Economics is not a STEM field

Author: Steve Kates

So the US economy is expanding at a 4.1% annual rate and is experiencing a tightening labour market and possibly even rising real wages. That the American economy under PDT would shed the shackles left by eight years of Obama mismanagement and the inept oversight of GWB was as straightforward as anything I could have imagined although never a certainty given all the unknowns that surround every economy all the time. A supply-side approach, in which the government removes regulations and does not try to spend its way to recovery, is the formula that has worked time and again: see, for example, the spectacular Costello recovery of 1996-98 which was driven by massive cuts to public spending and an entrepreneurial-focused policy framework. No Keynesian at the time had expected it – Treasury begged Costello to reverse his policies! – nor have I ever heard a Keynesian who could explain it. In the midst of the Asian Financial Crisis as well, just to show how difficult it is to find an explanation within modern economic theory for what everyone witnessed but no modern macroeconomist could explain. Which brings me to this.

Steve Hayward, who I usually agree with, has written on Universities: Euthanasia or Suicide in which he discusses how economics is turning itself into a STEM field rather than an area of the humanities, which he thinks of as a good thing. It is already a near useless field of study the way it is presently taught, but economics as physics is its absolute end as a useful empirical science if the aim is to understand how we can best provision ourselves. Nothing will leave economics with less penetration and use than to ship it off to the mathematical side of academic studies. Nothing is more likely to help us find a way to a Venezuelan future. There are numbers in economics, of course, and statistics, but to turn economic theory into nothing but a series of highly abstract mathematical models will ensure that virtually nothing found in an economics journal will provide practical solutions to actual problems related to the world. Once economics dealt with problems, and thought through to solutions, but economics-as-physics is the Death Star for the subject.

Here are a few of the commenters who seem to get it:

Don’ t economics departments want to do this to attract more federal dollars for STEM? Not a good sign. About 30 or so years ago, UVA’s economics department kicked out Buchanan and Coase to go more in the econometrics route. (Paul Craig Roberts wrote about this.) The economics department at my undergraduate university came to be dominated by Marxists. In short, the revolution is corrupting econ departments too.

STEM disciplines are evidence-based. Evidence overwhelmingly shows that Marxism does not work. If an econ department has not ejected all of its Marxists, it should not be allowed to work this dodge.

If Econ is a STEM field, does that mean that Econ Profs can’t point to Venezuela as an example of the success of socialism? Unless they can prove it?

I got a BA in History with a minor in Economics. Although I have had a life long love of history, some of my more enjoyable undergraduate classes were economics. My conversations with recent History and Economic graduates make me wonder if they really got degrees in those fields at all. Their ignorance of even the basics is truly astounding.

Economists almost killed off the history of economic thought and may still do it. For an account of this disastrous venture into academic suicide, see my Defending the History of Economic Thought. Marxists and socialists generally can do maths as well as anyone. But it is a rare temperament who can do economics, and understanding Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill does not require maths and stats. The more mathematical and models-oriented economics becomes the more it will prevent anyone from understanding how an economy actually works.

Steve Kates was the Chief Economist for the Australian Chamber of Commerce for 24 years and a Commissioner on the Productivity Commission. He is now associate professor of economics in the College of Business at RMIT University in Melbourne.

This article was originally published at Catallaxy Files.

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1 Comment on "Economics is not a STEM field"

  1. Andre Human | 04/08/2018 at 9:29 am |

    Thanks for your sobering thoughts Steve; hopefully policy-makers will also wake up to this. My observation of economics (and I am a chemical engineer) is that there are conflicting expert-views; which only differ in philosophical ways. It is in the field of humanities that it all comes together. This is seen in simple instances where unintended consequences are either anticipated or not; such as whether baby-bonuses only assist young parents, or actually also leads to increased birthrates.

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