Joseph Steiglitz, Thomas Kuhn and the state of economic theory
One of the central ideas in Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions was the recognition that scientific knowledge changes by evolving away from failed theories rather than toward truth. A large portion of the book is devoted to describing the processes whereby anomalies that are recognized (but largely ignored by the discipline) are transformed into central problems that can't be fixed through the puzzle solving process of normal science and, hence, necessitate a paradigm shift. In a recent interview, Joseph Steiglitz unleashes a devastating critique of economists, noting that discipline as a whole has failed to internalize the events of 08 in a manner that would serve as a stimulus for the reformulation of economic thinking.
Academic economists played a big role in causing the crisis. Their models were overly simplified, distorted, and left out the most important aspects. Those faulty models then encouraged policy-makers to believe that the markets would solve all the problems. ... After the crisis, you would have hoped that the academic profession had changed and that policy-making had changed with it and would become more skeptical and cautious. You would have expected that after all the wrong predictions of the past, politics would have demanded from academics a rethinking of their theories. I am broadly disappointed on all accounts. .... Within academia, those who believed in free markets before the crisis still do so today. A few people have shifted, and I want to give credit to them for saying: “We were wrong. We underestimated this or that aspect of our models.” But for the most part, the response was different. Believers in the free market have not revised their beliefs.In the longer view, Steiglitz sees changes in economic thinking coming, potentially, from a generational shift in economists:
I think that change is really occurring with the young people. My young students overwhelmingly don’t understand how people could have believed in the old models. That is good. But on the other hand, many of them say that if you want to be an economist, you still have to deal with all the old guys who believe in their wrong theories, who teach those theories, and expect you to believe in them as well. So they choose not to go into those branches of economics.Or, more ominously, from yet another crisis:
If my forecast about the consequences of austerity is correct, you will see a new round of protest movements. We had a crisis in 2008. We are now in the fifth year of crisis, and we haven’t solved it. There’s not even a light at the end of the tunnel. When we come to that conclusion, the discourse will change.
The European: The situation needs to be really bad before it will get better?
Stiglitz: Yes, I fear.
E.O. Wilson On the Origin of the Arts
Among many interesting nuggets, Wilson argues the following:
Substantial evidence now exists that human social behavior arose genetically by multilevel evolution. If this interpretation is correct, and a growing number of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists believe it is, we can expect a continuing conflict between components of behavior favored by individual selection and those favored by group selection. Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole.Steiglitz, in the earlier article, makes a parallel observation about the ambiguity the individual versus the collective within economic theory:
An inevitable result of the mutually offsetting forces of multilevel selection is permanent ambiguity in the individual human mind, leading to countless scenarios among people in the way they bond, love, affiliate, betray, share, sacrifice, steal, deceive, redeem, punish, appeal, and adjudicate. The struggle endemic to each person’s brain, mirrored in the vast superstructure of cultural evolution, is the fountainhead of the humanities. A Shakespeare in the world of ants, untroubled by any such war between honor and treachery, and chained by the rigid commands of instinct to a tiny repertory of feeling, would be able to write only one drama of triumph and one of tragedy. Ordinary people, on the other hand, can invent an endless variety of such stories, and compose an infinite symphony of ambience and mood.
The European: What do you say to someone who argues thus: Demographic change and the end of the industrial age have made the welfare state financially unsustainable. We cannot expect to cut down on our debt without fundamentally reducing welfare costs in the long run.
Stiglitz: That is absurd. The question of social protection does not have to do with the structure of production. It has to do with social cohesion or solidarity. That is why I am also very critical of Draghi’s argument at the European Central Bank that social protection has to be undone. There are no grounds upon which to base that argument. The countries that are doing very well in Europe are the Scandinavian countries. Denmark is different from Sweden, Sweden is different from Norway – but they all have strong social protection and they are all growing. The argument that the response to the current crisis has to be a lessening of social protection is really an argument by the 1%
After all the doom and gloom of the above, you need to check out the uplifting history of bicycle transportation in the Netherlands which explains how the Dutch got their cycle paths.