Monday, July 9, 2012

Economists have no lock on economic understanding

Many people don't realise the economics we hear from politicians, business people, economists and the media, morning, noon and night, is just one way of analysing how the economy works.

Almost everything we're told about what causes what is inspired by the "neoclassical" model. It's long been by far the dominant way of explaining why things happen and predicting what will happen, but it's not the only way. And it's far from infallible.

This conventional economics reduces all economic activity to that which happens within markets. It further narrows the operation of markets to the setting of prices, assuming movements in relative prices are the primary thing influencing the behaviour of producers and consumers.

It thus abstracts from the role of "institutions" - be they organisations, laws or conventions - in influencing market behaviour, so often leads economists to make policy recommendations that prove seriously misguided.

After the fall of communism, for instance, many economists urged the leaders of the formerly planned economies to switch to market-based economies in one big bang.

Since few people knew how to behave in a market economy, it was a disaster.

Only after economic activity had contracted massively did economists realise it was naive to assume that markets could be created out of thin air.

In the 1990s, the International Monetary Fund urged the emerging economies to open up to the free inflow of foreign capital. The result was the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, when all the foreign capital flowed back out, leaving devastation in its wake.

Only then did economists realise that the developed economies were able to cope with swirling capital flows because of a raft of government-created institutions that had been developed over centuries: well-developed commercial law, with independent courts to enforce contracts; bankruptcy laws to deal with failed businesses; audited financial statements that were roughly believable, and so forth. Developing countries possessed none of these stabilising institutions.

Economic sociologists study the behaviour of markets, but put much emphasis on determining the role of norms of acceptable behaviour. For conventional economists to assume our behaviour in economic situations is heavily influenced by price changes but not by social norms is quite silly.

But for a good example of the way different analytical models can draw different conclusions about the same problem, consider an old economists' favourite: the "tragedy of the commons".

In situations where a piece of land is available for use by different farmers to graze their animals, it's likely to become overused and degraded. Similarly, common fishing areas are likely to be overfished, perhaps to the point where fish disappear. Common logging forests will be overlogged and laid waste.

Although the modern version of this ancient problem, that was used to justify Britain's "enclosure movement" many centuries ago, was first put forward by an ecologist, economists leapt on it with glee. It was clearly a problem of property rights.

Because no one owned the common area, no one had an economic incentive to look after it. Indeed, each individual had an incentive to get in and use as much of it as possible, as quickly as possible, before other individuals used it up.

So what was everyone's property was actually no one's property - and that was the essence of the problem. Many economists thought it obvious that the solution was to allocate private property rights over the commons.

Who they were allocated to, and how they were allocated, didn't matter much. What mattered was that once someone owned the asset, they would have the economic incentive to look after it and prevent its degradation.

In all probability they would continue to make it available to existing users, but at a price. That price would discourage those people from overusing it, while also providing the private owner with both the motive and the means to keep the asset in good repair.

Neat, eh? Of course, there were also some who saw the solution as having the government take over the common property, maintain it and allocate its use on some fair basis.

But there was one obdurate woman who, lacking an economics education, wasn't impressed by the economists' neat analysis of the problem and thought there might be another, better solution - if, indeed, it was a problem.

She was Elinor Ostrom, a professor of political science at Indiana University, who devoted much of her career to combing the world looking for examples where people had developed ways of regulating their use of common resources without resort to either private property rights or government intervention.

As The Economist records, she found forests in Nepal, irrigation systems in Spain, mountain villages in Switzerland and Japan, and fisheries in Maine and Indonesia. In all these cases people drew up sensible rules for sharing the use of the resource and combined to perform regular repairs. People who broke the rules were fined or eventually excluded.

"The schemes were mutual and reciprocal, and many had worked well for centuries," the magazine says.

For her pains, Ostrom, who died last month, was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2009, the first woman so honoured. Few economists had heard of her, or her model-busting work.

Why had this solution to the problem never been considered by economists?

Because of their model's implicit assumption that we only ever act as individuals, never collectively. We compete against each other, but we never co-operate to solve mutual problems.

And, since all the market's benefits come via competition, co-operation by producers is probably an attempt to rig the market, which should be outlawed.

The community pays a high price for allowing one model of how the economy works to dominate the advice we get and the way we think.