Micro, Macro, Meso, and Meta Economics

HONG KONG – Given the crisis weighing down the world economy and financial markets, it is not surprising that a substantive reconsideration of the principles of modern economics is underway. The profession’s dissident voices, it seems, are finally reaching a wider audience.

For example, the Nobel laureate Ronald H. Coase has complained that microeconomics is filled with black-box models that fail to study the actual contractual relations between firms and markets. He pointed out that when transaction costs are low and property rights are well defined, innovative private contracts might solve collective-action problems such as pollution; but policymakers rely largely on fiscal instruments, owing to economists’ obsession with simplistic price theory.

Another Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman, has claimed that macroeconomics over the last three decades has been useless at best and harmful at worst. He argues that economists became blind to catastrophic macro failure because they mistook the beauty or elegance of theoretical models for truth.

Both Coase and Krugman bemoan the neglect of their profession’s patrimony – a tradition dating at least to Adam Smith – that valued grand and unifying theories of political economy and moral philosophy. The contemporary obsession with reductionist and mechanical models seems to have driven the profession from theory toward ideology, putting it out of touch with the real economy.