DRI-184 for week of 5-31-15: Why is Economic Theory MIA Amidst Humanity’s Biggest Innovation Boom?

An Access Advertising EconBrief: 

Why is Economic Theory MIA Amidst Humanity’s Biggest Innovation Boom?

It is obvious even to casual observers that humanity has experienced an unprecedented boom in technological improvements in recent decades. Apparently even greater advances lie in store, although some contrarians insist that the best is behind us. We might expect to find economists in the thick of all this – spotting trends, lauding entrepreneurs and listing the factors responsible for their success, toting up the gains in real income, output and wealth, applauding the effects on rich and poor alike and approving the nosediving rate of world poverty.

Those expectations would be disappointed, at least by a perusal of mainstream sources. True, there are periodic ex cathedra pronouncements by stray economists on these matters. Scattered foundations, think tanks and institutes devoted to entrepreneurship pop up. The continuing popularity of the late maverick economist Joseph Schumpeter ensures that the subject of innovative entrepreneurship does not fade entirely from the public consciousness or the minds of economists. But the leading professional journals in economics, such as The American Economic Review and the Journal of Political Economy, remain preoccupied with the perennial concerns of the profession. And those do not include the topics of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Why not? What have critics of mainstream theory suggested to improve matters? Those are the subjects of this EconBrief. Next week we will see how non-traditional economic theory can improve our understanding of revolutionary technological innovation.

The Wrong Turns in Economic Theory

In the 1870s, economic theory underwent a revolution. Prior to that time, a vital element was missing from economics. Its theory of value was defective. The Classical Economists believed that the value of economic goods depended on the objective cost of the inputs that went into their production. They lacked a solid, systematic theory of consumer demand. Beginning in 1871, three different economists – working independently in England, Switzerland and Austria – developed the concept of marginal utility, thereby laying the foundation for the modern theory of consumer demand. This Marginal Revolution presaged the Laws of Supply and Demand and the famous diagram depicting equilibrium price formation via the junction of the supply and demand curves. (The diagram was dubbed the “Marshallian Cross,” after the great English economist who popularized it, Alfred Marshall.)

One of the original three founders of marginal utility, Leon Walras, was also the modern developer of mathematical economics. Walras believed that the most concise and precise means of depicting economic relationships was by expressing them in mathematical form. He envisioned an economy as a mathematical model consisting of supply-curve equations for all goods and demand-curve equations for all consumers. He stated that such a system of equations could be solved simultaneously – that is, algebraically – to yield an equilibrium solution. That equilibrium would be one in which the quantity of each good chosen by all consumers and the quantity supplied by all producers would be identical. Eighty years later, two economists proved Walras’s conjecture correct and later received a Nobel Price for their efforts.

Walras believed that his procedure was more scientific than that followed heretofore by economists because it imitated the procedures of the physical sciences like biology, chemistry and astronomy. Despite his scientific pretensions, he also believed that economists could never hope to actually formulate a full set of general equilibrium equations in which actual coefficients were calculated for the variables. As the years went on, Walras’s mathematical approach gained steadily in popularity, but economists inherited none of his realism. Meanwhile, the canons of statistical inference developed by the English mathematical statistician Ronald Fisher also gained favor and were applied to the social science of economics as well as to the natural sciences. After World War II, economists increasingly practiced their craft by developing a mathematical model to express a theoretical hypothesis and using statistical methods to “test” its validity and quantitative boundaries.

This modus operandi seduced the economics profession en masse. In view of its disastrous effects, we might well ponder why this research agenda proved so irresistible. First, it provided a made-to-order research agenda to justify diverting attention away from instruction. Second, it provided an apparently objective standard by which to evaluate faculty for tenure and later promotion. This, in turn, allowed administrators to press graduate students and non-tenured adjunct faculty into service as cut-price teachers of the undergraduate curriculum while the faculty did research and earned money from consulting contracts. It turned economics departments of public universities into sausage factories for producing research studies for academic journals. This made politicians and bureaucrats happy because it gave them several excellent excuses for spending more money – “investing” in research, democratizing higher education by loaning money to students in an effort to create “universal” higher education. (“Universal service” and “affordability” are the two leading political excuses for redistributive spending.) The face that this “research” was completely worthless to everybody except economists meant that the public wouldn’t poke its nose too deeply into the process – which suited everybody involved.

Indeed, the output of this research agenda turned out to be of little value even within the economics profession. The fact that a mathematical model is “precise” and “rigorous” means nothing in itself. The question is: Can the mathematical models of economists capture human action sufficiently well to be of practical use? In the mid-1990s, the noted economists Deirdre McCloskey and Steven Ziliak discovered that economists (and many other scientists) had been misusing the statistical tools of Fisher, et al for years, thereby vitiating the empirical as well as the theoretical basis of most economic research.

Mathematics and statistics work well in the natural sciences because the phenomena are under study in controlled circumstances, which enables the staging of meaningful experiments. This permits the finding of empirical regularities or laws in the natural sciences. But human action, unlike that of inanimate objects and simple life forms, is both purposeful and full of complexity and ambiguity. Moreover, economic life is ordinarily not subject to controlled experimentation. Consequently, the practical results of the economic research model using mathematical models and statistical testing have been hugely disappointing.

The model still lingers on because it is so convenient for the people whose preferences matter most in universities; namely, government, administrators and faculty. The people badly served – undergraduate and graduate students – are the lowest forms of animal life in the university setting.

It is highly interesting to observe that this outcome is directly counter to the very logic taught by economics. Consumption is the end-in-view behind all economic activity. This includes university study and research. Thus, economic logic counsels removing universities from the aegis of government and subjecting them to market competition by abolishing tenure, privatizing research funding and separating the functions of teaching and research. Unfortunately, the two vested interests who have the most to lose from this change in approach, faculty and administrators, are the ones most powerfully in control of the present system.

If You’re So Smart, Why Ain’t You Rich? 

Inevitably, some readers will disagree with the foregoing, perhaps even find it outrageous. The dissenters should ask themselves what the distinguished economic historian and statistician Donald (now Deirdre) McCloskey called “the American question:” If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” Here, the “you” are economists who devise theoretical models for stock and options prices, bond prices, GDP and interest rates. If those models really work – if they are statistically “robust” – why haven’t economists become rich as Croesus from using them to predict the future course of financial markets? For that matter, why were economists generously willing to publish their results for the world to see rather than jealously hoarding them as a source of income?

Most people couldn’t care less whether economist themselves make money from their work, but they are passionately convinced that government should somehow “regulate” the economy to make good things happen for them and prevent bad things from happening. Where did governments, which have existed for thousands of years of human history in myriad forms, suddenly acquire this mystical power to control human behavior and steer the course of future events?

Well, if the alleged control relates to the so-called “macro economy,” it clearly dates back to 1936 and the publication of John Maynard Keynes’ famous treatise on employment, interest and money. Here, the version of the American question relates to policy: Why hasn’t Keynesian economics worked as advertised? After forty years of the most intensive research ever expended on a scientific topic and forty more years of attempts to modify Keynesian theory and put it into practice, the world finds itself perched on a financial precipice.

Then then there are those who apply the term “regulation” in an administrative sense to individual industry sectors, or even to individual firms. In this case, the “American question” should be modified to “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you running the business?” Agency regulation is such a nebulous concept that any attempt to criticize it allows proponents to slide out from under by changing the terms of the argument. But proponents cannot be permitted this luxury; regulation must have some definite purpose. And in practice, government regulation of business fails every test known to mortal man. The things that most people claim they want from regulation are precisely the things that can only be supplied by market completion rather than by regulation. Regulation is not a supplement or corrective to competition; it is an inferior substitute for it.

This failure of economic theory is particularly important because it drags the research model down to failure along with it. The majority of academic economists are left-wing in political orientation. (After all, they work for government.) In practice, their theoretical model and statistical tests have been designed to demonstrate the failure of free markets and the need for government intervention to produce an optimal result. The optimal result is the one that would obtain if private markets worked perfectly. Since they don’t, so runs the academic party line, we need government intervention and regulation to correct the market failures.

But real life has overtaken the academic research model. It is free markets, not government- controlled ones, that deliver the goods. This is still another argument for junking the current research model. It’s hard to do good research starting with a bad economic theory.

The Nitty-Gritty: Where Does Mainstream Economic Theory Go Wrong?

We have said that the mathematical model seduces economists into wrongly specifying their theoretical models. Exactly what does this mean?

Go back to Walras’s model of supply and demand. He, or rather his successors, assumed that we could model consumer demand as a function of consumers’ incomes, tastes and the prices of substitutes and complements for the good under study. But this implicitly assumes that consumers know all this information. As we all realize, they don’t. Nevertheless, it was long traditional for economists to begin by assuming the existence of “perfect information.” Since people consume not only in the present moment but also save for future consumption, this perfection of knowledge applied to the future as well as the present.

How’s that for an abstract model with no relationship to reality?

The same consideration applies on the supply side of the market, where producers are assumed to know not only every price relevant to the production of their own product – all input prices, the prices of all competing goods and so on – but also all technological facts relevant to production of their product and related products. And that’s not all, folks.

When devising models of general equilibrium, economists long assumed that all firms were “price-takers.” That simply meant that each firm supplied such a miniscule fraction of total market output that its contribution to that output had virtually no effect on the market price. That is, regardless of whether it operated at maximum production or went out of business, the market supply curve didn’t budge enough to change the equilibrium price materially. Therefore each firm took the market price as a parameter and treated the quantity it supplied as its only decision variable.

What about the quality of the good it produced? That led to still another simplifying assumption. Since “quality” was a variable that seemed to defy quantification, economists at first sought to treat the output of all firms as homogeneous – thereby removing product quality from discussion.

At this point, readers are probably experiencing the same mixture of disillusion and disbelief that hits college freshmen and sophomores when they are exposed to the economic concept of “perfect competition” for the first time. “What planet do economists live on” is a representative specimen of the thoughts running through student heads at this moment.

As a temporary venture in devil’s advocacy, it is worth noting that an individual farmer operating in certain industries may meet some of these criteria. It is not too big a stretch to treat a particular variety of (say) wheat as a homogeneous good and it is definitely no stretch to treat the output of (say) one family farmer as an insignificant fraction of industry output. But even this kind of partial correspondence between model and reality is the exception, not the rule.

Over the decades, economists have modified the stringent assumptions listed above in various ways. But these modifications have been minor in their practical consequences. Instead of assuming perfect knowledge, for example, economists assumed that market participants possessed probability distributions about the outcome of future events or the existence of certain kinds of information. This minor concession didn’t add much value to their models. If I can play blackjack using the “card-counting” technique, this shifts the odds slightly in my favor. I will always win in the long run, assuming that my initial stake is big enough to withstand any runs of bad luck and I can play “forever.” Unfortunately, most economic decisions do not offer even this probabilistic level of certainty, let alone the perfect information available in the less sophisticated version of economic theory. (And in real life, blackjack doesn’t either; the casinos will ban me if they catch me card-counting.)

Economists introduced even more modifications on the supply side of markets. Beginning in the 1930s, they began to contemplate alternatives in between the polar opposites of perfectly competitive markets and pure monopoly. But these alternatives, such as product differentiation and strategic interaction among a small number of large firms, were so slow to catch on that economists became habituated to focusing only on the equilibrium outcomes of markets and not on market processes. This meant that even when more sophisticated models began utilizing game theory and other non-traditional approaches, their focus was still directed away from entrepreneurship and innovation.

The Effects on the Study of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

The esoteric assumptions behind mainstream, traditional economic theory have backed that theory into a corner. Economists came to depend on the research model behind the theory for their livelihood. This gave them an underlying, unconscious identification with its biases and conclusions.

When Alfred Marshall first promoted his supply-demand Marshallian Cross, he viewed it as a valuable teaching tool for educating the masses. But economists became so obsessed with the concept of equilibrium that it became the primary focus of every theoretical model. The conditions necessary for equilibrium and the conditions prevailing at the state of equilibrium became the centerpiece of nearly every journal article. Little or nothing was said about the time-path to equilibrium and what might affect it.

The noted economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) prided himself on his personal and professional eccentricity. (He is said to have espoused the goals of being the best horseman in Vienna, the best lover in Europe and the best economist in the world.) In his theory of economic development, he derided the mainstream obsession with equilibrium, perfect competition, perfect information and – most of all – product homogeneity. Schumpeter believed that economic progress was made primarily by firms that created entirely new products. This could come about only as a result of innovation.

But Schumpeter knew that the mainstream world inhabited by his colleagues was hostile to the notion of innovation. In traditional economic theory, perfectly competitive firms were each earning a “normal” profit in long-run equilibrium. That is another way of saying that each firm’s books recorded exactly enough money under the heading “profit” to prevent shareholders from withdrawing their money and investing elsewhere, but not enough to attract the entry of new competitors into the industry. (Another way of putting it would be to say that the firm’s investment earned an amount equal to the best alternative investment of equal risk; e.g., its “opportunity cost” of investment was exactly covered.) In such an environment, an innovator would find that any temporary profits from creating a new product would soon – in principle, instantaneously – be competed away by a horde of imitative firms entering the market. After all, with “perfect information” all relevant information necessary for production would be publicly known.

According to Schumpeter, innovative firms strive not only to erect but to maintain durable monopoly positions in the products they create. The resulting monopoly profits not only reward owners for the risks they take but also bankroll the research necessary to improve their product and create new innovative products. The actual world of imperfect information makes it harder on producers but it also makes it easier to maintain monopoly status once it is attained.

Mainstream economists couldn’t stomach this analysis because they had been preaching (and practicing) a doctrine of enforced competition and government intervention to eradicate monopoly. How could they now praise the monopoly structure that they had made their bones by condemning? (Of course, economists were all-too-willing to relax their standards and overlook monopoly when it was organized and enforced by government itself because they viewed government as the sole economic actor not actuated by self-interest. In effect, economists of Schumpeter’s day were, and remain today, employees of Government R’Us.)

Schumpeter replied to his mainstream colleagues by pointing out that innovating monopolists did face competition even if they were able to exclude direct competitors from their market by (for example) obtaining patent protection for their new products. That competition came from other creative would-be monopolists. After all, the demand for the original monopolist’s product had to come from people shifting purchases from goods being produced by competitive firms. Why wasn’t the monopolist also vulnerable to the same line of attack from other innovators?

For Schumpeter, “competition” was not merely a dull, incremental process of bland, homogeneous products duking it out for tiny shares of a market and a normal profit. He called his model of competition between monopolists “creative destruction,” implying that innovation can occur only by destroying or disrupting the existing order in favor of a new creative equilibrium – which will eventually be toppled by a new innovator. Thus, said Schumpeter, “…competition from the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization… which… strikes not at the margins of the profits and the outputs of the existing firms but at their foundations and their very lives,” is the true explanation behind the superiority of free-market capitalism to other systems. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Schumpeter cited the example of ALCOA, a “monopoly” so notorious that it would soon be convicted under U.S. antitrust laws. Yet between 1890 and 1929, the price it charged for aluminum had fallen by 91% and its output had risen by a factor of 30,000! Schumpeter believed that the company had, in effect, been competing against the threat posed by potential competition.

Schumpeter was the most popular of the economic heretics because his model corresponds much more closely with certain aspects of reality. New products and product heterogeneity are a fact of life. Market uncertainty faces every participant, none more so than the would-be innovator. If injected with truth serum, every economist would be forced to admit that the concept of equilibrium is best conceived as a constantly changing point toward which competitive markets tend, rather than a point of rest actually attained by real-world markets.

The more telling critique of traditional economic theory, though, was made by Schumpeter’s fellow Austrian, F.A. Hayek (1899-1992), from a different theoretical perspective. Hayek pointed out that the term “perfect competition” violates every commonsense precept of the word competition. Under perfect competition, each firm has no sense of any other firm as a rival, hence does not perceive itself as “competing” with anybody. It has no incentive to lower its price for competitive reasons since it can already sell all it produces at the prevailing market price. If it attempted to raise its price arbitrarily, its sales would fall to zero. Every firm produces exactly the same product, so there is no competition on the basis on product quality.

Another simplifying assumption of traditional theory has been that no barriers to entry or exit exist in a “competitive” industry. This absence of barriers was formalized mathematically as costless entry and exit, meaning that the emergence of profits above those available in comparable investments elsewhere would instantly attract new entrants. The additional supply provided by that new entry would lower market price until the supra-normal profits were fully eroded.

What is there left to compete about? Nothing. Each firm selects the rate of output optimal to its situation; that is all. “Price-taking behavior” is the antithesis of “competition” as it is commonly understood. In “The Meaning of Competition” (1946), Hayek observes that the array of simplifying assumptions made by traditional theory assume competitive equilibrium to exist – the process that brings it about it not explained by the theory but merely assumed at the outset. Nowhere does the theory explain how or why information should be so perfect, entry should be so easy, goods should be homogeneous and so many firms should exist.

Hayek found the assumption of “perfect information” especially paradoxical. Assuming that everybody knows everything is really just a way of evading the issue that economists should be making the central issue of their studies; namely, how is information transmitted and acquired in a market economy? We know that people know some of the things that economists assume they know – the question is how they came to know them.

When Hayek broached this issue in a seminal article – “The Use of Knowledge in Society” in 1945 – the fashion among economists was to treat information about prices and goods as “given data.” He wondered to whom the data were “given?” The phrase must have meant “given to the observing economist” rather than actually given to the people who were supposed to possess it, since there was no agency that literally gave people such information. “The data from which the economic calculus starts are never for the whole society ‘given’ to a single mind… and can never be so given.” In fact, no one person or institution possessed it in its totality. It existed only in dispersed, fragmentary form in the minds of many millions (today, read “billions”) of people.

There is only one way for people to acquire the invaluable information they need to participate effectively in a market economy. They get from markets themselves. That is why free markets are a necessary prerequisite for economic prosperity.

In another article (1937’s “Economics and Knowledge”), Hayek illumined the concept of equilibrium even more brightly than did Schumpeter. Rather than treating equilibrium merely by defining it as the correspondence of quantity demanded with quantity supplied in a market or markets, Hayek looked at the human implications of this fact. People order their lives by making plans that guide their behavior. When their individual plan is optimal when juxtaposed with the galaxy of facts at their disposal, the individual is said to be “in equilibrium.” But each individual’s plan is typically made independently of others; all plans need not automatically or necessarily be compatible with each other a priori. A market is said to be in equilibrium when all plans do mesh and are compatible. Thus, the impersonal workings of a free market serve to coordinate the plans of individuals by collating the dispersed information existing in the minds of its participants and using it to reconcile the wants and needs of all.

Writers of economics textbooks have traditionally begun by outlining what they call the Economic Problem. Since the resources necessary to produce economic goods are scarce and have alternative uses, we must allocate them logically in order to best satisfy the infinite wants of consumers. Optimal allocative logic is what textbook writers envision as economic theory.

Hayek redefined the Economic Problem. Because economists themselves do not possess the knowledge that mainstream theory has assumed market participants possess, they cannot “allocate” resources. Neither can government, for the same reason. The knowledge exists only in dispersed form, and the only way to unlock and make use of it is by utilizing markets to collate it and distribute it. That same market process then coordinates the plans of market participants to make them (more) compatible. The true Economic Problem is how to coordinate the plans of individuals by distributing the dispersed information not possessed by any one individual or institution.

We know that free markets perform this function better than government central planning and regulation. For over seventy years, central planning reigned in the Soviet Union. The result was the antithesis of coordination, in which an ordinary citizen might spend as much as six hours per day standing in line or hiring substitutes to do it for him. And the reward was a level of income and wealth equal to a small fraction of that obtainable in free societies without having to stand in line.

The Revised Economic Theory: Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Hayek’s work paved the way for an explicit economic theory of entrepreneurship and innovation, one that not only corrected the errors of mainstream theory but also put the work of Schumpeter in its proper perspective. In this space next week, we will explain how one man – now apparently on the short list for the Nobel Prize in economics – extended and refined Hayek’s analysis.

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