In a 2011 article in Jacobin magazine, the Australian political economist Mike Beggs accuses the defenders of ‘orthodox’ Marxist economic theory of creating a ‘zombie Marx’. What matters, Beggs seems to suggest, is not really whether this or that economic theory is correct in its foundations, about which the neoclassical economists of today’s orthodoxy are just as dogmatic as the Marxists are about theirs. Rather, the significance of economic ideas rests in the practice. This practice consists of what he, citing David Harvey, calls “casual empiricism”: “for example, in analyzing the relationship between the US federal government’s deficit and long term interest rates.” The search for foundationalism, being able to found any given economic finding along such empirical or econometric lines on a well-defined and general theory, is the province of a rigid minority of neoclassical economists, and has little to do with the everyday practice of economics. Or so Beggs would have us believe.
He then goes on to conclude from this that it is the Marxists who have a problem, not the neoclassical economists. Unlike their mainstream neoclassical counterparts, Beggs suggests, the Marxist economists have a tendency to prefer ‘going back to the text’ to advancing economic knowledge, and this process has to do with the political commitments of Marxism outside the mainstream. Essentially, Beggs argues that Marxism as a rival school of thought in economics fails, and must fail, precisely because it is not mainstream and does not reconstruct itself along the lines of the methods of the mainstream: “The pursuit of a separate system of economics as something wholly other from mainstream economics isolates us from the political and ideological space where these things take place: better, instead, to fight from the inside, to make clear the social and political content of the categories.” Continue reading “Zombifying Marx”
One of the core principles of scientific theory is that all theory is specific and limited in its domain. A theory which attempts to explain everything, explains nothing. Equally, the mere observation that ‘everything depends on everything else’ is, while undoubtedly true, useless for scientific inquiry – the virtue rests in identifying the specific and causal connections where possible, or at the very least a model or theory that can explain some subset of the totality of connections in a way that helps us solve problems. To point this out may seem banal, but Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick would have done well to keep it in mind when writing their book, Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian. As the name implies, this is a work of comparative economic theory, presenting the elementary (say, undergraduate level) versions of each of the theories in a way that allows novices in economics to compare and contrast their methods and approaches.
Such a book is a great idea, as there is a real shortage of clear and accessible comparative material that gives an overview of the different theoretical conceptions and methodological justifications that exist in economics, both orthodox and heterodox – not least because the interaction between method and content is perhaps nowhere as important as in that discipline. Moreover, as Marxist economists of some recent popular renown – at least in the case of Richard Wolff, as Stephen Resnick sadly died earlier this year – you’d expect the authors’ heterodox view of economic theory to make such a comparison more fair and useful than it would be if undertaken by an orthodox neoclassical historian of economics. Continue reading “Book Review: Wolff & Resnick, “Contending Economic Theories””
The opposition to austerity worldwide has been much strengthened by the loss of academic prestige incurred by the austerity camp in the field of economics. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, both prominent neoclassical economists at Harvard University, were revealed to have made serious data errors in their influential paper on the history of public debt and its relation to economic growth. In this paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt”, the authors had argued that when “gross external debt reaches 60 percent of GDP”, a country’s annual growth declined by two percent, and “for levels of external debt in excess of 90 percent” GDP growth was “roughly cut in half.”(1) This has been widely seen as a major intellectual support for the austerity drive worldwide, and therefore the denouement of this paper has had a considerable impact. Not only did the paper leave out important data, but it also contained simple errors in spreadsheet calculation. This is all the more intriguing, and delicious for the press, because the counter-article’s co-author Thomas Herndon is still a graduate student, whereas Rogoff is one of the world’s most eminent neoclassical macroeconomists. Continue reading “The Many Forms of Kenneth Rogoff: A Study in Neoclassical Economics Today”
It is a familiar refrain in criticisms of positive economics, in particular positive neoclassical economics (which indeed has by far the lion’s share of work of this kind), that it relies too strongly on unrealistic theories. Now when people speak of unrealistic theories, what they tend to mean in practice is the reliance in positive neoclassical economics on modelling, and more specifically modelling on the basis of assumptions that are known to be false. More than any other aspect of neoclassical methodology, this has come in for much criticism both from within and without the discipline of economics. It has nonetheless also had its defenders – most famously Milton Friedman, to whom is ascribed the thesis that the unrealisticness of assumptions does not matter at all as long as the theory so developed has better predictive value than any other.(1) This has also often in the minds of the critics been associated with the mathematization of modelling and economics in general that has taken place in the second half of the 20th century, and which is often seen as masking the falsehood of the models and thereby the theories by hiding it behind mathematical formulae. Yet although I think neoclassical economics is by and large poor economics and much of these things are very worth criticizing, it is important to look more closely at these matters and to separate some of the different aspects of these methodological issues and the basis for criticizing them. Continue reading “How to Criticize and How Not to Criticize Positive Neoclassical Economics I: Models”