Open economics and hard decisions

Ada Smith would know what to do

Two related stories from the engine room of economics struck me this week. One was the underlining by members of the European Parliament of the lack of female representation on the ECB Governing Council and the other was the news that the Federal Reserve is broadening its hiring process to recruit more women and people with more ethnically diverse backgrounds, though disappointingly this initiative seems only to be focused only on research assistant roles.

Both stories tell us much about gender, diversity and decision making and the direction of the economics profession.

On gender, all of the research I have been involved in this area underlines a couple of themes, that good data on gender representation is still hard to get (my friend Richard Kersley’s ‘Gender 3000’ database is one of the leading datasets), and that better (gender) balanced teams and boards make better decisions (or is it that men only ones make more bad decisions?).

In that way it makes great sense for organizations and institutions to recruit women to professional roles, but these institutions also need to facilitate the upward progress of women. I have known many female colleagues who have suffered the tyranny of ‘flexi-time’ – working a four day week, suffering career ‘stigma’ for doing so, and ultimately having to work 20% harder.

As it concerns central banking specifically, there is a much broader question of diversity of thought. By the time a man or women, from any given nationality has made it through an economics PhD programme of a major US university (Handelsblatt carried a news item last week which showed that only 4 of the top 30 German speaking economists are employed in German universities), published in leading economics journals, gained a faculty place or worked in the Fed/IMF/World Bank system, they have become creatures of the system, increasingly losing the incentive and ability to question the status quo.

Very few have the courage to challenge orthodoxy. A good example was the address that Rajan Raghuram gave to the Jackson Hole Symposium in 2005 (‘Has financial development made the world riskier?’) where (as later outlined in his book ‘Faultlines’) he warned of the dangers posed by the mountain of derivatives that had been built upon the US housing market. The response to his speech was frosty to say the least, and for a time many leading economists castigated him (Larry Summers called him a Luddite).  

The tendency of major academic economics departments to ‘form’ economists is dangerous because the creation of group think in central banking has produced a habitual, backward looking approach to monetary policy that usually ends up producing asset price bubbles and economic imbalances (e.g. negative yields, broken banks).

One response to this is to call for ‘new economics’. A recent example is entrepreneur Nick Hanauer’s impassioned TED Talk on the need to change capitalism. While I have sympathy for this view, I do not think that we need new economic theories but rather a better mix of formal economic theory with other sciences, and generally a much greater focus on the science of decision making (the US military and many sports teams such as the leading teams in the Rugby World Cup are innovators here).

One avenue is to pursue much more of a ‘Santa Fe’ approach to economics (I am thinking of the Santa Fe Institute which fosters a cross disciplinary approach to policy and science problems). Within economics, economists and analysts may in the future be better served by taking more the approach of a sleuth than of an econometric modeler.

Specifically, they should employ a wider variety of skills, ferret out facts and use firsthand experience to better understand them, and be more wide-ranging in their choice of the factors they choose to study. For instance, anthropology and sociology can sometimes better help understand the behavior of bankers and markets than can finance theory. If the pendulum of the economics profession is swinging away from a modeling-based approach, better that it swings toward development economics, for instance, which very often requires a more granular appreciation of how policy formulation works in practice.

Development economics is also the field where can be studied the impact on economic growth of a relative change in the quality of institutions or in rule of law, simply by virtue of the fact that the potential incremental change in both variables is much larger in developing than developed countries. I

In more detail, the policies, actions, and actors that affect development in emerging nations are complex, both individually and in the ways they interact with each other. In the Trump/Brexit/ Macron age, politics and institutional quality are exerting a very significant role on markets and economies, and a multipronged, more bottom up approach may be required to open the black box of how policy decision making is undertaken, how it might be improved, and, as I discuss in The Levelling how politicians can make good use of it.

In that respect the ECB and Fed should focus on hiring more senior female experts, in areas like law, banking, psychology as well as those with experience working in large organisations. Christine Lagarde is both the exception and the role model here.

The last issue is decision making. Surely, with debt levels growing, human development levels receding and the climate warming, we need to better understand why policymakers are so prone to avoiding big decisions?

Have a great week ahead,