Will Fed chief Janet Yellen pull the trigger to raise interest rates in September or not? Only the soothsayers at Jackson Hole know for sure. But while the world awaits the decision, ponder this. What do the following have in common?
- Asset bubbles fueled by monetary policy.
- Unsustainable sovereign debts threatening government bankruptcies.
- Government economic “cures” worse than the diseases they are supposed to treat.
- Questionable GDP statistics.
- Recurring bank bailouts.
Figured it out yet? They are all driven by an overweening state religion called macroeconomics.
Friedrich Hayek said it best. “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
A pity this simple, yet profound insight remains at the fringes of a field that continues to wreak havoc in the hands of those who imagine they can design economic outcomes.
Think about it. We are currently watching global stock markets gyrate toward breakdown trying to anticipate the whims of a cloistered professor who never launched a business, never met a payroll, never shipped a product, and never won an election, yet has been empowered to determine the price of money. What’s even stranger is that people consider this normal. Ask yourself: Why do we wait on pins and needles for Janet Yellen to set interest rates yet laugh at the idea that kings once set the “just price” for a loaf of bread?
That’s where Hayek’s curious task comes in.
The human inclination to seek order in a seemingly chaotic world has long been exploited by generations of pundits, professors, and politicians eager to convince us they can impart certainty to the unknowable.
Note that I say the unknowable, not the unknown. Science has proven quite adept at exploring the unknown. That’s because as science progresses, falsifiable hypotheses that fail to make accurate predictions get discarded in favor of alternatives that do. No so in macroeconomics, whose prognostications bear an uncanny resemblance to predicting the nature of the afterlife. Rather than make continuous progress, the same discredited macroeconomic theories tend to cycle in and out of fashion depending on which court economists have the upper hand at any given time.
One cannot perform controlled macroeconomic experiments because “the economy” is not a measurable thing, like the weight of a stone or the strength of an electric field. It is merely the name we give to billions of transactions that take place across the planet, each driven by decisions made by independent actors optimizing their own well being according to their own criteria. These criteria cannot even be articulated by many of the players themselves, much less known to a third party pretending omniscience. Undeterred, practitioners of the black arts conjure up aggregates like “GDP” or “CPI,” but any honest examination of these metrics quickly leads to the conclusion that they are nothing more than political fictions that can be manipulated to suit the policy proclivities of the moment.
Macroeconomists use GDP to characterize billions of economic transactions, supposedly like a physicist uses temperature to characterize the average kinetic energy of gas molecules as they bump into each other in the atmosphere. They come up with equations linking the velocity and quantity of money to the inflation rate, or the inflation rate to the unemployment rate, designed to look like the ideal gas law PV = nRT. This fools many people into believing these soothsayers are doing science.
But gas molecules are not willful. They don’t have hopes and fears, friends and enemies, retirement savings and mortgage payments. Gas molecules don’t change their behavior when you tell them what their temperature is. The idea that you can write equations to accurately capture complex human behaviors, and then develop policies based on these equations aimed at controlling those behaviors, is what Hayek called the Fatal Conceit.
Macroeconomics reigns in the realm of the unknowable promising that which cannot be delivered to the eager to be deceived, benefitting an entrenched priesthood and the potentates they serve. Its cloaking in mathematics, rather than music and incense, gives it the requisite air of mystery to discourage questioning the guidance of its anointed sages and prophets. Unless and until we acknowledge that what these people are practicing is a religion and not a science, we will remain in its obscurantist thrall.
When scientific laws consistently fail to make accurate predictions, we throw the laws away. What happens when predictions about the impact of macroeconomic interventions fail, such as the inability of quantitative easing to deliver anything like the results promised? There is always a macroeconomist standing by to claim “we didn’t do enough.” And so the answer to every policy failure is: “Give Us Moar!”
Thus, the goal of reformists cannot be to simply replace one set of grandees with another, but to throw the Church of Macroeconomics out of the Overton Window, so it can pass into history alongside phrenology, phlogiston, and luminiferous aether.