Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Barbie does economics

Barbie does economics!

The sheer hubris of many in the economics profession never ceases to amaze me. Take for instance a recent paper by Kartik Athreya of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond[1] entitled “Economics is Hard. Don’t let Bloggers Tell You Otherwise”. In a move that is eerily reminiscent of the controversial talking Barbie of the early 1990s who fatefully uttered “Math class is tough”[2], Athreya’s short paper essentially lays out a quite staggering claim :- that economics should be left to those with a PhD in the subject!

Athreya describes himself as “a worker bee chipping away with known tools”. He goes on to say “writers who have not taken a year of PhD coursework in a decent economics department…cannot meaningfully advance the discussion on economic policy”[3]. You’ve got to love the ‘decent’ in that sentence – it reeks of intellectual snobbishness of the highest order.

In fact, Athreya’s ire isn’t limited to what he sees as uninformed debate, he seems to object to anyone who attempts to make the policy issues of the day clear even if they have a PhD. He pejoratively describes both Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong as “Patron saints of the Macroeconomic Policy is Easy” movement.

He argues that we won’t expect particularly informed discussion on the causes, consequences and treatments for cancer from non-Oncology specialists, so why we would we expect non-specialists to offer any useful debate on economics.

However, the analogy is false. Modern medicine is based on scientific principles and follows an evidence based approach. Even then some estimate that the majority of published findings in medical journals are false[4]!

Economics starts from a far worse place. It isn’t a science, and often seems more interested in twisting the facts to fit a theory rather than the other way around. In fact, as Nassim Taleb has pointed out, economics is more akin to medieval medicine than its current practice, “Medicine used to kill more patients than it saved – just as financial economics endangers the system by creating, not reducing, risk.[5]

The idea that what we need is more ‘worker bees’ gaining their PhD’s from conducting ‘angels on a pin head’ like work based on minor alterations to previous research makes me want to cry. Where were the warnings from the orthodox economics establishment ahead of the global financial crisis? Oh, that’s right there weren’t any.

Indeed many of those who warned of the problems ahead did so because they weren’t constrained by the kind of training that an economics PhD suffers. I did my own training in economics a long time ago now, it included a fair amount of equation bending but I was incredibly fortunate that it included generalist topics such as Marxian and post-Keynesian economics, subjects that are oddly absent from the vast majority of syllabi.

In many ways economics as it exists today is largely a victim of learned helplessness - a phenomenon was first documented by Martin Seligman in the 1960s. He was working with dogs (dog lovers look away now) and studying conditioning when he came across something interesting. Seligman was subjecting pairs of dogs to nondamaging but painful electric shocks. However, in each pair of dogs one animal could put an end to the shock by simply pressing the side panels of its container with its head. The other dog was unable to turn off the shock. The electricity was synchronized, starting at the same point for both dogs, and obviously ending when the dog with the control turned off the power.

This gave the each of the pairs of dogs a very different experience. One experienced the pain as controllable, while the other did not. The dogs which had no control soon began to cower and whine (signs of doggy depression) even after the sessions had stopped. The dogs which could control the shocks showed no signs of this behaviour.

In the second phase of the experiments dogs were placed in box with a low wall separating the container into two. One side (the side on which the dog started) was electrified. To avoid the pain the dog simply had to jump the low wall. The dogs which had controlled the shocks in the first round quickly learned to jump the wall. However, the around two-thirds of the dogs who had no control in the first round, simply laid down and suffered the pain, they had learned to become helpless.

Modern day economics is much like these poor animals. Many economists have learnt to become helpless. They would rather lay down and whimper and whine about how unfair the world is, and mutter that everything would be alright if only people behaved like their models, than seek to look outside the narrow confines of their obsession with rationality and mathematics to see if others might just have some useful insight.

The age of the specialist (people who learn more and more about less and less, until they know absolutely everything about nothing) has proved to have some fundamental flaws. Three cheers for the generalists!

[2] For more on the weird and wonderful versions of Barbie that have graced the shelves over the years see
[3] Atherya does have the sense to point out “Taken literally, I am almost certainly wrong.”
[4] John Ioannidis (2005) Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Med 2(8): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124
[5] Taleb (2007) The pseudo science hurting markets, Financial Times, 23 October 2007


Unknown said...

welcome back. and an excellent article to start with. thanks for pointing out the benefits of a wide variety of opinions rather than the single-mindedness of the "select few" at the Federal Reserve

Dataman said...

The difference between a construction worker and an interior designer lies in the fact that whereas the former is engaged in the minutiae of 'how to frame', the latter sees the whole and serves as the interface with the rest of the world. The construction worker always considers the designer to be somewhat incompetent. The world pays the designer a lot more.

Athreya is like the construction worker. His research is very focused on minutiae and presumably he is in a manner of speaking a competent 'framer' (get it - 'frame' it so you can test it). He cannot see that unless it is intelligible to the rest of the world he is himself of limited utility.
Finally, we should be suspicious of the admonition to leave things to experts - where do we draw the line?

BBL Jr said...

Thank you for this article. As a non PHD non-economist working as a macro strategist I may put this on a plaque.
Also welcome back you have been missed.

Anonymous said...

You are precisely the kind of uneducated moron he is complaining about. Go back to wherever you were hiding and leave thinking to people better at it.

Dave said...

Good observations...implicit in what you said, but worthy of articulating I think, is the reality that this is a self-perpetuating phenomenon: bad theory is institutionalized and then bad institutions create a self-reinforcing "community" of economists out there using the same broken tools.

Biggest challenge we face at this point that I have seen no good solution to yet is though: now that we have debunked much of economic theory if not all of modern finance theory, how should we figure out what to do next as investors?

Curious to read more of your stuff.

gunny57 said...

Thanks for the article...the moron is Athreya, of course, and the "who watches the watchers then..." of the Latins comes to mind. But what makes him a total moron, is that there is, out there, a full school of economists who predicted what would have happened, with good scientific and math basis....and wasn't listened because they didn't belong to the orthodoxy. Steve Keen, at Western Sidney University is an example:

His work is testament that there are some good scientists out there...if you can filter them out morons like Athreya or idiots like the previous anonimous poster.

Frank Ashe said...

It was interesting to see how quickly Arthreya's paper disappeared after it was first posted.

I was gobsmacked to see him talk about Fallacy of composition and economic feedback, when the favourite model for analysing monetary policy is a DSGE (Barbie, this is really hard maths)that is not guaranteed to be stock-flow consistent in M0! Scary stuff.

thomas said...

Great post. In grad school economics (not PhD, so I guess I'm not really entitled to an opinion), we started off the semester with a class called "why didn't anyone see the credit crisis coming."

I politely pointed out that Peter Schiff, Nouriel Roubini and Marc Faber ("who on earth is that?" )had indeed seen it, but this was dismissed as doubtful and instead we had to read and discuss in detail what Paul Krugman had to say about the problem of dogma in economics, which wasn't very interesting.

Six months later I decided I had wasted enough time by listening to lectures by arrogant and mostly irrelevant academics on mostly useless and unrealistic (but mathematically advanced) models, and dropped out and instead started working as an analyst for an investment company. I never got to the DSGE models in much detail unfortunately, so I guess I'm doomed to failure. Oh well.

Thankfully, there are voices like Mr Montier out there. Looking forward to the enxt post.


Anonymous said...

Glad to see you back! "Trust us, we're experts" is one of my very favorite arguments. It's pretty much only trotted out when people are lying to me, or at the very least, don't understand what they are saying well enough to explain it rationally.

But then again, I got disenchanted with economics and quit short of a PhD, so I suppose I can't have an opinion.

Pablo said...

Has anyone read "Progress and Poverty" or "The Science of Political Economy" by Henry George?

If you have then you know that good reasoning and not PHD status is what makes a good economist.

Rahul Deodhar said...

Sense is short in supply and is currently under threat of being swamped by limitless supply of gibberish. Good to have you back.

Grand Supercycle said...

More people should use technical analysis in my opinion as it's a leading indicator and tells us where the economy is headed.

In early 2007 I warned of an impending stockmarket crash.

The equity global uptrend since March 2009 was a bear market rally contained within a much larger downtrend that started in 2000.

The proprietary indicators I use in my technical analysis can identify trend changes before they occur.

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Casual Businessman said...

So great to read your thoughts. This topic was also of interest to the not as infamous Falkenstein:

Here's to hoping more people index and avoid equities so I can buy cheap and create alpha!

RandomFundamentalist said...

Any chance we can get a "subscribe" button for this blog? I haven't found one here, and would like to earmark it. Thanks for your work!

Anonymous said...

To RandomFundamentalist:
Here's the link

Marcelo Zinn said...

I have always considered economists to be like narrators. Some are good like Jeremy Grantham (the equivalent of Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption), while others are not so good (too many to list). Narrators, like economists are never any good at telling you what will happen, only good at explaining what already passed.

However, I believe having a solid understanding of economics to be extremely beneficial, but mostly to understand behavioral finance (plug).

Warren Buffett, Seth Klarman and others simply ignore economic predictions altogether. I'm certain we would all be better off if we did the same.

By the way, glad to have you back......

Anonymous said...

"Ahhh, the anonymous coward troll post."

You are so very clever and smart and good-looking. It is a pity you know so little.

Anonymous said...

"James, do yourself a big favor and ban these idiots before they become a drain on your time and psyche . . ."

Oh no, I might not be able to contribute to the obvious deep thinking and intelligent discourse found here! It is a wonder the world has survived with such intellectual power hidden so deep in the bowels of the blogosphere. Please, please, dear Ritshit, tell me what to do to be permitted access to such luminaries!

Jonathan Smith said...

Glad you're back. You are generous in wisdom and that casts light in dark corners and encourages others to be more generous. (Have you ever noticed how wise persons are the often the most generous?)

My Dad got his Ph.D., not in econ but in forestry, thank goodness. I was seven when he set out; took him fourteen years. He never let the Ph.D. go to his head and took academia with a grain of salt, "Jonathan," he said, "All in the world Ph.D. means is Piled Higher and Deeper.”

Deborah said...

One thing I would truly like to see is people have more advanced math. One place where I see people falling short in their understanding and beliefs is often because of limited math skills.

As for Economic degrees, I think we have a lot of wrong thinking because of economic degrees. There are different schools of thought in economics and right now the wrong school has too much influence.

Anonymous said...

"Jonathan," he said, "All in the world Ph.D. means is Piled Higher and Deeper.”

Wow, that is so original. How ever did he come up with that?

Anonymous said...

Experts invented sub prime.

Its doesnt take a complicated arguemnt to observe interlectuals continue to make mistakes like anyone else just in a more elitist, clever and less easily understood ways

'Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon'
Peter Lynch

Charles Mingus
Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity.

Albert Einstein
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

The heart of any great idea in any field is total simplicity and yet humans always have the ability for stupidity no matter how well educated

Leo Sands said...

I do not intend to give offense to the PhDs of economics.

Nowadays' economics is very different from that in 60s-70s.

Besides complex model building, how much time do the PhDs use in observing or even investigating the real world by themselves? Do you go into the real world and feel? Do they explain the everyday phenomena of our society and economy that we are mostly concerned?

Economics is about people's activities!

A good economist would be a good detective, observer and listener.

We need economists who can explain the economic phenomena to us in plain words.

Some bloggers may give us more insights as they stand more closely to the real people in the real world.

Anonymous said...

A Generalist is someone who learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything whereas a Specialist is someone who learns more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. Take your pick.

nick gogerty said...

you may be interested in this acadamic paper: "why most published findings are false."

I put it up in the linkedin Black Swan group on risk. For those qualified and interested, the group covers systemic, behavioural and institutional issues which lead to "normal accidents"

Anonymous said...

The only problem is that he forgot Naomi Klein in his list of charlatans. You people are a collective joke.

dead hobo said...

I originally wrote this on The Big Picture but just now had the brilliant idea to post it here.
I’ve bookmarked this site. It looks pretty good.

I have to disagree with your conclusion about economists learning to fail and preferring to remain as professional failures as a result of their failure training.

I think they may have simply redefined the word and do not consider themselves to be failures as long as someone is paying them for their conclusions. In other words, there’s ‘economics’ as defined by the textbooks and there is ‘economics’ as defined by all the idiots who consistently get things wrong.

The real question is “Has economics been redefined by the current group of idiots who claim to be professional economists?” OR “is economics the same as it has always been and the current group of idiots simply do what they are paid to do and CALL IT economics?”

There is also the possibility that Economics really doesn’t exist. Rather, it’s just a convenient excuse to manipulate others into doing something. And the “Science of Economics” is used as cover for the bullshit reason that was devised to elicit the desired behavior.

I haven’t yet figured out what the Fed does (as opposed to what the texts say they do) so they are excluded from the above questions.

To me, economics is all about getting money from those who have it so that someone else can have it for a while. Everything else is qualification, excuse, misdirection, salesmanship, heart wrenching sad stories (some of which might be true), and the like.
Study Question

Interested Observer: “Whose economic ideas do you think most highly of?”

Interested Observer: “Whose theory of gravity do you think most highly of?”

Compare and contrast.

Anonymous said...

First, Athreya is a he, not a she. I know this because I used to work with him. This post is further evidence that Athreya is correct. Unqualified politicians, editorialists, and bloggers simply have no business discussing what they do not understand.

Just look at all of the hacks arguing for additional government spending stimulus. It was economists that identified that spending has a much weaker stimulus effect than tax cuts. It was economists that have shown how extending unemployment insurance has INCREASED unemployment. And it was economists that understood that the financial industry needed a massive influx of liquidity during this recession.

I guess it's okay to study Marxist theory if you want to learn what absolutely failed. Otherwise, why waste your time when you could learn what really works in modern economic theory. Hint: It ain't redistribution and it's not government spending.

And why is it that the most egotistical maniacs attack the "arrogance" of Athreya? Comparing someone like say Barry Ritholtz to Athreya is like comparing the lightning bug to the nuclear bomb.

Economics is a social science, not a physical science. So. If you look at the track record of scientists' predictions, then you'll probably see worse performance than for economists using their "less than real" tools. Actually, economists learn rigorous mathematical proofs in order to apply to aggregate real world phenomena, so of course there is going to be some error because not everyone reacts rationally and information is not distributed equally.

Generalists are just like a pitiful dog example: Too busy chasing their tails to exercise the discipline needed to be successful in advanced economics or anything else for that matter.

arnoldsimage said...

welcome back, james. no one has articulated our sad state of affairs better than george did in this 3 minute clip. must watch for all... And he didn't even need a PhD in economics to figure it all out.

Anonymous said...

I agree that modern economics has taken a wrong turn, and that mathematical models tell us nothing about the real world. So if someone wants to know more about the economy, but doesn't want a PhD, what should they do? How have you, and others, honed your craft?

Ian Bright said...

Welcome back. Your absence has been too long.

You obviously touched a raw nerve with the coward anonymous crowd.
I have some sympathy with Dr Athreya’s views to the extent that I often scream at the radio when I hear internally inconsistent analysis – the type of thing Andrew Smithers calls “stockbroker economics”.

Where I part company is lining up against well reasoned arguments from authorities such as Krugman, DeLong and Warren. I didn’t know who Warren was till I googled her.
Here is part of her Wikipedia extract

On April 12, 2010, CNN reported that Warren's was among additional names being considered as Supreme Court nominees to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, however this honor went to Elena Kagan. She is also reportedly being considered by President Obama to be the first Director of the new consumer agency. On May 24, 2010, Time Magazine called Warren, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chairman Sheila Bair, and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro the "New Sheriffs of Wall Street" in a cover story.

Dr Athreya has a research papers on the Richmond Fed website on consumer education and financial literacy ( ). It even has a nod towards behavioural economics and behavioural finance. Why attack (even insult) a person of influence in one of your areas of research unless you substantiate it with reasoned argument?

But there is more. It appears the Richmond Fed has removed the original paper from its site. Understandable perhaps, but surely the authorities at the Richmond Fed should have been aware that the internet era does not allow you recall the arrow that has been shot. Scribd saw to that.

Dr Athreya probably has some useful insights to contribute to the blogosphere debate. Dr Athreya has already put his head above the parapet. Don’t pull back. I look forward to the Athreya blog.

Leo K said...

The urge to trade fascinates me. Essentially all a successful person has to do is acquire a single great asset and stay with it: no need to have 2nd and 3rd-string players when having the only the best is enough. Seems like clients demand action and want the portfolio manager seem busy and have "profound" thoughts on a regular basis. Actually having a single great thesis is supremely difficult: having a duo almost impossible.

Following the World Cup's blatantly biased officiating made me think of how financial markets also operate on a sublime level, unseen to the naked eye. Before the advent of video recording and instant replay, what happened on the pitch was a matter of he said, she said. Now the audience can witness and archive how the events were manipulated to affect the outcome in a predetermined manner. With billions of dollars at stake during the games, there was much more going on than 22 impartial players kicking a ball around the field and a referee.

The casino mentality of financial markets encourages booms and busts as a form of entertainment to keep players supplying money to the house wagering on this equity or that commodity or in cash. One wonders how much of the Greek tragedy was poor planning and how much was a deliberate effort to put them in their "place" by stronger players.

Athreya intentionally wrote an inflammatory article, a la Limbaugh, to spark debate and get individuals to spout their own particular agenda, which did happen. Most of the talk is about personality issues and ignores the central issue of where to deploy assets. Behavioral financing cuts through the background noise of human's emotional need for self-satisfaction by trashing people and focusing instead on asset allocation.

Grice said...

... possibly the most cringingly embarrassing piece of research I've ever read (even if he was slagging off Krugman!)

My favourite case of the experts being wrong was when Marilyn vos Savants gave the (subsequently proven) correct if highly counterintuitive answer to a reader's question on the probabilities underlying the game show "Let's Make a Deal." She received 10,000 irate responses from expert mathematicians, including over 1,000 PhDs. According to Mlodinow, they included one from George Mason:

"As a professional mathematician, I'm very concerned with the general public's lack of mathematical skill. Please help by confessing your error and, in the future, being more careful."

From Dickinson State University:
"I am in shock that after being corrected by at least three mathematicians, you still do not see your mistake"

From Georgetown:
"How many irate mathematicians are needed to change your mind?"

From the US army:
"If all those PhDs are wrong the country would be in serious trouble"

The last one was right, of course ...


Albert E said...

I was incensed when i origninally read your blog and did not trust myself to post a expletive free comment. But what a moron Athreya is. Anyway I see so many old friends posting a comment I just wanted to say hullo!

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Barbie said...

Barbie does economics.. Funny :)

darkmuse said...

Why do you remember about Barbie?? Are you still playing dolls. LOL :D

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