Thursday, November 29, 2012

Urging Economists to Step Away From the Blackboard

by Brendan Greeley


November 29, 2012

Ronald Coase published his career-making paper, The Nature of the Firm, 75 years ago. He won the Nobel prize for economics in 1991. In a lecture in 2002, he argued that physics has moved beyond the assumptions of Isaac Newton, and biology beyond Darwin. (Not that he knew them.) But economics, he said, had failed to advance past the efficient-market assumptions of Adam Smith. This year Coase, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Law School, is attempting to start a new academic journal ambitiously titled Man and the Economy. The premise: Economics is broken. Coase’s journal is still just a plan, but his frustration with orthodox economics has energized his followers.

The financial crisis forced economists to confront the limitations of their profession. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admitted as much when he told Congress in October 2008 that markets might not regulate themselves after all. Coase says the problem runs deeper: Economists study abstractions and numbers, instead of firms and people. He doesn’t believe this can be fixed by tweaking models. An entire generation of economists must be encouraged to think differently.

The idea for the journal stems from his collaboration with Ning Wang, an assistant professor at the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University who grew up in a rice- and fish-farming village in the Hubei province of China. Coase, 101, began working with Wang in the 1990s at the University of Chicago. Neither has a degree in economics; the two understood each other. “We’re not constrained by a mainstream, orthodox view,” says Wang. “A lot of people would see this as a weakness.” Coase declined to be interviewed.

When Coase and Wang hosted a conference on China in 2008, they noticed that many Chinese academics had never talked to either policymakers or entrepreneurs from their own country. They had learned only what Coase calls “blackboard economics,” sets of theories and mathematical relationships between bits of data. “I came from China,” says Wang. “We have a lot of nationals come here; they’re taught game theory and econometrics. Then they’re going home … without a basic understanding of how the real world functions.”

In an essay published on Nov. 20 in Harvard Business Review, Coase argues that in the early 20th century, economists began to focus on relationships among statistical measures, rather than problems that firms have with production or people have with decisions. Economists began writing for each other, instead of for other disciplines or for the business community. “It is suicidal for the field to slide into a hard science of choice,” Coase writes in HBR, “ignoring the influences of society, history, culture, and politics on the working of the economy.” (By “choice,” he means ever more complex versions of price and demand curves.) Most economists, he argues, work with measures like gross domestic product and the unemployment rate that are too removed from how businesses actually work.


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