Sunday, November 25, 2007

Alessandro, Tell Us What You Really Think

Alessandro Roncaglia's The Wealth of Ideas: A History of Economic Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2005) is a work of massive scholarship in the history of economic thought. Roncaglia's assessments are often quite harsh. Here are several examples, which could easily be expanded:
"This [the 'new view'] is an interpretation clearly grounded on the neo-classical theoretical approach, attribution of which to Ricardo implies a thoroughly distorted reading of his writings." (p. 184)
"It is to be stressed that, despite the references to the methodology of general economic equilibrium, quite often the models used to analyze the various cases of asymmetry or imperfect information fall in the category of partial equilibriums. Indeed, without simplifications it is practically impossible to extract meaningful results from the analysis. Use of extremely simplified models in order to deal with specific issues, with recourse to ad hoc assumptions, has indeed been the most common path for research in the past twenty years. Often it is maintained that this provides rigorous microfoundations for the treatment of concrete issues, originally dealt with in conceptual frameworks different from that of general economic equilibrium theory. The outcome, however, is quite different: the attempt to avoid absolute indefiniteness of results imposes opportunistic choices. The most often adopted paths are those of return to partial equilibrium analysis, or to the assumption of a one-commodity world: either analytical rigor or realism is sacrificed. The conclusion is that, despite the efforts expended on it, the research stream of general economic equilibrium did not overcome its basic limits (from the assumptions of convexity recalled above, to the difficulty of excluding multiple equilibriums or instability of equilibrium): it thus remained an abstract exercise, an end in itself, devoid of any utility for understanding the economic systems in which we live. Indeed, reference to the general economic equilibrium approach is often used deviously, on the one hand as a rhetorical trick to enhance the value of models with a low theoretical content, on the other as Caudine Forks for students of advanced economics courses." (p. 474)
"Success of this line of research [new Keynesian economics] is quite difficult to understand: in order to reproduce the notable results of Keynesian analysis within the neoclassical tradition, ad hoc assumptions are introduced, often rather implausible ones, on the sandy theoretical foundations of one-commodity and/or partial equilibrium models with their inverse relationship between real wages and unemployment." (p. 484)
"We thus have, on the one hand, 'lowbrow' economic analyses, which make indiscrimate use of analytical tools whose theoretical foundations have come in for destructive criticism (for instance, the inverse relation between wage rate and employment in macroeconomics) but which pretend to provide 'scientific' economic policy advice on such flimsy foundations. Frequently, policies tricked out in scientific guise actually derive from a priori opinions and may arouse reasonable perplexity on the grounds of plain common sense, while recourse to unnecessarily complex theoretical apparatus is essentially for rhetorical effect. On the other hand, we have 'highbrow' theories, sophisticated exercises within axiomatic schemes based on processes of abstraction that are never subjected to critical scrutiny. The element of pure intellectual challenge is dominant here, but there is a significant cost in terms of lost heuristic power and hence of a meaner market share for economic science in the political and cultural debate." (p. 508)
Obviously, my choice of these examples reflects my interests.

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