Sunday, May 11, 2014

Economics is to the Economy as Alchemy is to Chemistry: Credentialism and its Discontents

There is a movement by neoliberal economists to stop anyone without an advanced degree from even talking about economics – in Universities it is even worse, there is already a strong view that academic freedom only exists within one’s own specialty.  In other words, an engineering professor cannot say anything about economics because they don’t have the proper ‘credentials’.

This is an obvious ploy by the increasingly intellectually and morally bankrupt neoliberal economists to stifle anyone pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

Now credentials do have their place.  For example, in the United States in order to fly a commercial airliner you need specific training and certification.  That’s a good thing.  No matter how smart someone is, or how much they have read about flying airplanes, without the required formal training they would not be safe to fly a modern jet.

Ditto with other professions, like neurosurgery.  No amount of native intelligence or book learning could compensate for the rigorous training and practical experience of a modern medical school and accredited residency program.

However, these are credentials that allow people to do things.  Credentials that restrict what people can say are another matter entirely.  You don’t need to know anything about brain surgery, to realize that if a doctor is taking cash from a medical devices company that markets a product with a very high failure rate, that something is wrong, do you?

Similarly, you don’t need a graduate degree in economics to realize that when an economist says that high taxes are bad when they are applied to their wealthy patrons, and then that high taxes are good when they are applied to the poor and working class, that something is wrong.  Ditto when the every prediction of ‘professional’ economics is completely wrong, and intelligent laymen like H. Ross Perot routinely outperform them, but the reaction of the economists is to demand that nobody criticize them because they are not properly trained in the arcana of Grainger-Causality analysis.

Astronomers are not currently demanding that nobody other than an astronomer talk about astronomy – because the field of astronomy is not corrupt.  When astronomers predict that an eclipse will occur at such-and-such a time, it generally does.  Not that astronomers never make mistakes – of course they do – but when they make mistakes, they acknowledge them and go back to the drawing board and try to figure out what went wrong.

This is the hallmark of a profession that is not corrupt: better predictive power than a layman, and admitting mistakes and revising theories to account for them.

Now sometimes economists will say that they should not be criticized because economics is not an exact science.  Let’s think about this for a bit.

Meteorology is also not an exact science – but the five day local forecasts made by professional meteorologists are a lot better than what an intelligent layman could make by just going outside and looking at the sky.  Suppose however that a meteorologist predicted that the winter in the northern hemisphere would be hotter than the summer – and they keep predicting this, over and over, even when it is never true, and when this is pointed out, they state that only professional meteorologists could possible comment.  You wouldn’t put up with that, would you?

Nobody expects an economist to be able to reliably predict what the value of a specific stock will be tomorrow – economics is indeed complex.  But when economists make big predictions – like free trade between a rich and a poor country will not result in industries moving to the poor country – and these predictions are always false – and they keep making them over and over gain – and their reaction to criticism is to say that only professional economists are allowed to comment – well?

It should also be noted that economics is not just about money, it is also about the physical world.  On subjects like agricultural economics or the electrical power grid, I would propose that it is agricultural scientists and electrical engineers who have the proper credentials, and the economists who don’t.

Recently it has come to light that the billionaire Charles G. Koch has used his money to exercise a veto power over the hiring of economics faculty at Florida State University.  So if you want a faculty position there, you need to say what Mr. Koch wants you to say.  Curiously, Mr. Koch does not have any degrees in economics, yet this lack of ‘credentials’ does not appear to be a barrier to his shaping the entire field to his liking.  So much for ‘credentialism.’  Modern economics is not about a search for truth, it’s about selling out for money.

It should be noted that John Maynard Keynes had a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, but no formal training in economics.  He was simply a ferociously intelligent person with a respect for the truth.  Despite the fact that his theories from the 1940’s are imperfect (as he himself often admitted), they still hold more predictive power (the essence of scientific validity) than so-called ‘modern’ neoliberal economists who hold Ph.D.s in economics from places like Florida State University.  Gee, how did that happen?

If you are in the basement of a house, and you want to send someone outside to report back on the weather, would you send a professional meteorologist whose job depends on them telling you that it’s sunny?  Or an intelligent layman whose only interest is in the truth?  Do you place your face in ‘credentials?’  Or honesty?

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