Paul Lachine

Economics for Parrots

It is said that the early nineteenth-century British economist J.R. McCulloch originated the old joke that the only training a parrot needs to be a passable political economist is one phrase: “supply and demand, supply and demand.” It would be a welcome development nowadays if more economists behaved like MucCulloch's parrots.

BERKELEY – It is said that the early nineteenth-century British economist J.R. McCulloch originated the old joke that the only training a parrot needs to be a passable political economist is one phrase: “supply and demand, supply and demand.” Last week, US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said that McCulloch’s economics – the economics of supply and demand – was in no way discredited by the financial crisis, and was still extraordinarily useful.

It’s hard to disagree with Bernanke’s sentiment: economics would be useful if economists were, indeed, likeMcCulloch’s parrots – i.e., if they actually looked at supply and demand. But I think that much of economics has been discredited by the manifest failure of many economists to be as smart as McCulloch’s parrots were.

Consider the claims – rampant nowadays in the US – that further government attempts to alleviate unemployment will fail, because America’s current high unemployment is “structural”: a failure of economic calculation has left the country with the wrong productive resources to satisfy household and business demand. The problem, advocates of this view claim, is a shortage of productive supply rather than a shortage of aggregate demand.

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