Voyaging through familiar seas of thought, together

This title is an inversion of what I mistakenly recalled as a very ancient line of poetry from the Roman poet Virgil, but turns out to be by the 19th century English romanticism poet William Wordsworth in his most famous piece of philosophical poetry – The Prelude – and it was about Isaac Newton:


Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind forever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.

My inversion is meant to capture the problem that is a main issue that I plan to blog about and against. This being that most everyone of significance involved in the political and economic debate, over how to organise the macroeconomics of a country, is operating within the ideology of neoliberalism, that the debate is framed and constrained by the neoliberal mindset, to the degree that the questionable assumptions that form it, are not even explicit but so tacitly presumed and presupposed as to render the conception of alternatives, let alone the objective consideration and evaluation of those versus the mainstream, nearly impossible. TINA – There is No Alternative. It is too easy to operate and debate within this groupthink and I think it is also dangerous and harmful to our society to do so. It may well be the some proposals and policies within this framework are preferable to alternatives, but unless one has a more objective and scientific framework to evaluate them all, you have a biased and distorting set of spectacles that can lead you astray or worse. Time to throw these glasses away and get a better prescription!

Luckily we do not need a Newton to overturn and challenge this dominant paradigm. There are many – but not enough – researchers with a range of methods to challenge and overturn this paradigm and to present better alternatives, including showing what “better” means. These, as I mentioned in my introduction, are primarily from the Post Keynesian tradition and present, what I think, is a basis for a true science of economics, getting beyond, what I, deliberately and, yes, pejoratively call, the rational alchemist tradition of neoclassical macroeconomics, that provides the pseudo-scientific backbone of neoliberal politics.

So this is still early days in this blog and these thoughts have led me to update the tagline of this blog from “A UK focused sceptical take on economics, politics, science, ethics etc.” to “working towards a science of economics”. However this blog will still have a UK focus.

Now this is a very significant week in UK politics and economics as Parliament clears the way for Brexit talks. Even with the tagline change, I remain focused on UK issues and this is probably the most important one to discuss the next few years. However to get there I need to outline, in my own words, what the issues with neoliberalism are, in order to develop an explicit framework within which to discuss these issues. Whilst there has been much talk about banks, money and debt, especially since the Global Financial Crisis, wearing neoliberal spectacles makes it very hard to see what is really going on. So my… ahem…focus, for the next few posts, will be to look at the truths and fictions behind banks, money and debt.

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Debugging Economics?

Why am I calling this blog Debugging Economics? After all I am not an economist, so what can I contribute on this field?

Well, whilst I am not committed to this blog title, this reveals what most of my friends would regard as an unfortunate predilection for puns. Anyway it is specifically a play on economist Steve Keen’s blog and book Debunking Economics and he comes out of the Post-Keynesian tradition from which I too will make my positive arguments. I think it works quite well from where I am coming from, since if my diverse background has a common theme, I could say it is a programming approach to many apparently non-programming topics.

For example, applying scepticism on fields which should have but lack scepticism, as an intrinsic constituent, is akin to debugging them, even if, or especially if, the resultant “programs” are not fit for purpose or failures – as much of, say, alternative medicine or religion is. Note that I am unlikely nor currently interested in blogging on those fields.

More generally I have always loved arguments, discussions and debates, ever since I learnt to read. I have probably committed every formal and informal fallacy and made every bad argument you could imagine. And, whenever this has been pointed out, been most likely defensive and initially refused to accept that point. So I have a lot of experience in arguments and don’t like nor want to commit such fallacies and so on, if I can help it. Does this make me better than others? Absolutely not. I would not be so condescending, everyone’s position should ideally be evaluated on the merits of the arguments in question at that time and this includes me. Whatever I know, I know I can still make mistakes. However what makes this paragraph pertinent to the theme of this post, is that in many scenarios I end up just debugging someone’s arguments – at least that is how I think of it. For sure, it is easier to do so when you disagree with someone’s conclusions but it would be a double standard not to apply the same debugging to conclusions that one does support. Whatever conclusion I support I want the best arguments to support them, even if, in such a search, the conclusion becomes untenable, at least I have learnt something!

And this brings me to what will be the main theme of this blog, economics. I think there is a useful confluence of my prior interests that are relevant to studying this field, in particular macroeconomics. And it is best summed up that from those interests, that I have built a debugging toolkit that can most usefully be applied in this field.

I think economics is an incredibly important topic that from day-to-day, country to country, directly and indirectly, affects policy analysis and recommendations that can beneficially and adversely affect the well-being and lives of many people.

What I have found disturbing is that I have found it easier to study to a reasonable informed depth (I would like to think anyway) quantum physics, cosmology, theoretical biology, quantitive finance, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, ethics, philosophy of science, non-linear dynamic models and artificial intelligence than mainstream macroeconomics! It is only when I looked at mainstream macro as a pseudo-science that I started grokking this topic to my satisfaction. It is disturbing that if it is a pseudo-science, it is the most complex, insidious and damaging one that currently afflicts us. Even if not – this might just be a motivator for me but not a specific theme I will argue for – given its far-reaching effects over many, who do not and maybe do or do not want to understand it, it could certainly benefit from being debugged!

On a positive note I have found the better arguments coming from the Post-Keynesian traditions, appealing more to my ideas of how science is really practised than the mainstream and other alternatives such as, say, Marxism or Austrian economics. So I will not just attempt to debug mainstream arguments but also attempt to offer more theoretically sound and empirically grounded better alternatives.

I am not interested in re-inventing the wheel, there is no point in repeating claims and theories better made by others and will highlight them as appropriate. Sometimes I will need to make these arguments in my own words just to ensure I have really understood them, in others a critical analysis of positions I agree with might be the most edifying approach. One aspect I do wish to explore is to adumbrate otherwise obtuse issues in a way that is comprehensible to those who have the interest but lack the time or skill to understand them. Again there are many who have written for such an audience and I will highlight those as needed too.

I will primarily focus mostly on UK-based issues both politically and economically and bring to bear and apply what I have discovered to such UK issues that I think are currently being under scrutinised. I am posting this introduction just after the latest UK Budget statement and it pains me that I do not have the time yet to perform a debugging of that statement. I have spent some time looking and recreating some of the Office of Budget Responsibility’s models but that work is incomplete. Hopefully next year or sooner, if there is an Autumn Statement.

To finish this introduction and sum up, I want to make my small contribution to making the world a better place and debugging mainstream macro economics I think is the most appropriate way for me to do this at present. Lets see.