what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

economics and management - the modern religious doctrine


One of my heroes has always been the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’ tale "The Emperor’s New Clothes" – the only person able to break the hypocrisy, fawning and lies around him and speak the truth. I was very happy therefore a few days to come across Steve Keen’s 2001 book “Debunking Economics – the naked emperor of the social sciences”. The last decade has, of course, seen many books critiquing the basic assumptions of economics and trying to build a more realistic discipline – but Keen’s seems to go further is being almost an alternative textbook. You can get a good sense of it here
For my sins, I not only studied economics, I actually tried to teach it at a polytechnic for several years. At University I had had the greatest of difficulty with some of the basic ideas (particularly the theory of the firm!) and would, occasionally, feel that I was studying a set of religious texts. )(Incidentally, this is an idea brilliantly explored in 1994 in Susan George and Fabrizio Sabelli's Faith and Credit - the World Bank's Secular Empire).
I stuck with the subject only because of my interest in regional and urban development for which I could see some practical application. Eventually my disillusionment became too great and I switched my work to urban management. The other part of my Degree had been Politics and political sociology - with John Mackintosh (of "Cabinet Government" fame) one of my tutors. Here I felt on stronger ground - and was particularly excited to read books such as Heclo and Wildavsky's The Private Government of Public Money and EH Carr's The Twenty Years' Crisis - both of which stripped away rhetoric to expose the realities of power.

But Britain has retained its mythical attachment to its form of "liberal democracy" - and developed a similar mystique around economics. Almost the same day I found the Keen book, I found a marvellous statement of the reality of the British political system - produced a few months ago by the UK Thinktank Democratic Audit
It is easier nowadays to make the point that economics is a religious doctrine - resting, as people beyond the classrom are slowly recognising, on dogmatic assumptions. The same is true of the even more popular field of management - which I have seen grow in my lifetime from a few (American) departments and books to a series of global industries In reality it is a new Roman Catholic Church - with its interdoctrinal disputes. Sad that there are so few demystications available in that field - Zuboff's The Support Economy (2001) was one of the few.
But back to economics - one of the latest Nobel prizewinners, Paul Krugman, asked last month why the economists got it (the finanical crisis) so wrong. He suggests that mathematical modelling is the answer - but the question which should be asked is why noone pays attention to the answers which have been available for 20 years or so? Paul Ormerod wrote his Death of Economics in 1993 - and that reflected a decade or so of private, professional concerns which could not be voiced for fear of losing tenure etc. A good resource for crtiqiues is post-autistic economics which was set up in 2000 by French students objecting to the irrelevance of economics

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