Economists Criticizing Economics

Unlearning Economics has put together a collection of brief quotations of famous economists attacking their own subject matter. I’m only going to share a few of them, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to address two of the most common responses I get when I offer up critiques of neoclassical economic theory. The usual responses are either that I don’t understand economics, or that I’m ideologically motivated. The first one is easy to address – there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of economists who have made the same criticisms I have. It’s true that I don’t understand the ins and outs of every possible mathematical model of the economy. No one does. But people who have spent a lot more time than I have on formal modeling have come to the same conclusions about the over-reliance on math distracting economists from more fruitful research. 

Second, I make no secret of having policy preferences – they’re pretty much the entire reason I blog. But when I criticize economic methodology it’s not because I don’t like the conclusions. Indeed, one of the problems with economic methodology is that it’s so reliant on the assumptions that go into the model that one can start with one’s preferred conclusions and then build a model that will deliver them. Unlearning’s full list of quotations includes not only liberals and centrists, but also Friedman, Hayek, and von Mises. 

So, without further qualifications, my five favorite criticisms: 

Economics has become increasingly an arcane branch of mathematics rather than dealing with real economic problems.

― Milton Friedman


Too large a proportion of recent “mathematical” economics are mere concoctions, as imprecise as the initial assumptions they rest on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze of pretentious and unhelpful symbols.

― John Maynard Keynes


…the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences.

― Thomas Piketty


In my youth it was said that what was too silly to be said may be sung. In modern economics it may be put into mathematics.

― Ronald Coase


The First Law of Economists: For every economist, there exists an equal and opposite economist.

The Second Law of Economists: They’re both wrong.

― David Wildasin



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