect the contribution economic thinking can make to our understanding, and I believe the emerging field of Steady State economics is about the only way we can think our way out of this mess. But while you might not have saluted Friedman, your chance of confessing to that and getting a job in the World Bank, IMF, UN, etc. are slim, no? Working in the Federal Agencies and their European equivalents is no doubt rewarding, but theirs aren't the studies read by Government Ministers.

And to pick one of your examples: game theory - could only make significant progress by explicitly rejecting neoclassical assumptions. But that is another thread.
posted by falcon at 2:52 PM on January 8, 2012


It sounds like you are objecting to government economists. You could say as much.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:55 PM on January 8, 2012


But even ALLOWING for these two things, Europe has done a complete mess of a job fixing this shit. Its "technocrats" basically take the view of U.S. congressional Republicans, save for the inexplicable desire for massive tax cuts on the rich. Cut, cut, cut, cut; it's the only way to fix it! Who cares if our economies just get worse and worse, eventually once we've cut ourselves back to a 19th century standard of living we can pay back this debt we owe ourselves.

I always try to tell people money is a social construct. And always everyone will sort of agree at face value but then challenge back that no actually, money is "real". It's really a fundamental problem, like the cognitive dissonance of spending your whole life essentially oriented towards money as an all-encompassing goal that gets you wealth and power and status and sex and ponies and then having to admit that it's really just a funny set of rules we humans have made for ourselves, a big game we all choose to play because it's been "efficient" - i.e. expansionary, the winner in sociocultural natural selection - to play that game

But right now that game is not working. And the core lesson from previous periods of history where the game stops working and there's mass unemployment and poverty and social unrest is - you need to change the rules of the game. It's broken because the rules no longer work at this technology/structural stage of society/geopolitics (generally because other actors have figured out and are abusing the rules), the rules need to change

Or to say it another way: one of our main problems at this point is the myopic inability for most of our elites, who in real terms have the vast majority of political power, to begin questioning the validity of the rules of this system, since by definition they are the system, identify with the system, and have their entire status/future career staked on the system - aka the Krugman/DeLong/Quiggin Underwater Zombies
posted by crayz at 2:59 PM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


The point about democracies being flexible is not new and the rest of the article is bunk. The author is just deeply out of touch. People do not fear that "the political system we’ve relied on in the past might not be up to the task at hand" they fear that the political system we've relied on in the past is gone and democracy has been deeply compromised by a very powerful, monied elite.
Not only does he notice it, his whole point is that it's a good thing that democracies can "experiment" with autocracy and implement polices in order to "save" whatever it is that need to be saved. That's what he thinks is going on in Europe: Democracies "experimenting" with "autocracy" in the form of "technocracy" in order to "save" Europe. It's bullshit of course.

The problem is that the so-called "technocrats" are not, in fact, technocrats but ideologues pushing the austerity religion.
The article is well written, succinct and full of deep political philosophy insights for our time.
It was a succinct summary of the idiotic mindset of Europe's moronic self-proclaimed 'technocratic' leaders.
This isn't the first thread that has been all, LOLEconomics, but it appears to be becoming something of a trend. See languagehat's parting message.
Paul Krugman, who is a Nobel Prize winning economist has been saying a lot of the same things. There does seem to be a serious problem with empirical validity in economics. Obviously Krugman thinks that what he does is solid, but according to him there are a lot of top level 'economists' who basically ignore the solid foundation.

And beyond that, Krugman absolutely thinks that the way the European governments and ECB are behaving are terrible.

You would never see this kind of disagreement between top level people in real sciences. Not about this kind of basic stuff.
posted by delmoi at 3:00 PM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


It sounds like you are objecting to government economists. You could say as much.

OK, I won't pursue this. Neoclassical economics serves as the philosophical framework and paradigm for neoliberal capitalism. To talk about the economics that prevails in a state which subscribes to neoliberal capitalism is to talk about neoclassical economics. Since European governments (the subject of this thread) all subscribe to neoliberal capitalism in one form or another, I feel I am proceeding on safe ground. You may take another view.
posted by falcon at 3:03 PM on January 8, 2012


You would never see this kind of disagreement between top level people in real sciences. Not about this kind of basic stuff.

Is that your definition of a 'real' science?
posted by LogicalDash at 3:58 PM on January 8, 2012


Is that your definition of a 'real' science?

It's a reasonable question how there can be vast fault lines of disagreements within a given field of knowledge on very important, basic questions on how to apply that field's understanding to the real world. These experts then go offer authoritative guidance, treated with the deference their title demands, on these same contentious topics
posted by crayz at 4:46 PM on January 8, 2012


It is certainly a reasonable question, but I don't think that declaring the field unscientific is a reasonable answer. Declaring it not a field would make more sense, provided you go on to define fields that actually hold basic tenets.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:24 PM on January 8, 2012


More accurately, I relied too much on the assumption that everyone else understood that, at government level, there is no distinction to be made.

It might be worth pointing out that the US and the EU followed (watered down) Kaynesian economics to face the 2008 crisis putting aside neoclassical economics (with the necessary caveats about insufficient funding, American emphasis on tax cuts rather than full-on government demand and reversal of policy upon the current debt crisis). But hey, at least there won't be any inflation.

/hamburger
posted by ersatz at 9:56 PM on January 8, 2012


You would never see this kind of disagreement between top level people in real sciences. Not about this kind of basic stuff.

Bring up string theory vs loop quantum gravity at a dinner party of physicists then tell me how that goes.
posted by Talez at 10:12 PM on January 8, 2012


I don't think that declaring the field unscientific is a reasonable answer

I think declaring it unscientific is the only answer, because that is the criterion by which (neoclassical economists) invite us to judge the merit of their nostrums. Premature mathematisation, reductionist fallacies, instrumentalism, false static equilibrium assumptions - all desperate attempts to elevate the endeavour from 'mere' sociology to full scientific status.

It might be worth pointing out that the US and the EU followed (watered down) Kaynesian economics

Harold Camping predicted the world would end on the 21st May 2011. On the 22nd May, he had breakfast. His having breakfast is not evidence that, faced with spectacular evidence of the failure of his theory to anticipate the workings of objective reality, he returned to sanity. It is evidence that his blood sugar was low. He immediately got to work on a juicy 'protective belt' theory for why his prediction was wrong, but his core theory was right.

Following the 2008 oil shock, neoclassical economists 'had breakfast', then got to work on their own 'protective belt' theory to account for the dominant paradigm's failure to predict, or even recognise as it was unfolding, the single greatest economic discontinuity in modern times. The answer? "It was caused by an unexpected shock" - a milquetoast justification, even by the standards of the profession.
posted by falcon at 1:31 AM on January 9, 2012


The problem for Europe is that although there will eventually be elections in Greece, Italy and elsewhere, there are no plans to hold meaningful elections at the Europe-wide level.

Behind a lot of fluff, this is the basic premise of the article. It is also demonstrably false. Elections to the European Parliament are held every five years (lastly in 2009), and they are far from "meaningless". Not only must the European Parliament vote the EU's budget, it also has the last word in the appointment of the European Commission.

The current European Commission is lackluster, with a notoriously useless President, José Manuel Barroso. The European Council, that is, the member states' goverments, are pretty much to blame for this: they propose the candidates, and they chose Barroso precisely because of his gutlessness, as he was unlikely to challenge any one of them. But the Parliament had the power to block the appointment and instead rubberstamped it.

If democracy is to remain strong and vigorous in the EU, the European Parliament should start growing a pair of balls, and European voters should understand that European elections are not "meaningless".

This said, the MeFites contributing to this thread almost solidly appear to ignore a clear fact: most European countries, and the EU as a whole, currently have strong conservative majorities. The main reason why Europe is following a fiscally restrictive path, rather than going all-out Keynesian, is not that democracy has been replaced by technocrats and "the markets". It is that this is the way people are voting. And if you disagree with that, then the way to change it is through political campaigning, rather than ignoring the reality. That is democracy.
posted by Skeptic at 2:15 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


See, falcon, this is the kind of problem you run into when you're not clear about your terms: DU's talking about Krugman, and if Krugman is a neoclassicist in your view, that's not obvious to an outsider. The way you're dividing up the subject looks suspiciously No True Scotsman, though I imagine you've been thinking about the same subject all along.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:26 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is that your definition of a 'real' science?
Yes?

I do think that in a in a real science, the top experts will not disagree about basic, fundamental stuff. All expert biologists believe in evolution, all top climate scientists agree on global warming, all top physicists agree about the electron charge and the wavelength of blue light. That may not have been true 300 years ago, but the basics have shifted somewhat.
It is certainly a reasonable question, but I don't think that declaring the field unscientific is a reasonable answer. Declaring it not a field would make more sense, provided you go on to define fields that actually hold basic tenets.
You could say, maybe that Krugman's 'freshwater' and 'saltwater' branches of economics are actually totally different fields, which both call themselves 'economics'. But if each field is studying the same problems and coming up with different results, at least one (possibly both) must be wrong.

Part of the problem is that economists don't appear to be following the scientific method. They seem to have a set of principles, which they base models on, and then make pronouncements based on those models without bothering to determine if those models actually fit reality. Obviously, it's difficult: you have an incredibly dynamic system with lots of feedback effects. But if you can't actually determine something, the scientific answer is to say you don't know, while economist tend to just spout whatever nonsense they think might justify their political views.
Bring up string theory vs loop quantum gravity at a dinner party of physicists then tell me how that goes.
Note that I said 'basic'. A physicist should say "we don't know, but I think [etc]"
DU's talking about Krugman…
Uh.... DU hasn't posted in this thread, man.

Also, while I was checking to see if he had posted in this thread:
duracell monkey bang his drum...
Jeez, falcon, could you get it any more wrong? It's ENERGIZER, and it's a BUNNY. That said, the rest of your comment seems pretty spot on.
Not quite right. Behold: The Duracell Bunny
posted by delmoi at 4:04 AM on January 9, 2012


delmoi and DU are, apparently, different people, sorry

It was not too long ago when the field of psychology consisted of Freud and Jung and other stuff that we would not call science today. If you were B.F. Skinner before B.F. Skinner did his experiments in behaviorism, you would tend to think that the established science of psychology was bunk. But you, too, want to study the mind, and you want to do so scientifically, so what are you going to call your research if not "psychology"? You're doing something different, and you'll want to say as much, hence "behaviorist psychology", but it would be very silly to insist on saying you're not a psychologist, man, you're a behaviorist, and everyone knows those psychologists over there are a lot of superstitious blowhards.

So, yeah, I can't really dispute the idea that the field of economics is in a bad state, but I don't see how you can dismiss the field without dismissing everything in it.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:18 AM on January 9, 2012


AFAICT no one is dismissing the field entirely, just the current orthodox practice that influences policy most everywhere. If you agree that the field is in a bad state, then I don't see what's so surprising about the indignation expressed in this thread regarding the fact that apparently the Freuds and Jungs are the ones calling the shots now.

Contrast this with the ever controversial climate science, where both the foundations are beyond dispute (CO2 is a GHG, we're putting more of it in the atmosphere by land use changes and FF burning, there is no known net negative feedback mechanism large enough to offset the GHG forcing) and the predictions have a good track record so far, and I don't see a single government from a major country taking any of it seriously beyond paying lip service.
posted by Bangaioh at 6:14 AM on January 9, 2012


Even if your intent is merely to criticize the common bad practice of economics, you probably won't get it across if you start with "economics, which is formally indistinguishable from pseudo-science". It's like if you wanted to talk about the problems with public education (of which there are many) and you opened with "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach".
posted by LogicalDash at 6:30 AM on January 9, 2012


Even if your intent is merely to criticize the common bad practice of economics...

The vein runs much deeper. The outrage and critical backlash aimed at the current state of economic thought has much to do with the consequences of capital movements and their consequences.

Think of the righteousness about climate science. It isn't just that naysayers are incorrect or use bad empiricism. It's that fundamentally it's a political disagreement...and fundamentally it's about the power appropriation of intellectual product.

(usually 'bad' product as a means to exploitive ends)
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 6:47 AM on January 9, 2012


(Durf, 2nd instance of "consequences" should = "benefactors")
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 6:48 AM on January 9, 2012


@Skeptic: This said, the MeFites contributing to this thread almost solidly appear to ignore a clear fact: most European countries, and the EU as a whole, currently have strong conservative majorities.

That rather overlooks the fact that the financial deregulation that was a major contributing factor to the British end of this fiasco was introduced by Gordon Brown under a Labour government.

@LogicalDash I don't see how you can dismiss the field without dismissing everything in it

Your comparison with psychology is instructive. If you like this sort of thing, Anderson's 'More is Different: Broken symmetry and the nature of the hierarchical structure of science' (PDF) is a fun read. Many phenomena are emergent properties of some lower level of complexity. At each level of complexity entirely new laws appear. Molecular biology is not applied chemistry, solid-state physics is not applied elementary particle physics, the social sciences are not applied psychology, etc. Thus macroeconomics is an emergent property of microeconomics not - as it is treated of necessity by people forced to remove their shoes to do large sums - a linear extrapolation of microeconomic phenomena coerced into static equilibrium via constraints imposed by 2 dimensional graphs. But you still need to understand microeconomics.

Thus it is possible (necessary) to dismiss current macroeconomic theory without dismissing micro.
posted by falcon at 10:05 AM on January 9, 2012


Thus it is possible (necessary) to dismiss current macroeconomic theory without dismissing micro.

OK, I get that. I still don't see how you can dismiss the field of economics without dismissing everything in it.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:41 AM on January 9, 2012


It was not too long ago when the field of psychology consisted of Freud and Jung and other stuff that we would not call science today. If you were B.F. Skinner before B.F. Skinner did his experiments in behaviorism, you would tend to think that the established science of psychology was bunk.
Sure, but you go back 350 years ago Robert Boyle was was trying to apply scientific rigor to alchemy, but that doesn't mean alchemy wasn't a pseudo science (of course, at the time the very concept of 'science' itself was not really well defined) Boyle seems to have called him a 'chymist' rather then an 'alchymist'

As far as psychology goes, I do think it was a psudo-science at one point. The fact that people were starting to do valid work in it at some point doesn't mean on the whole was not more scientific then psudoscientific.
posted by delmoi at 11:53 AM on January 9, 2012


Oh, also here's a good post from krugman, from today actually, about how the EU/ECB is being idiotic.

And that's the real central problem with what David Runciman is saying. It would be one thing if the 'medicine' that the 'technocrats' are proposing would actually solve the problem. but that's not what they're doing. To fix the economy, the people who are going to have to suffer are going to be the elites and the powerful.

That is the central problem here. The elites made bad bets, and now they are distorting and controlling government policies to prevent the consequences of mistakes from materializing. And that is the politically difficult act that needs to be taken. But when you refuse to do that, someone else must suffer instead, and here it's the poor people in weaker EU countries.

And the problem with autocratic psudo-democracy is that of course the elites are not going to suffer. A true 'dictator' our 'autocrat' who didn't need the support of the elites could implement the correct policies (but might not, because obviously if the dictator has the wrong ideas, everyone is fucked)

(And speaking of dictators, look at Berlusconi - he was the closest thing to a dictator in the 'western' world. He essentially just gave up. Politically, it makes sense. Get out of the way and let the technocrats deliver the 'medicine', then when everyone hates them and the economy is fixed, or if it becomes apparent that it's not working, he can ride in as the people's hero. The fact it's technically a democracy lets him do that)

Here's the thing though. Making elites suffer is also politically difficult. So it stands to reason that freedom from political fetters could also make it easier to force the elites to take their punishment, instead of the common people. But that's not what's happening. And that's the central problem.

the suffering the ECB/Euroleaders are proposing won't solve the problem. If it would, you could at least make the moral argument, I guess. But since it isn't, you can't.

Now let me see if I can express this in a concise way, it's kind of a complicated idea:

(Okay but before we get started, let's stipulate that the elites and powerful don't like the Keynesian ideas about stimulus and inflation. Why not? That's a bit confusing, presumably a growing economy would mean moving money to entrepreneurial elites, but move it away from the 'Paris Hilton' types who just sit on their cash. On the other hand, higher spending means higher taxes in the future. On the other hand Krugman seems to think that (in Europe anyway) it's more of a moral/ideological issue. They don't want to admit they were wrong. When you have a lot of money, losing half of it is not going to hurt as much as a poor or middle class person losing 10%. So perhaps status and an unwillingness to admit failure can be as strong a motivation as economic loss Anyway...)
1: In a very 'pure' democracy, 'the mob', average people en-mass have a lot of power

2: In an autocratic pesudo-democracy, the elites have a lot of power.

3: The more politically powerful a group is, the more difficult it is to implement policies that hurt them or that they don't like.

4: Therefore, moving from a more democratic to less democratic model means that you are going to see more policies that benefit the elites, rather then common people.

Now, the other problem is that, at least according to Krugman anyway, the policies the elite favor won't actually solve the problem, and in fact you have to make the elites realize their losses, and you need stimulus, etc.

So on top of that there's this intrinsic irony, or paradox:
5: The polices that would fix the problem are unappealing to elites

6: More political independence could allow for a government to implement the correct polices, but.

7: Moving to a system with more political independence actually empowers the elites and makes it more difficult implement the correct policies because the elites don't like them.
*catches breath*

Okay, so that's the central problem with this essay. The author is part of the elite, echoing elite sensibility. He wants less democracy because he wants policies that benefit the elite over the average person.

On the other hand, maybe the problem could be solved with more democracy? That's a tough problem: If you look at the debt mania among the tea party, the problem with a dictatorship of the mob is that you end up with the same problems as a 'real' dictator. They may want the wrong thing. On the other hand, they're much more likely to just throw someone out and replace them with something else if the problems keep happening. Just look at the wave elections in the US in 2006, 2008 and 2010. And probably in 2012 as well. People keep trying to replace congress with someone else, but they're stymied by the two party system in the U.S. Both parties suck on the balls of the power-elite in this country, so you end up with more of a pesudo-democracy. But the administration (and the British, to a certain extent) aren't drinking the same kool-aide as the Europeans.

So yeah, I think if you empower the mob, eventually they'll end up with someone with the correct ideas. But that could take a while.

---

Now, why talk about Krugman while I slag off on economics in general? Well, from my perspective Krugman is something of a Boyle among the alchemists. I read his blog all the time, and he seems like he knows what he's talking, and rarely seems to make the "confusing the model with reality" mistake, while at the same time pointing it out when others do. He's also generally pretty accurate in his predictions, and he's willing to disagree with elite opinion. His opposition Iraq War was a pretty good example of that. Most people in elite society (In the US) were for it, he was against it. While everyone was screaming about the deficit, he was saying the real problem was the lack of stimulus. He's willing to call people out on global warming as well.

There was actually a study of which 'pundits' did the best in their predictions Krugman did really well, far better then anyone else. A track record of getting predictions correct should be an important metric. (but obviously these were political predictions, not entirely about economics)
posted by delmoi at 2:18 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought your basis for saying that economics is pseudoscience had to do with the amount of disagreement among leaders, rather than the proportion of theories that are unscientific. I can kind of see the latter, though even then I think most sciences would end up pseudoscience by that standard, cf. Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.

I also think that if you're going to attack anything for anything, it works better if you're specific about it.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:15 AM on January 10, 2012


@LogicalDash OK, I get that. I still don't see how you can dismiss the field of economics without dismissing everything in it.

I dismiss neither the field of economics nor everything in it. I dismiss the common practice of affording it disproportionate influence in the matter of how we organise our affairs.

If I need to figure out the best way to allocate some scarce, fixed stock of some visible, tangible, measurable, and priceable resource, I'll be sure to ask an economist since he has lots of great ideas about that.

Since the set of all scarce things that need to be allocated in an economy, or even worse, a planet, that are visible, tangible, measurable, and priceable is only a tiny fraction, and mostly the least important, of all the things that need to be managed, I need to look elsewhere for advice.

We don't.
posted by falcon at 5:00 AM on January 10, 2012


I dismiss neither the field of economics nor everything in it

Well, how the hell else am I supposed to interpret
It is hilarious that the practitioners of economics, which is formally indistinguishable from pseudo-science, should be referred to "technocrats"
?
posted by LogicalDash at 7:15 AM on January 10, 2012


Well, how the hell else am I supposed to interpret etc.

You interpret it in the context of the subsequent exchange between us, in which we established that, in the context of a thread about the crisis in European states subscribing universally to neoliberal capitalism and therefore neoclassical economics, a reference to "economics" is identical to a reference to "neoclassical economics". I accepted it wasn't clear and your earlier indignation and, for all I know, you may not agree but the returns to further debate are diminishing rapidly, are they not? Why don't we politely agree to disagree, and leave it there - I have no particular motivation to force this view on you.
posted by falcon at 10:43 AM on January 10, 2012


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