Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Dismal ...what now?

I'm sympathetic to old-school economists (not sympathetic enough to plow through extended stretches of their original tedium, but the ideas are fine enough), and I like to put them into much the same bin as the classical scientists, who managed, in many cases, to be clever enough to understand what affected what, even if they didn't always nail the relations down precisely. Some of it was amazingly brilliant: Michael Faraday, for example, famously used next to no math to deduce his many insights into electromagnetic phenomena. I've gabbed about this business of scientific rightness and detail before (most recently), and it helps to understand how the business of mapping the universe to mathematical space works: first comes the basic model, and if it's good, subsequent revision to detail gets piled on, and it gets as good as possible in that framework.

I caught this editorial by Robert Nadeau today. It's also funny to read a scientist science historian ragging on economists. Borrowing mathematical tools from other disciplines is time-honored and instructive (they're usually describing similar phenomena anyway), especially when someone else has done the challenging work of solution, and it's my running hypothesis that scientific study of all kinds has been heavily shaped by the solubility of certain math problems. Nadeau states that the nineteenth- and early twentieth century economists borrowed liberally from contemporary physical models in a way that had no basis in economic reality (according to the physicists), and nyah, the physics turned out to be wrong too, but I don't think any of that is very damning, so long as the resulting math can describe reality. It helps to have physically intuitive variables, of course, and measurable ones.

He goes on about the assumptions implicit in the neoclassical theories, which, he claims, basically ignore the effects of limited energy, real estate, biodiversity, clean air and water, etc. He's probably correct that this is a real failure of these economics, but that's still not really an indictment of the mathematical framework, and secondary relationships could presumably be worked into the set of governing equations. Amusing as it is, poking those sorts of assumptions doesn't really require a science background these days, just some basic observational skills. But if Nadeau didn't mockingly point out that the models were cribbed from falsified physics, he wouldn't have had an editorial in Scientific American.

I find it unlikely that study of economics has failed to grow in the past hundred years to include ecological effects. I recall the term "environmental economics" thrown about a couple of years ago, but never followed up on it. I don't know if it's a serious academic discipline yet, and even nerds are staring down brain-numbing texts all along the hallowed halls, the bigger problem is that environmental economics sure as shit doesn't inform policy in any comprehensive way, really more like these goofballs proposing eternal supply. An imperfect editorial by a long shot, but these people deserve to be picked on.

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