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Good economics for African times (1)

“Be vigilant, resist the seduction of the ‘obvious,’ be skeptical of promised miracles, question the evidence, be patient with complexity and honest about what we know and what we can know” (Banerjee & Duflo, 2019).

The field of economics would probably provide better answers to the world’s many puzzles if the above statement by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – MIT economics professors, couple and Nobel laureates, highly distinguished and controversial in almost equal measure – in their 2019 book “Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems” is imbibed by all of its academics and practitioners. Alas, this is not always the case.

Like you probably discerned already, Banerjee & Duflo’s approach to economics is unorthodox and – quite understandably – tends to rub off on some of their still mostly conservative contemporaries the wrong way. That they are mavericks is what appeals to me. That, and the likelihood that their success would embolden many more in the profession who remain shackled by orthodoxy.

What they espouse – vigilance, scepticism, patience, and honesty – does not come easily to fellow economists. Ordinarily, they should. But they do not. Because if they did, we should have more answers than doubts about the many questions that remain unanswered in the affairs of men.

“Economics is too important to be left to economists”

Many an economist would swear by his or her rigour, objective scepticism, transparency and openness to new ideas. The evidence suggests otherwise. If you want to know how entrenched the mainstream types are, observe their reactions when some little-known colleague proposes something very “brave” or “courageous”.

Of course, the same novel idea could very well find acceptance if a more accomplished type proposes it; usually with a few tweaks here and there and a new fancy name. The more recent case of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), the backlash it has received from mainstream economists, and the increasing likelihood it may become “orthodox” in due course, is a good example.

Banerjee & Duflo (2019) highlight how economists are not as trusted as they once were; ranked almost the same as politicians in a poll conducted by YouGov in the United Kingdom, for instance. Why is this the case? Economists have not been “modest and honest about what [they] know and understand” and have not shown a willingness to try new ideas and solutions and be wrong.

 Self-preservation is rational, not correcting errors is not. The clearly rational irrationality of some mainstream economists in holding on to proven fallacious orthodoxies, as if they need them to breathe, is evidence enough that what is currently accepted knowledge should be queried

Economists’ predictions have been wrong most times than they have been right. But we continue to make forecasts anyway. (They are useful in other ways.) And continue to be wrong most of the time. For example, we know now for sure that markets are not efficient and that humans do not always behave rationally. And yet these are key pillars upon which much of conventional economics rest on. There is certainly a realisation in the profession of a need for a radical rethink of our ways.

Change is slow and difficult, however. This is understandable. After all, it would be irrational for people who built their stellar careers on these fallacies over many decades to simply just do a turnaround, wouldn’t it? Still, by digging their heels in on these proven untruths, economists prove the point of human beings not being always rational. Yes, behavioural economics now blossoms. But it took a while.

Self-preservation is rational, not correcting errors is not. The clearly rational irrationality of some mainstream economists in holding on to proven fallacious orthodoxies, as if they need them to breathe, is evidence enough that what is currently accepted knowledge should be queried. And this should apply to all intelligent endeavours. In other words, learn the orthodoxy, but do not accept it as gospel. It is not religion.

Banerjee & Duflo are exemplars of this ethos. Their 2019 book does not purport to have all the answers as much as it suggests a more sceptical and open approach to unravelling the still many mysteries in the so-called dismal science and the world at large. Is free trade always a positive? Is there a formula for growth? The duo did not provide straight answers to these and other pertinent questions. That is all very well. Africa must find its own answers.

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