Saturday, June 28, 2014

The cost of fixed ideas

Books on economic policy aren't generally page turners. But a new book by economist David Colander and businessman Roland Kupers certainly is. It makes the argument that some of the assumptions economists made many decades ago -- especially about people having fixed preferences -- have effectively created a trap for policy analyses. We're stuck as a result with endless, useless arguments about markets versus government. Change those assumptions, and it's possible to imagine policies that don't have markets and government in opposition; it ought to be possible to have free markets and a useful and smaller government at the same time, and achieve not only material prosperity but a wide range of social goals too.

I wrote about the book in a Bloomberg column a few days ago. That column has garnered all of 4 comments so far, which I think also illustrates another problem we have. The column is all about how we might find a way around all of the sterile arguments of markets vs government, and not too many people seem to be interested in that.... or at least not motivated to comment. From past experience, I know that any column which seems to take a side in those arguments stirs up a lot of protest. 

Anyway, read Colander and Kupers' book. Here's the column:

From financial regulation to health care to climate change, we can't agree on what to do about anything. Free-market enthusiasts celebrate the creative power of markets and want smaller government; critics counter that we desperately need government intervention to solve problems that markets can't handle. Neither side can understand the other.

Is there any way out? Well, if you're discouraged, I suggest looking to an inspiring new book by an economist, David Colander, and a businessman, Roland Kupers, who believe the deadlock needn't be permanent. We can have better markets, they say, and more effective (and smaller) government too, if only we can muster a little more economic imagination.

The book is called ``Complexity and the Art of Public Policy,'' and its main point is that our policy debates have fallen into a trap that economists inadvertently created some 50 years ago. That's when they started building mathematical models of economic systems, and, to simplify things, made the assumption that people have fixed or unchanging preferences and desires. Sounds innocuous; it wasn't, and isn't.    Read more.

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