William Kristol on Economic Theory and Practice

I don’t usually read Bill Kristol’s column, but once in a while, my eyes get caught by a headline (that’s the difference between reading online and “on paper”), and I’ll check out what he has to say. The other day, I read his column “Admit we don’t know” on the current economic crisis that, while not in my mind “wrong”, seemed puzzling to me. Pay attention to the last paragraph (highlighted in bold).

…basically, it seems to me, we’re all flying blind. The markets are spiraling down, and our leading experts don’t have much of a clue as to what to do.

Given that, one has to welcome the expected appointment to senior positions in the Obama administration of economists like Lawrence Summers, Timothy Geithner, Jason Furman, Peter Orszag, and Goolsbee himself. They’re sober and competent people who know we face a real crisis — and who, importantly, may be more willing than many of their colleagues to adjust their thinking early and often.

Indeed, one hopes they’re not too invested in the findings of the economics profession of which they’re such distinguished products — because one suspects many of the conventional answers of that profession aren’t much applicable to the current situation. After all, wasn’t it excessive confidence in complex economic models and sophisticated financial instruments on the part of people well educated in modern economics that helped get us into the current mess?

So I hope the best and the brightest who will be joining the new president will at least entertain the possibility that a lot of what they think they know is wrong. I trust they’ll remember that successful economic policies in the past have pulled together elements from unlikely sources, and that they’re as likely to find wisdom from reading political economists like Friedrich Hayek or Joseph Schumpeter, or Keynes himself, as from poring over the latest academic paper in a peer-refereed economics journal.

My puzzlement is driven by several assertions.

  • Are our economic leaders flying blind?
  • Were the economists overly enamored of complex economic models?
  • Were the economists overly confident in sophisticated financial instruments?
  • Is it as likely to find wisdom from Hayek or Schumpeter as in the latest academic paper?

On the first point, I think Kristol is on the most solid ground. So much of what has happened has been unprecedent in terms of institutions, although as Markus Brunnermeier has pointed out, the general outlines are remarkably similar to banking crises of the past. So, here I think reasonable people can certainly disagree whether it’s ignorance, or failure to agree between Fed and the Bush Administration and components thereof.

What about complex models? First ask what exactly constitutes a complex model? Is Kristol alluding to models involving algebra? Or calculus? Or lots of equations? I think one could make the argument that the models weren’t complex enough to capture important effects (asymmetric information, agency costs, etc.) despite the complexity along other dimensions.

Were economists overly confident in sophisticated financial instruments? Here I think it might be useful to discriminate between economists that work in the financial world, and those that work in academia. From the former group, I always heard a lot about “risk management” and sophisticated statistical models to price derivatives. From the latter, I heard a lot more skepticism, perhaps borne of ignorance. So, Kristol might be right, but I suspect his views are deeply influenced by the sample of economists he talked to.

By the way, I won’t say I saw the full enormity of the leveraging problem, but at least I can truthfully say I was suspicious of the free lunch aspects of the net borrowing binge of the past decade. From my August 2005 Council on Foreign Relations report:

Although the likelihood of a “disorderly adjustment,” is small,37 the potential consequences are so troubling that the possibility of economic disruption cannot be ignored. In addition to the threat of rising unemployment and declining income, sharp movements in asset prices and interest rates could also threaten the stability of the financial system. In the past, policymakers have been able to contain the threats of systemic crises, such as the crisis of Long Term Capital Management in 1998. That event was at least partly attributable to bets on interest rates movements that did not meet expectations. Markets for making bets are much larger and diverse than they were seven years ago. Some are very new and remain untested. The question is whether they are up to the task of distributing risks when low probability events occur.38 This open question should in itself give some additional weight to the case for action now, to avoid putting the world economy in the position of finding out the answer.

I’m confident it’s quite easy to dig up plenty of quotes from other economists who were nervous.

Finally, the assertion that really caught my attention: That the likelihood of finding useful nuggets of economic wisdom in Schumpeter and Hayek is equal to that of finding it in the latest article in peer reviewed journals (I get the feeling he’s making a perjorative remark about peer reviewed journals, but I’ll let that slide).

Why do I think this is odd? Well, because the statement identifies modern economics as distinct from the great thinkers of the past. But in fact many of the works in the “peer reviewed journals” are not orthogonal to the works of the past, but like many other intellectual endeavors, based upon them. Open up the JPE or the QJE (or better yet, the NBER Working Paper series, and there are plenty allusions to “the greats”, and ideas like “creative destruction”. That being said, just like there has been plenty of thinking in political science since Machiavelli and The Prince (you’ll get the allusion if you’ve read Dani Rodrik‘s take on Kristol’s economics acumen), there’s been a lot of insight developed in economics over the past hundred years. In this respect, the admonition to look backward sound good, but is less profound that it appears at first glance.

Originally published at Econbrowser and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

2 Responses to "William Kristol on Economic Theory and Practice"

  1. Shirley   November 30, 2008 at 1:07 am

    Economics now a days are really unpredictable many economist trying to see what will happen in the future but some had failed in their purpose. Lots of people lost their jobs because of this current crisis they just waiting that one they day they woke up they have foods and their dining table for their families, they have money to pay their bills and some might be looking forward in Obamas Administration of what he can do to make this crisis made into a better and progressive living. Everyone are really relying on wha will happen on Economic problem of US governmentand its effect to our country. We hope that this world crisis would end now for us to go on in our lives and worries free in the future.

  2. Mike   November 30, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    I believe any review of Mr Kristol’s track record of analysis and prediction would suggest he is incapable of correctly assessing any situation beyond the most obvious and general observations. That being said, I do find it amusing to find his name mentioned in reputable publications, as it invites me to question what artistry of writing has been employed to link him to fact or reason. His tenure at the Times is baffling beyond amusement though, and is more grounds for despair than disparagement. (Surely this is not so unfair as to violate the Terms of Use prohibition of abusive or defamatory comments.)