Old economics is based on false ‘laws of physics’ – new economics can save us

KAte Raworth has written this new bookDoughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist.

In this piece she says what is wrong with current economics (Physics envy) and suggestions to improve the subject.

In the 1870s, a handful of aspiring economists hoped to make economics a science as reputable as physics. Awed by Newton’s insights on the physical laws of motion – laws that so elegantly describe the trajectory of falling apples and orbiting moons – they sought to create an economic theory that matched his legacy. And so pioneering economists such as William Stanley Jevons and Léon Walras drew their diagrams in clear imitation of Newton’s style and, inspired by the way that gravity pulls a falling object to rest, wrote enthusiastically of the role played by market forces and mechanisms in pulling an economy into equilibrium.

Their mechanical metaphor sounds authoritative, but it was ill-chosen from the start – a fact that has been widely acknowledged since the astonishing fragility and contagion of global financial markets was exposed by the 2008 crash.

The most pernicious legacy of this fake physics has been to entice generations of economists into a misguided search for economic laws of motion that dictate the path of development. People and money are not as obedient as gravity, so no such laws exist. Yet their false discoveries have been used to justify growth-first policymaking.

She discusses Kuznets curve and Environment Kuznets Curve:

In 1955, the economist Simon Kuznets thought he had found such a law of motion, one that determined the path of income inequality in a growing economy. The scant data that he could gather together seemed to suggest that, as a nation’s GDP grows, inequality first rises, then levels off, and ultimately starts to fall. Despite Kuznets’ explicit warnings that his work was 5% empirical, 95% speculation and “some of it possibly tainted by wishful thinking”, his findings were soon touted as an economic law of motion, immortalized as “the Kuznets Curve”– resembling an upside-down U on the page – and has been taught to every economics student for the past half century.

As for the curve’s message? When it comes to inequality, it has to get worse before it can get better, and more growth will make it better. And so the Kuznets Curve became a perfect justification for trickle-down economics and for enduring austerity today in the pursuit of making everyone better off some day.

Forty years later, in the 1990s, economists Gene Grossman and Alan Krueger thought they too had found an economic law of motion, this time about pollution. And it appeared to follow the very same trajectory as Kuznets’ curve on inequality: first rising then falling as the economy grows. Despite the familiar caveats that the data were incomplete, and available for local air and water pollutants only, their findings were quickly labeled the “Environmental Kuznets Curve”. And the message? When it comes to pollution, it has to get worse before it can get better and – guess what – more growth will make it better. Like a well-trained child, growth will apparently clean up after itself.

Except it doesn’t. If we have learned one thing from the emergent crises of recent decades – from the tipping points of climate change and the rise of the 1% to the near-collapse of financial markets – it is that it’s time for economics to ditch the fake physics. Thanks to more and better data, it has become clear that such economic laws of motion simply don’t exist. Far from being a necessary phase of development, extreme inequality and environmental degradation are the result of policy choices, and these choices can be changed. In the place of laws to be obeyed, there are design decisions to be made.

She says an economist should move away from being an engineer to a gardener. Someone who goes out in the economic garden, observes things:

So if the economy is not best thought of as a mechanism that returns to equilibrium and follows fixed laws of motion, how should we think of it? Like the living world: it’s complex, dynamic and ever-evolving. And for economists, that means it’s time for a metaphorical career change: from engineer to gardener. Let’s take off the hard hat and give up on reaching for the economy’s control levers because they simply don’t exist. Instead, put on some gardening gloves, pick up a pair of secateurs, and start to steward the economic garden. And if you think that sounds laissez faire, then you’ve never done a hard day’s work in the garden: it calls for getting stuck in, digging, pruning, weeding and watering the plants as they grow and mature.

How can economic gardeners help to create a thriving economy, one that is inclusive and sustainable and will help to achieve the sustainable development goals? By following two core principles: make it regenerative and distributive by design.


Should read the book. Is another attack on the economics bastion..


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