The covid pandemic ought to shake up the field of economics

Kaushik Basu in this Project Syndicate piece (republished in Mint) writes on the need for change in field of economics. He says the crisis has exposed the notion of central role of markets in efficient functioning of the economy

…..a disruption such as the one caused by covid-19 reminds us how much we take for granted. I realized this during the nearly three months I spent in Mumbai during the lockdown, when family and friends told me of conflicts, showdowns and frayed nerves in the city.

Whereas some residents were castigated for not wearing face masks or for violating social-distancing norms, others were criticized for overdoing the lockdown. Some residents’ associations photographed anyone who stepped out of their home, even if they were alone and far away from anyone else, arguing that such behaviour was irresponsible. Because the behavioural requirements brought about by the pandemic are novel and have yet to stabilize, we are more aware of them than we are of longer-established social norms.

Markets also rely on such norms, most of which, having evolved over time and become routine, lie beyond economists’ explicit assumptions. As Karl Polanyi, Mark Granovetter, and others have argued, the economy cannot be understood as though it stands apart from society. Certain social and institutional preconditions must be present for an economy to function effectively. But the economics profession widely overlooked these important reminders, or, at best, put them aside with a nod.

In my book Beyond the Invisible Hand, I argued that trade and exchange depend not only on technical assumptions of which all economists are aware, such as the law of diminishing marginal utility, but also on other conditions that we take for granted. These include being able to trust one another and our ability to communicate, which allows us to negotiate and conclude deals. But no economist writes down “can talk” as an assumption. It is regarded as a given.

So many such pieces were written post-2008 crisis as well. But little changed. Will the current crisis lead to the changes?

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