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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When Mainstream Economics Says There's No Alternative, 18 Nov 2011
This review is from: Debunking Economics - Revised and Expanded Edition: The Naked Emperor Dethroned? (Paperback)
... but all the evidence around you says that their medicine isn't working, this book explains why.

For years and years, I've wanted to learn enough about economics to be able to take on those who say that markets are always efficient, that government is always bad, that regulation is always bad, and that the system we have is the best possible. This book gives you the ammunition to do that.

It shows that the foundations of neoclassical economics are a good deal less solid than its practitioners' self confidence. To be frank, I was actually pretty shocked at what he reveals about the huge self-contradictions, illogic and flakymathematics underpinning the economic conventional wisdom. I'm not the most distinguished scientist in the world, but with a Cambridge PhD in Theoretical Chemistry I hope I can appreciate how good science is *supposed* to work, and what Keen reveals shows that neoclassical economics is closer to a cargo cult than a science. The words "Seriously?!", "You're kidding?" and "No way!" emerged from my lips somewhat frequently when reading. One of the things Keen points out is that frequently the problems have been known for decades and ignored by the mainstream economic community; often the problems were pointed out by the theories' original authors themselves.

Many of the charges he levels would not be heinous sins in themselves: there's nothing wrong with making simplifying assumptions in a model, or favouring linear models over more complex ones *provided* you are fully aware of and honest about the simplification, *and* you test your theory against the evidence. If your model agrees with the facts and has predictive power then you are entitled to claim that the bits of reality that you simplified don't actually matter that much. Unfortunately self-contradictory assumptions are more of a problem, even more so if you don't realise you're making them. Economics, like epidemiology, is the kind of science that one cannot ethically test directly (not that people didn't have a damn good try in South America), but the evidence in the wreckage of the global economy at the moment, and in the track record of numerous disastrous interventions by the World Bank and the IMF, tends to show that the dubious foundations of neoclassical models are not salvaged by enormous power to predict reality.

One of the charges levelled at mainstream economics since the crash is that it had been over-obsessed with elaborate mathematical modelling at the expense of trying to explain observed behaviour. Keen shows that there is nothing wrong with mathematics in economics, and that modern techniques that are routinely used elsewhere in science but have yet to penetrate the economic profession can shed much light on macroeconomic complexity. It's just that the mainstream has been preoccupied with building ever-more elaborate models using ancient techniques dubiously applied to dodgy and self-contradictory assumptions, which must make it one of the longest bouts of mental masturbation in history.

It's not always an easy read, and slightly ranty in places but it is full of the pithy insights and clear thinking that typify the best writing.

One of the best things I learned from the book was a point made by Minsky in the 1950s. Since we've had depressions, then a valid macroeconomic theory must have a depression as one of its possible states. Neoclassical theories, with their unwarranted assumption that the market is always near and tending to equilibrium, fail this test.
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