Acton Institute Powerblog

The Number One Failure of Modern Economics

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In a recent Reuters opinion column, Mark Thoma faults academic economists for their failure to predict the housing crash. He says their failure can be attributed to the disconnect between academia and economic forecasters. I don’t agree with Thoma, but I do think he gets it right when he says the failure of modern day economics,

May have something to do with the desire among economists to become more of a science – a heavy focus on theory and math is the result.

During the classical period, economics was closely linked to psychology. In the early 20th century, neoclassical economics veered from the study of psychology as economists sought to reshape the discipline as a natural science.

Modern neoclassical economics draws influence dating back to René Descartes. According to Dr. Robert Nelson’s review of Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street by Tomas Sedlack, Cartesian thought encouraged a belief that mathematical equations are equivalent to religious truths. The economic man is seen as,

 ‘A mechanical construct that works on infallible mathematical principles, … and economists are [therefore] capable of explaining even his innermost motives’ through mathematical methods.

Philosophical implications suggest modern economics is essentially attempting to reduce individuals to numbers. Economic models that operate in a perfect abstract framework with absolute assumptions conflict with the unpredictable and sometimes irrational behavior of human nature. This may explain why data forecasting without a full picture of the human person is not sufficient in predicting major market failures like the housing crash.

Karen Ho takes an anthropological approach to the financial crisis in her 2008 book  Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. As an anthropology graduate from Princeton, Ho is hired to work at an investment bank and writes about the corporate culture on Wall Street prior to the housing collapse. Homogenous recruitment, constant downsizing, high risk/high reward job liquidity, short-sighted bonuses, and deception of shareholder value were among many behaviors she observed. Such irrational and risky behavior should have been a red flag for any economist, shedding light on a major incentive problem.

Though it can be argued that the separation between modern economics and behavioral economics is necessary for empirical data and analysis, some economists want to see the gap close. According to Sedlack, modern economics should deemphasize the role of mathematics. Math is only the tip of the ice berg; it is vital, but not sufficient in economics. Nelson quoted him saying,

‘Below the mathematics lie much more fundamental issues’ of institutions, culture, and basic belief — even of religion. These issues do not readily lend themselves to mathematical methods.

Some human desires simply cannot be fulfilled by economic objects. A price value cannot be placed on the community, family, knowledge of God and so on. It is impossible to commodify or quantify these desires into an economic model. Richard Neuhaus famously said,

To attribute everything to the economic factor is to perpetuate the terrible lie of the Marxists. In addition to the economic is the political and, most important, the cultural. At the heart of the cultural is the moral and spiritual.

The number one failure of modern economics is an understanding of the human person that is incomplete. Economists must draw on anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology to better understand what drives human behavior and decision making. Forecasters will never be able to predict the future the way they would like, but social studies coupled with empirical economic analysis may help economists better understand the why questions that numbers cannot explain.

Elise Daniel Elise Daniel is a freelance writer and communications consultant in Washington, DC. Previously, she served as the Press Secretary for the House Committee on Natural Resources, a senior writer for the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, and has also worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Values and Capitalism Project at the American Enterprise Institute, and the Acton Institute. She graduated from James Madison University with a BBA in Economics. She is the editor and co-author of Called to Freedom: Why You Can Be Christian and Libertarian. Her articles have been published in RELEVANT Magazine, Real Clear Religion, the Gospel Coalition, The Federalist, Patheos, and the Daily Caller, among others.