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We don’t know squat about economics

2012 July 30

 

We think of weathermen and stockbrokers as the two “often in error, but never in doubt” professions. Let me nominate a third: economists.

If stimulus or austerity policies worked, we’d know by now.  If Friedman and Keynes were right, our governments would long have adopted their policies, and our economies would be roaring like Formula 1 cars in the Monaco grand prix. The predictability of tax cuts or stimulus spending on economic growth has the reliability of Paul the Octopus forecasting soccer game outcomes: sometimes it works, and most of the time it doesn’t. Yet politicians everywhere hang on to these disproven theories as economic gospel.

What’s wrong with economics? To paraphrase Mitt Romney in one of his awkward statements, economics is people. Instead, we think economics is policies. From government to universities, we teach economics as a massively aggregated database from which we extract insights, then policies, at the level of a state or a country. This leads to lame assertions about interest rates, monetary mass, jobs, trade deficit, and vague concepts of rational expectations reputedly anticipating economic behaviors. If we understood the true causes and effects in the economic system, our Presidents would not be sweating the job numbers every month: they would tell us beforehand what to expect.

Do you wake up in the morning thinking about interest rates, inflation and trade deficit? Do you actually decide to buy a car, a house, or go grocery shopping on the basis of interest rate and inflation? Do you look at your Turbotax statement to decide whether the rise in the marginal tax rate just passed by Congress will authorize you to go to Wholefoods and buy the fresh organic tomatoes that day, instead of going to the regular grocery store where the tomatoes are cheaper? Of course not. Yet this is the micro-level at which the economy works. Unless we can begin to comprehend decisions at this individual level, we have nothing of value.

If I were an economist, I’d start by diving deep into understanding how five or ten of my neighbors experience the economy. I’d try to build a model of their income statements and their balance sheet, and figure out how they decide to patronize five or ten local businesses (say, restaurants, grocery store, day care, etc.), or why they decide to save and for what. I’d try to understand the economics of the five or ten local businesses my neighbors buy from, why these small businesses decide to expand and hire, or why they scale or shut down. If there were one or two big businesses in my local area (corporate headquarters, big hospitals, etc.), I’d try to understand how the success of those large businesses contributes to the local economy through local taxes and jobs. I’d then try to model how the local township or municipality benefits from all this, and what impact local people and businesses have on the finances of my town (school, public funds, etc.). If we could just model this microcosm of economic interactions, we’d have data on a real, living ecosystem of actual people and entities and begin to understand how a local economy is co-created through their interactions.

Would this be representative of the economy as a whole? Of course, not. There would be massive biases linked to local industrial fabric and wealth levels. To roll up this data into a state, national, or global economy, one would have to empower people to build their own model at the local level. Providing the structure and platform that allows this local modeling would be a great role for government, instead of pretending that it owns the economy or creates jobs. The role of government in economic policy should not be to build top-down expert models of the economy as a whole, but to empower local folks to build models of their local market and learn from their interactions.

Even more importantly, if we began to understand causes and effects at the local economy level, the “economic agents” involved would be able to do something about the economy, rather than passively describe it. Individuals could change their relationship to local businesses, for example, by forming communities around them. Local businesses could mobilize those communities by setting up platforms that better connect them to their local customers (for example, I’d love to rally a few of my local friends to help a local hotel improve a few things in their menu and rooms, and we’d collectively bring them our out-of-town business). If local officials were to facilitate this dialogue, this would do more to create jobs and get them reelected than repeating hackneyed Republican or Democratic theories of austerity or stimulus.

Unfortunately, the scarcest commodity in economics is humility. Witness for example the recent Business Week article on the discussion between Paul Krugman and the President of Estonia and on the value of austerity in running a country. I will not venture an opinion about who’s right or wrong in this debate, but getting rid of the condescension conveyed in this dialogue seems to me to be job 1.

I, for one, would like to understand the economics of my village.

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