Undergraduate Economist

Perspectives of an economics student

Archive for December, 2009

Paul Samuelson: The Father of 'Modern Economics' Dies

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 21st December 2009

All those who have studied economics for the past 50 years or so have heard about Samuelson – Foundations of Economic Analysis, Samuelson-Stopler theorem, Factor-price equalisation theorem, revealed preference theory, Bergson-Samuelson social welfare functions, non-substitution theorem, linear programming in economics, etc. The first one is his 1947 book which dominates economics teaching even today, directly or indirectly. Samuelson transformed economics into some sort of science (pseudo-science, as some call it)-social physics. [For more on this, go here]

Robert Lucas on Samuelson:

“Samuelson was the Julia Child of economics, somehow teaching you the basics and giving you the feeling of becoming an insider in a complex culture all at the same time. I loved the Foundations. Like so many others in my cohort, I internalized its view that if I couldn’t formulate a problem in economic theory mathematically, I didn’t know what I was doing. I came to the position that mathematical analysis is not one of many ways of doing economic theory: It is the only way. Economic theory is mathematical analysis. Everything else is just pictures and talk.” [Marginal Revolution and here]


In his Foundations, he is supposed to have popularised the views of Keynes. In fact, what he popularised is the neo-classical synthesis (IS-LM curves, which were created by Hicks). Hence, what we learn in most macroeconomics texts is not what Keynes said. Post-Keynesian economics is more closer to what Keynes said.

Despite his ‘ideas of good economics’, one needs to appreciate the works he carried out in different areas in economics – macroeconomics, public finance, international trade, consumer theory, capital theory and general equilibrium, etc.

In his initial editions of the Foundations, one could find a few pages devoted to the 1960 capital theory debates. However, with passage of time, the debate was relegated to footnotes. Now, in mainstream textbooks, capital theory is entirely omitted. In fact, Samuelson admitted the problems neoclassical microeconomics and general equilibrium run into because of their notion of capital. [More here]

I end with two questions.
Is mathematics the only way of studying economics and analysing economies? [We mostly use calculus and game theory. Should we employ other kinds of mathematics?]

How reliable are textbooks? It makes learning easy, but probably, a bit too easy.

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Posted in Consumer Theory, Economic Thought, Economics, Economics Education/Teaching, Education, Keynes, Neoclassical Economics, Nobel Prize, Paul Samuelson | 9 Comments »

On Causality in Economics

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 9th December 2009

This post tries to unsettle some of the methods used in economics today – Regression analysis and Granger causality. Apart from this objective, the post also tries to understand the meaning (rather, meanings) of causality. Do we economists mistake correlation for causality? Can we have a single method for capturing causality?

Causation is defined in the following ways:

-the action of causing or producing.

-the relation of cause to effect; causality

-anything that produces an effect; cause [Dictionary.com]

And the definition of Correlation is:

-mutual relation of two or more things, parts, etc. [Dictionary.com]

I once asked a professor who had offered to give a lecture for our Advanced Economic Theory class this: “Sir, is it possible to establish causation conclusively?” He replied “That is simple. There are these tests- Granger test, Sims test, Sargent test, McClave-Hsiao test, Haugh-Pierce test, etc.” And he wrote the names of these so-called ‘scientific’ tests on our black board.

What we often forget is that, there is no single and simple understanding of causation. There are various kinds of causality like epistemic, conceptual, factual, counterfactual etc. Causality in economics also are of different natures- poverty is causing unemployment, increased demand for oil has resulted in oil price rise, supply constraints are hiking up the price, etc. For instance, conceptually we know that poverty causes unemployment (vicious cycle of poverty) and that increased demand causes a concomitant price rise. In economics, it is important to have an account of both conceptual as well as factual causality.

For causality to be present between two variables A and B, it is necessary for them to be related in some way. This relationship among them can be of a linear nature or a non-linear one. If it is linear in nature, then it is called correlation. [Note that regression analysis (OLS) is based on correlation and is linear in nature.] But, correlation alone does not imply causation. Hence, all those who think that causation and correlation are the same make an inductive leap – from correlation to that of causation.

As R G D Allen writes in his Statistics for Economics: “This statistical concept of correlation is quite neutral as regards causation. One of the variables may be ’caused’ by the other, but this can only be known from other than statistical considerations.” Usually, causal hypotheses are derived from economic theory, because ‘data does not speak on its own’. We need to pass data through theory in order to make sense of it.

However, economic theory (like any other theory) contains a lot of assumptions, mostly unrealistic. What happens to causality then? Causality, then is dependent on these assumptions. Hence, drawing inferences from such theoretical models for practical purposes should be undertaken with caution.

It is this caution that seems to be missing amongst econometricians. This will be evident after looking into the workings of Granger causality. Granger causality analyses probabilistic causality. However, this per se is not a limitation of the test. For, in social sciences, it is exceedingly difficult to talk about deterministic causes in real-world scenario- especially, in a macroeconomic environment.

Granger causality
If X and Y are probabilistically dependent and X precedes Y, then X causes Y.

And, in actual testing, Y is regressed on X (t) and also on X (t-1). If the latter regression is found to be more significant, then X is said to Granger-cause Y. In actual practice, there are economists who forget the prefix. That is, again, some sort of correlation analysis is carried out between Y and X (t-1). In any case, the concept of causation is a problem-ridden one. And as economists who contribute to policy-making, one ought to be on their toes all the time.

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Posted in Economic Philosophy, Economics, Economics Education/Teaching, Inflation, Philosophy and Economics | 7 Comments »