Testimony of David Colander Submitted to the Congress of the United States, House Science and Technology Committee for the Hearing: “The Risks of Financial Modeling: VaR and the Economic Meltdown.”
September 10, 2009
Some non-economists have blamed the financial heart attack on economist’s highly technical models. In my view the problem is not the models; the problem is the way economic models are used. All too often models are used in lieu of educated common sense, when in fact models should be used as an aid to educated common sense. When models replace common sense, they are a hindrance rather than a help.
Modeling the Economy as a Complex System
Using models within economics or within any other social science, is especially treacherous. That’s because social science involves a higher degree of complexity than the natural sciences. The reason why social science is so complex is that the basic unit in social science, which economists call agents, are strategic, whereas the basic unit of the natural sciences are not. Economics can be thought of the physics with strategic atoms, who keep trying to foil any efforts to understand them and bring them under control. Strategic agents complicate modeling enormously; they make it impossible to have a perfect model since they increase the number of calculations one would have to make in order to solve the model beyond the calculations the fastest computer one can hypothesize could process in a finite amount of time…..
This recognition that the economy is complex is not a new discovery. Earlier economists, such as John Stuart Mill, recognized the economy’s complexity and were very modest in their claims about the usefulness of their models. They carefully presented their models as aids to a broader informed common sense. They built this modesty into their policy advice and told policy makers that the most we can expect from models is half-truths. To make sure that they did not claim too much for their scientific models, they divided the field of economics into two branches—one a scientific branch, which worked on formal models, and the other political economy, which was the branch of economics that addressed policy. Political economy was seen as an art which did not have the backing of science, but instead relied on the insights from models developed in the scientific branch supplemented by educated common sense to guide policy prescriptions.
In the early 1900s that two-part division broke down, and economists became a bit less modest in their claims for models, and more aggressive in their application of models directly to policy questions. The two branches were merged, and the result was a tragedy for both the science of economics and for the applied policy branch of economics.
It was a tragedy for the science of economics because it led economists away from developing a wide variety of models that would creatively explore the extraordinarily difficult questions that the complexity of the economy raised, questions for which new analytic and computational technology opened up new avenues of investigation. Instead, the economics profession spent much of its time dotting i’s and crossing t’s on what was called a Walrasian general equilibrium model which was more analytically tractable. As opposed to viewing the supply/demand model and its macroeconomic counterpart, the Walrasian general equilibrium model, as interesting models relevant for a few limited phenomena, but at best a stepping stone for a formal understanding of the economy, it enshrined both models, and acted as if it explained everything. Complexities were just assumed away not because it made sense to assume them away, but for tractability reasons. The result was a set of models that would not even pass a perfunctory common sense smell test being studied ad nauseam.
Initially macroeconomics stayed separate from this broader unitary approach, and relied on a set of rough and ready models that had little scientific foundation. But in the 1980s, macroeconomics and finance fell into this “single model” approach. As that happened it caused economists to lose sight of the larger lesson that complexity conveys —that models in a complex system can be expected to continually break down. This adoption by macroeconomists of a single-model approach is one of the reasons why the economics profession failed to warn society about the financial crisis, and some parts of the profession assured society that such a crisis could not happen. Because they focused on that single model, economists simply did not study and plan for the inevitable breakdown of systems that one would expect in a complex system, because they had become so enamored with their model that they forgot to use it with common sense judgment.Italics added to original.