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  • Are Professional Economists Idiots?

    Posted by Kevin Villani on January 21st, 2020 (All posts by )

    That’s the view of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Wharton MBA, mathematical finance PhD and author of and .

    Taleb, a libertarian, aims his critique of intellectuals yet idiots (IYI) broadly but particularly at the contemporary economics profession. His targets are those described by :

    “The professional economist is the specialist who is instrumental in designing various measures of government interference with business.”

    The economics profession in the U.S. today is mostly involved in research and education that broadly investigates “market failures” or is directly engaged in public action – regulation, tax, expenditure and off budget guarantees – to manage industries and the macro-economy purportedly in the public interest. This is the opposite of laissez faire economics, political advice to a 17th century French minister to “let it be” later developed into an economic theory by the 18th century philosopher Adam Smith and popularized by 20TH century economist Milton Friedman, a libertarian and cofounder of FFE (and my advisor, twice removed). How and to what end did the economics profession evolve from a philosophy of leaving economic decisions to individuals in the marketplace with few exceptions to public economic management of the United States and global economy?

    From Individual to Collective Economic Decision-making

    Benjamin Franklin, considered the leading intellectual and inventor of the 18th century whose inventions are still in use today, admitted to Harvard at age 12, but instead indentured to his brother’s tannery, advised

    “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”

    That’s his rendering of a Confucian saying dating back thousands of years. Taleb, a Wall Street trader prior to his writing and academic career, echoes Franklin’s emphasis on direct experience, arguing that capitalism isn’t an ideology or system but a set of mutually agreeable arrangements worked out over the centuries through trial and error by market participants who bear the full consequences of their decisions.

    Exiting the Constitutional Convention, Franklin, a great political theorist, when asked whether the Constitution had created a monarchy or republic replied

    “a republic, if you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 can keep it.”

    Taleb argues that if given the choice Franklin would have more accurately described the Constitution as a federation with powers over economic activity limited to promoting free trade among states. But these limits were lost more than a century later when progressive President Woodrow Wilson first created the Federal Reserve System then used entry into the to “make the world safe for democracy” as the means to create the “modern state” managed on scientific economic principles. A half century later, focusing on the “principal –agent” problem of the modern corporation run by managers who had no “skin in the game” in (1967) argued for public management by an intellectual elite, replacing business experience with academic success.

    From Competitive to Crony Market Capitalism and Rent-Seeking

    Franklin had warned the Convention delegates that

    “We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”

    The libertarian U.S. Constitution never mentioned democracy, and principal-agent conflicts are orders of magnitude worse in the public sector. As theorists have since noted, we neither hang deep state managers nor otherwise hold them accountable. Democracy may depend on the deep state as political theorist argued in a recent Wall Street Journal article (12/20/2019), but it can’t hold it accountable, as argued in a subsequent Journal article. Accountability erodes with each additional layer of government as decisions are elevated from “at risk” individuals in the marketplace to private, local, state, and federal governing bodies and is virtually eliminated at international entities (e.g., the IMF and World Bank). In no case is democracy a substitute for markets because the most intolerant minority with the most to gain or lose inevitably dominates.

    Market capitalism is . Is there a sufficiently good reason for collective economic management? Adam Smith never argued in his (1759) that the invisible hand was perfect: the actual favored nationalism over globalism. In (1776) he did say:

    “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”


    but in the same paragraph admonished government from any attempt to do anything about it. Britain had long been what we now call a crony capitalist economy that heavily favored the political elite, which in Smith’s view further government intervention would only exacerbate.

    Taleb’s “idiots” are Galbraith’s inexperienced intellectual elite economic managers and advisors who have no skin in the game. Professional economists are generally smart, rational (many ideologically dedicated ”virtue merchants”) exploiting a one sided trade, in economic jargon crony “rent seekers” – redistributing income (rents) from the generally lower income non-politically connected. (I would argue there is a minority in resistance, primarily in business schools and conservative think tanks.) It’s their statistical analysis and reasoning to justify rent seeking opportunities he often finds idiotic, faux science or scientism.

    Public intervention to mitigate downside risk (as do e.g., public pension and retirement systems, housing, school and other entitlements, loan and deposit guarantees and other forms of insurance (e.g., flood) that can supposedly be financed without pain by taxing the idle rich or unlimited debt financed by money printing ( is a religion promising heaven without the threat of hell. Come Judgment Day when the system fails systemically, well insulated politicians and bureaucrats will subsequently label it “an extremely rare and random “Black Swan” event that nobody could have seen coming” and professional economists will join the chorus. The general public gets fleeced and market capitalism gets blamed.

    Name any of sixty economic issues and presidential candidate . The lyrics to the Beatles swan song album of a half century ago concludes “whisper words of wisdom, ”

    Kevin Villani

    —-

    Kevin Villani was chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985. He has held senior government positions, has been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published on how politicians and bureaucrats with no skin in the game caused the sub-prime lending bubble and systemic financial system failure.

     

    25 Responses to “Are Professional Economists Idiots?”

    1. Grurray Says:

      I’ve seen Taleb praise Milton Friedman, and he devoted a chapter of his last book to Coase and his theorem. He is obviously extremely critical of attempts at modeling the stock market. He famously made a lot of money betting against those models with his ‘black swan’ theory.

    2. Mike-SMO Says:

      Although none of the players with “skin in the game” never account for the worker, soldier/sailor, 500vip彩票安卓下载官网 owner, etc who have real skin in the game. The system works best with unfettered capitalism, unless you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 are trying to maintain a family, community, deterence, etc. China trade is wonderful for those who collect the profits, not for those who pay the price. Mercantilism is real.

      Government (regulations, tariffs, etc) are ugly but you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 give :
      “us” no choice. There is no place for humans on the “bottom line”, just like there is no room for humans on the “Party Plarform”.

      C’mon! Let’s play! I got the rope.

    3. Sam L. Says:

      Weeeeeeeeellllllllll, Paullie “The Beard” Krugman certainly is!

    4. MCS Says:

      I think in many ways that Economics as a “science” is in the state of the physical sciences before the 19th century. This was when experiments finally took the place of endless disputations and embroideries based on the received wisdom of the ancients. It’s only in the last few decades that I’ve heard about actual experiments exploring the space between perception and economic activities.

      As another great American said: “It ain’t what you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 don’t know that gets you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 into trouble. It’s what you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 know for sure that just ain’t so.”

    5. Brian Says:

      I heard a story on NPR this afternoon that central banks are considering why their moves the last few years haven’t been working, and they are evaluating whether their thinking about how to deal with inflation, etc., has to change, and also whether they need to start accounting for climate change. We are all so completely screwed. Our “elite” have gone completely insane.

    6. Anonymous Says:

      “Franklin had warned the Convention delegates that

      “We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” ”

      That statement was not made at the Constitutional Convention, as you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 falsely imply; it was at the Second Continental Congress.

      “Taleb argues that if given the choice Franklin would have more accurately described the Constitution as a federation with powers over economic activity limited to promoting free trade among states. But these limits were lost more than a century later ”

      And by Taleb’s definition, we lost that in 1861, when the very definition of the country was changed from a federation to promote free trade into a country whose only goal was the survival of the federal government by force. Regardless of you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r opinion of the reason for altering the bargain, that was the effect…. and we are still paying for it, and “praying it does not alter any further.”

    7. Robert Knapp Says:

      AT LAST. Thank you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 for writing such a clear and concise description of today’s economic analysis of the current misima. I worked for forty years as an ” international economist” with the US Gov’t. All I had was an undergraduate degree, econ 101, 102 and some price theory. Advanced training, to my way of thinking was a “fun with numbers” exercise because the data available was/is inaccurate. Only in one instance did a price to use function prove accurate. That was unique because the Feds wrung the participating industry’s neck to get good existing stock data. I found only one Phd.that I could offer anything of value. The big problem is fully appreciating Adam Smith and applying the basic rules of supply and demand.

    8. Neil Ferguson Says:

      Advisor twice removed? Cool. What was you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r advisor whose advisor was Milton Friedman really like? And did you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 ask you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r advisor whose advisor was Milton Friedman what he, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r advisor’s advisor, was _really_ like? How cool that would be. And did you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 ask you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r advisor whose advisor was Milton Friedman if he (you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r advisor) asked his advisor whose advisor was Milton Friedman what Milton Friedman was __really__ like? How cool _that_ would be. And if he did, what was he really like? I mean Milton Friedman.

    9. Grurray Says:

      Advisor twice removed? Cool

      What’s the point of this stupid comment? It’s not funny. It’s sarcastic attempt to discredit the initial statement only directs readers to further scrutinize the author’s alignment with these traditions and confirm his premise. It’s measly banalities will be dismissed without a second thought by most readers as spam awaiting to be cleansed by the filtering software. I’m sure you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 are greatly amused by you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r own effluence, but in the future spare the rest of us the odor.

    10. Grurray Says:

      a country whose only goal was the survival of the federal government by force

      Lee invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania. Do you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 really believe Washington D.C would have remained in Union hands had he been successful?

      Lincoln found himself head of a government that already existed on hostile ground. It was a government that had been working diligently to in the first place. Northerners they would soon be consumed by the police state that was constructed to impose this tyrranical system on the entire nation

      Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the States.

      Welcome500vip彩票安卓下载官网, or unwelcome, such decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown.

      We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.

      To meet and overthrow the power of that dynasty, is the work now before all those who would prevent that consummation.

    11. uhh-nonymous Says:

      Lee invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania. Do you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 really believe . . .

      “If you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 like you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r doctor, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 can keep . . .” Technically true, but untrue nonetheless.

      The first battle of the war was along the Bull Run creek near Manassas, about 32 miles inside the Virginia border. It was there on July 21, 1861 that federated troops attacked Virginians under Lee’s command. Lee’s doomed attack into Pennsylvania was stopped at Gettysburg on July 1–3, 1863.

    12. george t seymour Says:

      Uhh-non, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 should do the reading. Confederates at 1st Manassas were under command of P.G.T. Beauregard and Joe Johnston. Lee was still serving in Richmond as Davis’ Military Advisor.

      The fact remains that over-reach by the Slave holders in the form of the Dred Scott decision and the Fugitive Slave Act helped push otherwise non-involved citizens in the North to becoming opponents of slavery.

      Had the South had leaders with the brains to copy the British Empire’s solution, they could likely have prevented all the losses and bloodshed, and gotten the North to help pay for it using their Tariff incomes in return for Emancipating the slaves.

    13. MCS Says:

      I think the list of wars the turned out financially advantageous to the side that initiated hostilities is pretty short. Not that there isn’t often considerable uncertainty in determining blame, war is so consistently unprofitable to render the question moot.

      What would it have taken to convince the Confederate side that a buy-out was a better deal than a war? What would it have taken to convince the Union?

      I have thought in the many years since we set out to save Afghanistan that one of the first things we should have done was to buy up all of the opium, depriving the Taliban of both money and support. Considering all of the $1000 a gallon diesel fuel we burned, it wouldn’t have been a rounding error. I suppose it conflicted with the war on some drugs.

    14. suncraig Says:

      Some what related is Brylan Caplan “State Capacity Libertarianism”

      1. Markets and capitalism are very powerful, give them their due.

      3. A strong state is distinct from a very large or tyrannical state. A good strong state should see the maintenance and extension of capitalism as one of its primary duties, in many cases its #1 duty.

    15. Says:

      I have thought in the many years since we set out to save Afghanistan that one of the first things we should have done was to buy up all of the opium, depriving the Taliban of both money and support.

      Absolutely ! I may have even posted such an opinion here.

      This was not it, but it has been my opinion for ten years.

      We could simply buy the crop every year and it would cost less than the war.

    16. Kirk Says:

      In the sense of logical thought, a question must be stated in such a way that it fully defines the problem you500vip彩票安卓下载官网’re trying to answer, and it should also correctly address the actual problem in the totality of it all.

      Thus, the question “Are Professional Economists Idiots?” is merely a good starting point, and I’d submit that the actual question itself should properly be “Are All of Our Experts and Elite Decision-makers Idiots?”.

      Because, it ain’t just the economists that have gotten things wrong, now is it?

      Once one starts paying attention, and looks around at the world, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 see instance after instance of the self-proclaimed “expert” class screwing things up by the numbers. The foreign policy experts that predicted dire effects, even world war, after Trump finally killing Soleimani? Hmmm. Yeah, that happened.

      The genius “social workers” we put in charge of helping the 500vip彩票安卓下载官网less? Has there been one place where the mainstream of that profession has been put in charge, and they’ve actually reduced the 500vip彩票安卓下载官网less population and/or the budget we spend on them? I honestly can’t think of anywhere, anywhere at all.

      Tick down the list: Law enforcement would be another example–We hear constantly how incarceration doesn’t work, and we need new gun laws, confiscations from law-abiding citizens, and yet… The powers-that-are refuse to enforce the laws we have, and we get more and more crime. Seattle just had a perfect example of this, with the recent shooting–The shooters all have a history of violent gun-related crime, and they also have a history of the judicial system just letting them go. Huh. Go figure.

      There needs to be a test of these people’s ideas, and then actual real-world consequences need to flow back and determine if they get to keep making decisions. Instead, we keep doubling-down on dysfunction and failure. Why does the public do this? You can observe the effects of these policies, all around us, and yet… The public keeps right on voting these failures back into office.

      We badly need to start demanding and enforcing accountability from office-holders and the “elites” that come up with these ideas. If you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 put Joe Average citizen in charge of Seattle for a decade, I can guarantee you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 that the decisions made would not consistently and constantly trend towards failure and disaster–Instead, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网’d see pragmatic policies formed, and instead of constantly following the same failure paths, that average citizen would look at what works, reinforce that, and stop doing what manifestly does not.

    17. Jonathan Says:

      Why does the public do this? You can observe the effects of these policies, all around us, and yet… The public keeps right on voting these failures back into office.

      I blame the educational system.

    18. Gavin Longmuir Says:

      Kirk: “The public keeps right on voting these failures back into office.”

      The public is you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 & me — and we are not voting those failures into office. Here’s what really happens, using my South-Western County as an example:

      The Democrat insiders get together and try to unite behind a candidate. Usually, they disagree with each other, and a couple of candidates will go forward to the Democrat Primary election — a Far-Left individual, and an American-hating communist. A small number of Democrats (mostly activists) vote in the Primary, and a Democrat candidate goes forward to the General election. Often the Democrat candidate is unopposed in the General, and none of us public vote. Sometimes there is a token Republican candidate, but he usually loses. A curtain of silence is drawn over whether the votes for the winning Democrat came only from US citizens, or even only from living people. And so the failures occupy the “elective” offices.

      We do not have democracy — we have a “Tyranny of a Minority”. The Minority is mainly anti-American Democrat activists. There are lots of steps which could be taken to correct this Tyranny, but the Democrats are not going to take those steps … this is their system. And when by accident Republicans get into a position of authority, they do nothing either; after all, they are Republicans.

      So unfortunately, this Tyranny of a Minority will persist until its obvious failures cause some kind of collapse.

    19. Anonymous Says:

      Gavin …”this Tyranny of a Minority will persist until…collapse.” or, perhaps, until democratic election brings an “anti-tyranny of a minority” (by God, the system may have worked despite all!). Of course, I’m referring to the current president.

    20. Anonymous Says:

      The remoteness of the U. S. government (that is, the huge ratio of citizens to government functionaries and representatives) causes economic and social dysfunction. On the macro level of the states there needs to be a “freer market”; states need to be able to choose more of their own laws and live with the consequences. The feds are too strong and a single decision doesn’t affect a million or ten million people, but more than 300 million. A bad decision can become an epic failure. With greater state autonomy bad decisions by one state can be avoided by others, good decisions can be seen to be effective and copied. The states need more independence and less dependence.

      tyou500vip彩票安卓下载官网th20

    21. Says:

      The genius “social workers” we put in charge of helping the 500vip彩票安卓下载官网less? Has there been one place where the mainstream of that profession has been put in charge, and they’ve actually reduced the 500vip彩票安卓下载官网less population and/or the budget we spend on them? I honestly can’t think of anywhere, anywhere at all.

      I think this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of government. “Reducing the 500vip彩票安卓下载官网less population” as a goal of social workers is like asking that competent legislation solving national problems is a goal of elective office. The goal of elective office is to be re-elected. The goal of social workers is to keep good salaries and create more social workers.

      I have previously posted here some thoughts on our Principle Agent Problem.

      This dilemma exists in circumstances where agents are motivated to act in their own best interests, which are contrary to those of their principals, and is an example of moral hazard.

      I won’t repeat that column but I think it is still true.

    22. Kirk Says:

      Mike, the point I’m getting at isn’t the inherent nature of the bureaucrat, but an entirely separate one: To wit, the manner in which the general public looks at this issue, which is nuts.

      You pull the average citizen off the street, and say to them “How are you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 helping the 500vip彩票安卓下载官网less…?”, and most are going to tell you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 that they “…pay taxes…” so that someone else does that work. They’ve mentally sub-contracted the responsibility for the whole issue to the nice people who volunteered to deal with it. That’s the typical mentality–They don’t hate the 500vip彩票安卓下载官网less, they don’t “not care” about them, it’s just that they’ve assigned dealing with it all to “someone else” in how they think about the issue.

      The big thing is, they’re starting to wake up to the whole ugly reality that the people who’ve volunteered themselves to all this “helping” aren’t actually fixing the problem, they’re creating more of it. This is something that is beginning to percolate through the body politic, and it’s not something that the “helping community” really wants to have happen, because the repercussions are going to be enormous.

      A lot of the general public looks at things like this as “Oh, well… OK, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 say there’s a problem, here… And, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 say you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 have a solution? OK, OK, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 deal with it…”. The significant thing is, John and Jane Q. Public are starting to notice that the nice people who sold their Emperor on his nice new clothes actually didn’t provide anything, and the Emperor is wandering around naked.

      This may seem to be an insignificant thing, but I’d point out that there are historical examples where this happened, and things did not work out so well. One that springs to mind is how the French aristocracy so thoroughly discredited itself in the years running up to the French Revolution, and how all that worked out once the general public got used to thinking of their nobility as a bunch of useless twats.

      To a degree, modern society can be thought of as possessing an aristocracy of sorts, one based on credentials and supposed accomplishments. The problem with those credentialed dolts telling the masses that “gender is a construct” is that each and every little stupidity those masses witness, especially when accompanied by utter failure at dealing with things like the “500vip彩票安卓下载官网less crisis”? All that contributes to a loss of credibility. Which may not seem like a big deal, but… What happens when the “expert class” tells the general public something like “Hey, this Coronavirus thing from Wuhan–It’s a big deal, do X,Y, and Z…”, and then gets ignored?

      One way or another, we’re all going to pay the price for what the over-credentialed dolts we’ve put in charge are doing. If you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 conceive of the “body politic” as a human body, what we’re dealing with is similar to a healthy human body having its mind develop schizophrenia, and go seriously off the deep end of it.

    23. Sgt. Mom Says:

      “The big thing is, they’re starting to wake up to the whole ugly reality that the people who’ve volunteered themselves to all this “helping” aren’t actually fixing the problem, they’re creating more of it. This is something that is beginning to percolate through the body politic, and it’s not something that the “helping community” really wants to have happen, because the repercussions are going to be enormous.”

      Indeed. As I posted last week in my meditation on Versailles – all the things that our so-called Ruling Class are doing … ARE MAKING THE PROBLEM SO MUCH WORSE!

    24. Kirk Says:

      @500vip彩票安卓下载官网SGT Mom,

      I think a lot of the problem is that this sort of thing builds up through the lack of attention that the body politic pays to it. You go along and go along, people not really listening to the nuttiness like “73 different genders”, and the people behind it all don’t get any pushback from the normies. Until they do, and then the whole thing becomes entirely unpredictable.

      It’s like that deal with a teenager’s parents, who’re usually just gonna nod along with the whole program–Right up until the teenager runs into one of their hard stops, and then the boom is lowered. What we have had here since about the mid-1960s is a situation where the various components that think they make up the elite have been going more and more overboard, mostly because we’re prosperous enough that a lot of their dysfunction really hasn’t registered on most of the public. They haven’t gotten pushback, because the actual effect of they’ve been saying and doing hasn’t actually affected a lot of people–Most normies just look at the nutters who’re doing these things and go “Oh, well… That’s San Francisco… Whadya expect?”.

      Now, however, that same stuff is popping up elsewhere. People aren’t going to tolerate San Francisco-level things like defecating in the street out in normie-land, and the normies are gonna do something about it all. Trump is just the first little wavelet of response, and it will only get worse the more they try to damp things out by attacking the symptom.

      It’s my wholehearted belief that the entire Trump phenomenon stems from the way that the establishment stamped out the Tea Party. They succeed in stamping out Trump the same way, there’s going to be hell to pay.

      I keep telling these types–Do the math. There are more normies than there are freak-flag flying types, and the only beneficiaries of ginning up some sort of class war between everyone will be the folks selling the materials for the clean-up afterwards. Which may get extremely ugly. Or, not. No way to tell where it ends, really. Not a fan of the idea of exploring it all, either.

    25. Says:

      You pull the average citizen off the street, and say to them “How are you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 helping the 500vip彩票安卓下载官网less…?”, and most are going to tell you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 that they “…pay taxes…” so that someone else does that work

      The “500vip彩票安卓下载官网less” problem began in the late 1960s with the closing of the state mental hospitals. There were two reasons, maybe three.

      The first effective psychiatric drugs had come along with This had a marked effect on schizophrenics but had moderately severe side effects.

      Second, the book and movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” had a profound effect on how the general public saw mental illness.

      Third, mental hospitals were expensive. The drugs and the change in public attitude allowed governors, like Reagan in California, to close the hospitals and the Legislature passed “feel good” bills, like The Short-Doyle Act in California that pretended the mentally ill would be cared for in outpatient clinics.

      The problem was that the clinics never worked or were adequately funded. For example, when I worked in a mental hospital as a medical student, the patients were told that if they did not take their meds (which is a huge problem), they would have to go back into the hospital. Now, there were no hospitals.

      Psychotics, by definition, have no insight. They don’t know that meds are necessary. Also, the meds have annoying side effects, sort of like Parkinson’s Disease. As a result, compliance without compulsion is low. With out patient clinics, compulsion is zero.

      When I used to take my medical students on a tour of “500vip彩票安卓下载官网less shelters” each year, the Directors told us that 60% of 500vip彩票安卓下载官网less are psychotic. 60% are addicts and half of each group is both. Now, addiction seems more common and is tolerated by the elites that run blue cities.

      There used to be and probably still are, huge shelters for 500vip彩票安卓下载官网less. Addicts don’t like shelters which may try to enforce sobriety. Psychotics who don’t take their meds don’t like shelters, either.

      The “Helping professions” are useless without compulsion, ie, commitment. UNtil the public attitude changes, nothing will work.

      Read,

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