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The Character and Role of Economic Theory

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 8th November 2012

Over the years, much has been written about the methods employed in economic theory. The recent financial crisis and the ongoing economic crisis in Europe have resulted in a marked increase in criticisms directed at mainstream economic theory – neoclassical economics (more precisely, marginalist economics). Internal critics of neoclassical economics have been modifying certain assumptions of marginalist economics and have ‘developed’ new forms of economic knowledge such as law and economics, welfare economics, neuroeconomics, new institutional economics and so on. Critics external to marginalist economics, often known as heterodox economics (examples include Classical/Sraffian economics, Post-Keynesian economics and Marxian economics), have provided compelling logical critiques of the theory. Additionally, they also supplement their analysis with empirical and historical details (which is not uncommon in neoclassical economic either). This post is reflective in nature and tries to comprehend the character of economic theory along with a commentary on its contemporary function in the form of questions, thereby reinforcing the reflective nature of this blog post.

First, the definition adopted has a critical influence on the aims and scope of economic theory. For instance, the definition of economics as a study of reproduction and accumulation of wealth/income (characteristic of the heterodox economic theories mentioned above) is qualitatively different from a definition which views economics as a study of allocating scarce resources among competing ends (characteristic of neoclassical economics). The former definition is more modest in scope and seeks to provide answers to a limited number of questions vis-à-vis the latter one which encompasses any and every issue where human decisions are involved. Examining the causes of accumulation and growth warrant the following theories: a theory of value and distribution; a theory of activity-levels (at times, this is absent); and a theory of economic growth. While examining the causal connections within these theories, some features of human behaviour are taken as given. The most important, perhaps, is the human propensity for self-betterment in material terms. Such a limited domain enables these economic theories to be more specific and definite thereby improving their explanatory power in the analysis of economic growth, unemployment, technical progress, wage dynamics and so on. An extremely wide scope is entailed by the definition of economics present in neoclassical economics; consequently, we see the emergence of sub-fields such as: cognitive economics, neuroeconomics, economics of philosophy, experimental economics, evolutionary economics, cliometrics, etc. The questions addressed in many of these sub-fields often have nothing to do with the generation of income or its distribution. The questions being asked are different, and quite relevant in understanding various aspects of human behaviour and institutions. However, if the aim of economic policy and economists is to improve material well-being, neoclassical economics and its sub-fields are not entirely satisfactory, primarily for logical reasons. The two most dangerous tenets of marginalist economics are the marginal productivity theory and the tendency to full employment.

Second, economic theory, I think, has two broad functions. One is to explain the logically necessary connections which exist between various economic variables, and the direction of causation. Usage of terms such as exogenous, endogenous, dependent and independent variables convey the direction of causation. For example, classical/Keynesian theory argues that activity levels and economic growth is demand-led whereas marginalist economics posits that activity levels and economic growth is supply-driven. This is a theoretical debate, which cannot be resolved by recourse to empirical data given the high degree of correlation present among (macro)economic variables such as income, investment, saving, etc. Another reason for the debate being unresolved is the incommensurability of the two kinds of economic theory involved – classical/Keynesian vs. marginalism. The other broad function of an economic theory is to provide an explanation for the manner in which these (marco)economic variables grow over time; strictly speaking, the dominant economics influences the way in which data is collected and presented and the explanation for the data is also provided by the dominant economics. (A chief, although not very reliable, exception to this is the econometric technique known as VAR which attempts to undertake ‘measurement without theory’.) Much of these numbers will need to be supplemented with contextual and historical details. Also, in economics, one needs to be careful about assigning too much ‘reliability’ to data so much so that they are considered ‘adequate’ to overturn a particular economic theory. This is not to say that data does not matter, but that it should be treated with significant caution.

Third and finally, it is of great practical importance to know what economic policies can be advanced based on economic theory, supplemented by data or not. In other words, what conditions must a particular theory fulfil in order for it to be reliable? Is an empirical assessment necessary or is it sufficient? How sound must the logic be? To what extent must the assumptions be scrutinised? Can econometric analysis provide conclusive evidence?

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Posted in Classical Economics, Cliometrics, Economic Philosophy, Economic Thought, Economics, Experimental Economics, Macroeconomics, Marginalist economics, Neoclassical Economics, Sraffian Economics | No Comments »

Indian Economic History:Part 1

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 8th December 2006

The decline of Indian manufacturing sector

This post will be one among a series of posts relating to the Indian economic history based on the book by Romesh Chunder Dutt called ‘The Economic History of India.’[Published 1902]

Being cognizant of what happened to the economy during the British rule in India will enable us to understand the causes and reasons of some of the contemporary social and economic issues. A thorough understanding of the British policies in India will bring to the fore the reasons why India, a relatively strong and mighty country earlier, faced famines, debts, etc.

This post tries to examine certain historical incidents brought out by Dutt in relation to the current socio-economic framework.

The Englishmen introduced western education, built a strong and efficacious administration, framed wise laws and also established courts of justice.

India encountered famines during the years 1877, 1878, 1889, 1892, 1897 and 1900 which carried off more than 15 millions of people.”
Though British introduced such efficient institutions, India lost millions of lives in the famines. Famines further aggravate poverty and also undermine the confidence on the Government.

Sources of wealth have been narrowed under British rule.”
Though they provided India with efficient enterprises, they thoroughly looted India of all its wealth. The British rule proved to be a lacuna in the growth of India which further accelerated and aggravated problems like high external debts, droughts even after Indian independence.

India was a great manufacturing as well as an agricultural country in the 16th century.” “Indian loom supplied the markets of Asia and Europe.”
The manufacturing sector is increasingly dependent on the agricultural sector for raw materials. The demand for manufactured goods predominantly comes from the primary sector. Most of the populace was engaged in agricultural activities, and due to this they enjoyed a considerable ‘Demand capacity’, which provided them with the sufficient ‘purchasing power’ to consume manufactured products. This sort of a healthy relation between the 2 sectors is sustainable in the long run, rather than an economy which depends heavily on a single sector. Of late, the rhetoric has been to increase GDP growth rates, without mentioning the importance of contributions from Agriculture to these growth rates.

East India Company and the British parliament, followed selfish commercial policy which discouraged Indian manufacturers.” “An excise duty was imposed on Indian cotton fabrics which disabled then to compete with Japan and China.”
The British ruined the manufacturing sector by imposing heavy duties on its exports thus making it costly in the global market. Owing to the fact that India had abundant natural resources, Agriculture could not be strangled.

British made Indian people grow raw produce only.”
This enabled them to purchase cheap raw materials and had it processed in England which was later sold for exorbitant rates in India and elsewhere.

Millions of Indian artisans lost their earnings.” “The invention of the power loom in Europe completed the decline of the Indian industries.”

Thus the Indian manufacturing sector was almost reduced to nothing by the end of 1947.

Advances in Economic History

A new branch of Economics, namely ‘Cliometrics’ which refers to the systematic use of economic theory and econometrics techniques to study economic history has helped economic historians in increasing the accuracy of their findings.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for 1993 jointly to Professor Robert W. Fogel, University of Chicago, USA, and Professor Douglass C. North, Washington University, St. Louis, USA, “for having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantiative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change.” [Nobelprize.org]

Further Links

1) The Cliometric society
2) Cliometrica (Journal of Historical Economics and Econometric History)

Posted in Agricultural sector, Cliometrics, Economic history, Economics, India, Industrial sector | No Comments »