Book Review: How Economics Professors Can Stop Failing Us

Prof Samuel Bostaph (University of Dallas) reviews this hard-hitting book: How Economics Professors Can Stop Failing Us: The Discipline at a Crossroads bSteven Payson.

The book says:

This book provides an eye-opening exposé on economics professors that will surely shock anyone who is not familiar with the topic, and even some of those who are familiar with it. It is critical of the behavior of economics professors, but is not critical of the field of economics itself. In fact, the book argues that it is essential for economics professors to improve in the work they perform, precisely because of the vital importance of their field.

Other books that criticize economics professors typically present complex arguments that interest only the most advanced scholars. However, this book is completely different. It is written to be understandable to anyone who has with an interest in economics, regardless of their background. At the same time, the book does include the most relevant scholarly arguments—it just presents them in a manner that allows anyone to understand them.

Also unlike other books on economics, How Economics Professors Can Stop Failing Us is written in the context of a genuine exposé. As such, it ventures “backstage” behind the “show business” that has dominated the profession, revealing the profession’s deep, dark, (and at times rather ugly) secrets. The book is able to do this by having an author who has experienced first- hand, studied, and written on this topic area for over three decades, who has organized training seminars on it, and who has served for over a decade as the Executive Director of the Association for Integrity and Responsible Leadership in Economics.

While exposing the profession’s shameful problems, the book also offers great hope in providing realistic solutions to them. One of the main solutions it proposes is for economics professors who are now failing us to follow, and learn from, those other professors who are not failing us—who have, instead, admirably upheld the principles of professional ethics and scientific integrity. In this sense, How Economics Professors Can Stop Failing Us offers the most hope, and perhaps the only hope, for economics professors to improve, and to play the responsible role that their students, their employers, and society overall, expects of them.

Book review:

Steven Payson, the author of this provocatively title book, is a former career federal government economist who has the temerity to argue that economics could be a useful science if mainstream academic economist theoreticians would simply adopt and employ the scientific method in a serious effort to provide an understanding of the world in which we live. Instead, he convincingly argues, the culture of academic economists encourages and rewards a mathematical modeling onanism that is not only not “seminal,” but is instead practically barren of any contributions to that understanding. Payson argues that the main purpose of such model-building exercises is to achieve publication in what are believed to be the top economics journals and, consequently, to garner citations in the published work of other academic economists.

Because the book is almost totally critical and contains suggestions for improvement only in the concluding chapter, I think a more appropriate title for it might be “Why Mainstream Economics Professors Are Not Contributing to Useful Knowledge, and a Few Suggestions for Improvement.” There is much anger and outrage expressed by the author in the course of his argument, and yet the book is not just a polemic. If Payson’s critique is on the mark, the question of what to do is certainly an important one. Economic policy makers face a host of real world problems and need guidance in the face of them. What they get instead in some important instances is uncomprehending surprise followed by excuses and panic—a prime example being the mainstream economics profession’s response to the financial meltdown now termed “The Great Recession.” The result of that Federal Reserve-fueled debacle was the most simple-minded Keynesian money dump in decades, and with no end in sight at this writing.

The cover of the book features a chessboard showing a simple “fool’s mate.” This seems appropriate as it is Payson’s main contention that mainstream model-building founders quickly when it is realized that most of this activity consists of making a few simple assumptions and then engaging in a rigorous mathematical exercise to “rediscover” them. Other equally defensible assumptions would produce different implications. Little effort is devoted to the rigorous derivation and defense of assumptions, or to assessing the reliability of the data on which they may be based.1 Milton Friedman argued that it was predictability of a model that mattered, not realism in assumptions which need only be “sufficiently good approximations for the purpose at hand.” (p. 64) Too many economists took this to mean that only predictability mattered. Such an approach stands in stark contrast to that of the natural science practice of using the scientific method to achieve an understanding of the objective physical world that contributes to useful knowledge—that is, an “understanding of how the real world works.” (p. 53) Payson’s purpose is to counter the academic economist mainstream by pointing out that its mathematical clothing does not cover its explanatory vacuity.

Here is another review by Christopher May of LSE:

Overall, this is a highly personal book, which is in no way meant as a criticism: indeed, the entire text might be read as an implied criticism of the passive-voiced, (pretended) ‘science’ of economics. Payson builds on and develops a range of disparate criticism, some of which I was aware of; some of it not so much. His valuable work is bringing this all together before focusing on the actual agents (the professors) who (re)produce these problems for the profession of economics. At times, the book does nonetheless lapse into a scattergun of criticism, flitting from one topic to another, sometimes without an obvious central argumentative dynamic or considered direction.

In the end, then, this book may be best read in bits, utilising the index to pick those things that most annoy you about your local economics department so as to arm yourself with Payson’s withering criticisms. That the book is focused almost entirely on North American professors should not be taken as indication that all is well on this side of the Atlantic. If, like me, you work in a university with a large (and strident) economics department, but are not of that department, you will find much here to make you smile and frown in recognition. It is clear that it is time to change economics, and Payson is yet one more voice that (hopefully) will make such change inevitable.



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