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The Overuse of Mathematics in Economics – Article by Luka Nikolic

The Overuse of Mathematics in Economics – Article by Luka Nikolic

Luka Nikolic
September 2, 2019


If you enrolled at university today, you would find economics modules filled with mathematics and statistics to explain economic phenomena. There would also be next to no philosophy, law, or history, all of which are much more important to understanding the way our world works and how it impacts the economy.

The reason is that since the end of the 19th century, there has been a push toward turning economics into a science—like physics or chemistry. Much of this has been done by quantifying phenomena and explaining it through graphs. It has been precisely since this shift that there has been such a poor track record of public policy, from fiscal to monetary.

What many contemporary economists fail to realize is that economics is as much of a philosophical pursuit as a mathematical one, if not more so.

Modern economics was first introduced as a formal subject called “history and political economy” in 1805. Economics was a three-decade-old discipline then, as Adam Smith had published his Wealth of Nations in 1776. The earliest economists were philosophers who used deduction and logic to explain the market. Smith deployed numerical analysis only as a means of qualitatively assessing government policies such as legislated grain prices and their impact. No graphs or equations were used.

Even earlier, 17th-century philosopher John Locke contributed more to economic liberty than any mathematician has since. Likewise, philosopher David Hume successfully explained the impact of free trade with his price-specie flow mechanism theory, which employs pure logic. John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty likewise furthered the cause for free markets without using math.

In 1798, Malthus mathematically predicted mass starvation due to population growth, but he could not quantify the rule of law and free markets.

The first substantial misuse of mathematics was by Thomas Malthus. In 1798. He predicted mass starvation due to population growth, which was exponential and outpacing agricultural production, which was arithmetic. Malthus was evidently wrong, as contemporary free-market Japan’s population density towers over collectivist sub-Saharan’s Africa. Malthus could not quantify the rule of law and free markets.

Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890) was the first groundbreaking textbook to use equations and graphs. One of Marshall’s students, John Maynard Keynes, would further the cause of quantifying economics by mathematically linking income and expenditure and how government policy could impact this. Keynes’ General Theory (1936) would serve as a blueprint for 20th-century economic policy as more scientific methods of economics gained favor in the coming decades. Friedrich Hayek summarized this shift in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

It seems to me that this failure of the economists to guide policy more successfully is closely connected with their propensity to imitate as closely as possible the procedures of the physical sciences—an attempt which in our field may lead to outright error. It is an approach which has come to be described as the “scientistic” attitude—an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed.

It is impossible to quantify human action. Although equations, such as utility measures, do exist to quantify human behavior, they are faulty when examined. How can an equation tell me when I am no longer satisfied with a certain good? Mathematically speaking, it is when marginal utility becomes negative. This may be true. However, the problem is how to determine how much chocolate will give me a stomach ache—mathematically speaking, what amount will produce negative marginal utility. A doctor could not figure this out, let alone an economist.

There cannot be “catch-all” formulas due to the complexity of economic phenomena. Measuring the elasticity of demand for a certain good is at best a contribution to economic history. Elasticity will hardly be constant in the same country throughout time, let alone in other countries. However, the economists pursuing this analysis do not do it to update economic history—it is done for the purpose of having government micromanage demand for these goods. In reality, government should allow the free market to produce a certain good. The market will determine the demand/supply.

Economics is more related to jurisprudence than math.

Economics, among other things, is the study of the allocation of scarce resources. If there is a limit of a certain good, it’s not the government’s job to utilize an equation to distribute it. Rather, governments must ensure that the property rights of that good are clearly defined. It is then up to the person who owns the good to allocate it. As such, economics is more related to jurisprudence than math.

The Solow-Swan growth model is a perfect example of quantifying economics. It claims to explain long-run economic growth based on productivity, capital accumulation, and other variables. It is unquestionable that these factors impact growth, however, it oversimplifies the complex interactions between various qualitative factors.

For example, English Common Law has allowed countries such as the US or Hong Kong to prosper more than African nations with no basis for the rule of law and where corruption is still widespread. Protestant nations were historically more favorable toward capitalism compared to other religions. Both of these factors undoubtedly affected the variables in the Solow-Swan model—the problem is quantifying them. Productivity and capital accumulation do not “just happen.”

Monetary policy has suffered the worst. Today, central banks manipulate interest rates to stimulate the economy due to a false belief in purely theoretical mathematical models. Such sophisticated analysis would be welcoming if it offered a better track record. By artificially lowering interest rates, central banks create malinvestment in the economy, creating a bubble.

Once the economy is deemed to be “overheating,” the rates are raised, causing the bubble to burst. This is precisely what has happened since the introduction of discretionary monetary policy in many instances. The 2008 crisis is the most recent example.

However, such policy was not possible with the gold standard because there was no need for a central bank nor monetary policy, as a tool, to even exist. Likewise, the economy was much more stable. Why did gold work? It could not be manipulated easily by the government, and furthermore, it was spontaneously chosen by people because it fulfilled the necessary criteria. Mathematical formulas cannot replicate this. One economist jokingly described it:

Instead of trading away your valuable pigs for horses, why not accept some smooth stones? Don’t worry that you don’t want them, someone else will give you horses in exchange for them! If we could just all agree on which smooth stones are valuable, we’d all be so much better off!

While serving as Hong Kong’s financial secretary from 1961 to 1971, John Cowperthwaite was skeptical about government collecting statistics outside what was necessary, claiming, “If I let them compute those statistics, they’ll want to use them for planning!” Hong Kong remains one of the richest and freest economies.

It should be recognized that mathematically-driven economics is a divergence from the foundation of traditional economics.

Sadly, Cowperthwaite’s skepticism of central planning based on models is rarely heeded today, evidenced by the Keynesianism that has reemerged in the intellectual sphere. Furthermore, considering that publishing in mathematically-driven economics journals is needed to secure tenure, it is questionable whether mainstream economics will be changed by such incentives.

Mathematics has a place at best for budgets and debt servicing—but it should be recognized that mathematically-driven economics is a divergence from the foundation of traditional economics.

Speaking Truth to Power: Jimmy Lai – Article by Lawrence W. Reed

Speaking Truth to Power: Jimmy Lai – Article by Lawrence W. Reed

The New Renaissance Hat
Lawrence W. Reed
May 4, 2015

For years, a bust of John James Cowperthwaite sat prominently in the foyer of Jimmy Lai’s Next Media office in Hong Kong, along with others of economists F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. If that’s all you ever knew about Jimmy Lai, you could at least surmise that he loves liberty and free markets.

Cowperthwaite had been the architect of Hong Kong’s free-market miracle. He started with a destitute rock and turned it into one of the world’s freest and most prosperous economies. (Indeed, I’ve suggested that he deserves to be recognized annually and everywhere with a Cowperthwaite Day on the anniversary of his birthdate, April 25.) Jimmy Lai is precisely the sort of individual that Cowperthwaite had in mind when he decided that entrepreneurs, not central planners, should drive an economy. Because of what Cowperthwaite had done, Jimmy Lai found a hero himself. And Lai, too, would go on to do great things.

Of the characteristics most often identified with successful entrepreneurship, Jimmy Lai possesses them all in abundance. He is a self-starter who takes initiative (and risk) with enthusiasm. He’s creative and intuitive. He’s passionate and tenacious. Where others see problems, he sees opportunity. He’s a visionary, both in business endeavors and for society at large. He doesn’t hesitate to defy conventional wisdom when it points to a dead end. Whatever he undertakes, he musters the courage to act. He puts his all — money, time, and energy — where his mouth is (and where his convictions are).

On paper, Lai’s early life would seem unlikely to produce a “real hero.” He was born in China the year before it fell under Mao Zedong’s dictatorial rule. Lai was smuggled out of the country and into Hong Kong at age 12. In the absence of child-labor laws, which would have ensured his deprivation there, too, Lai went to work in a garment factory for $8 a month. Fifteen years later, he bought his own garment factory and built it into the giant known as Giordano, now a leading international retailer. Lai’s boundless entrepreneurial zeal, free to operate within Hong Kong’s laissez-faire business environment, yielded jobs for thousands and consumer goods for millions.

But in 1989, Beijing’s infamous Tiananmen Square massacre set Jimmy Lai on a new course. With Hong Kong scheduled to be transferred from British to Chinese rule in just eight years, Lai knew that maintaining traditional freedoms under Beijing’s rule would be a challenge. So he ventured into media, creating what soon became the territory’s largest-circulation magazines, Sudden Weekly and Next. In spite of Beijing’s coercion of advertisers, Jimmy Lai’s tabloid-style newspaper, Apple Daily, is still the premier voice in Asia for the freedoms of speech, press, and enterprise.

Jimmy Lai does not shrink from controversy. The Communist Party of China, he wrote in a 1994 column, is “a monopoly that charges a premium for a lousy service.” He defended the student demonstrators when they went into the streets by the hundreds of thousands in late 2014 in defense of democracy. He routinely exposed corruption in both government and business, including the especially toxic brand of corruption that arises when the two get in bed together. He sold Giordano, the apparel firm he founded, to save it from Beijing’s intense pressure, but he refuses to this day to renounce his principles.

In December 2014, he revealed that he was stepping down as publisher of Apple Daily and chairman of Next Media to devote more time to family and personal interests. A month later, and for the second time, unknown assailants firebombed his home. He remains under intense scrutiny from Beijing, which regularly employs ugly rumors, threats of litigation, and other nefarious means to undermine his influence.

Earlier this year, Lai told the New York Times that he never planned to make his media empire into a family dynasty. His six children (ages 8 to 37) are not in line as heirs to that business or its leadership positions. “I don’t think I should ask my kids to inherit my business, because they can’t start where I did,” he said. “I was from the street. I’m a very different make of person. I’ve been a fighter all my life.”

Whatever the future holds for Jimmy Lai, friends of liberty everywhere can count him as one very brave man.

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Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 2008. Prior to that, he was a founder and president for twenty years of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. He also taught Economics full-time and chaired the Department of Economics at Northwood University in Michigan from 1977 to 1984.

He holds a B.A. degree in Economics from Grove City College (1975) and an M.A. degree in History from Slippery Rock State University (1978), both in Pennsylvania. He holds two honorary doctorates, one from Central Michigan University (Public Administration—1993) and Northwood University (Laws—2008).

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.