During the last weekend of June, hundreds of students, university lecturers, professors and interested members of the public descended on the halls of University College London to attend the Rethinking Economics conference. They all shared a similar belief: that economics education in most universities had become narrow, insular and detached from the real world.
For a brief period after the financial crisis of 2008, the shortcomings of the economics profession and the way it is taught were recognized. Many economists offered up mea culpas of various kinds and conceded that since they did not foresee the biggest economic event since the Great Depression, there was probably something seriously wrong with the discipline. But as time passed and many economies began to experience gradual, somewhat muted recoveries, the profession regained its confidence.
When I was completing my master’s degree at Kingston University last year, I experienced this firsthand from the more mainstream faculty there. Lecturers offered potted explanations of the crisis using old analytical tools such as supply and demand graphs that cannot incorporate expectations to explain asset price bubbles. The same economists who, just a few years ago, told us that financial markets were the conduits of perfect information began to introduce doublethink phrases in the media such as “rational bubble” (in which investors allegedly act irrationally by bidding up asset prices in full knowledge that prices are heavily inflated but think they can bail out of the market before prices fall) to explain the events of the past few years. There is nothing rational about investors’ acting this way, because they cannot know when the bubble will burst and so cannot time their exit from the market. They cannot know when the herd movement that they are part of will come to an end, so any action that they take to ride the wave will be just as irrational as those of people unaware of the bubble. The entire exercise appeared to be an ad hoc attempt to reinterpret the facts to fit the pet theory — economic agents aware of relevant information act rationally — rather than to alter the theory in light of the facts.
It was difficult not to sense the Soviet-style revisionism that had occurred within the halls of learning: The party had tossed history down the memory hole and introduced a strange, seemingly self-contradictory language that they were busy foisting upon an unwitting public. One Chicago school economist, Ray Ball, argues that the now notorious efficient market hypothesis (EMH), which states that financial markets price in all relevant information, is actually supported by the recent crisis. He argues that the capital flight that led to the bank meltdowns lends support to the EMH because it shows how rapidly financial markets react to new information. But as many will remember, investigations clearly showed that information was not being processed efficiently by market participants in the run-up to the crisis. The most colorful example of this was the Standard & Poor’s employee who, responding to a colleague who said that they should not be rating a mortgage-backed security deal because the estimations of risk were incorrect, said that cows could be estimating the risk of a product and S&P would still rate it.