Monday, July 27, 2015

can biologists fix economics?

newscientist |  THE GLOBAL financial crisis of 2008 took the world by surprise. Few mainstream economists saw it coming. Most were blind even to the possibility of such a catastrophic collapse. Since then, they have failed to agree on the interventions required to fix it. But it’s not just the crash: there is a growing feeling that orthodox economics can’t provide the answers to our most pressing problems, such as why inequality is spiralling. No wonder there’s talk of revolution.

Earlier this year, several dozen quiet radicals met in a boxy red building on the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany, to plot just that. The stated aim of this Ernst Strüngmann Forum at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies was to create “a new synthesis for economics”. But the most zealous of the participants – an unlikely alliance of economists, anthropologists, ecologists and evolutionary biologists – really do want to overthrow the old regime. They hope their ideas will mark the beginning of a new movement to rework economics using tools from more successful scientific disciplines.

Drill down, and it’s not difficult to see where mainstream “neoclassical” economics has gone wrong. Since the 19th century, economies have essentially been described with mathematical formulae. This elevated economics above most social sciences and allowed forecasting. But it comes at the price of ignoring the complexities of human beings and their interactions – the things that actually make economic systems tick.

The problems start with Homo economicus, a species of fantasy beings who stand at the centre of orthodox economics. All members of H. economicus think rationally and act in their own self-interest at all times, never learning from or considering others.

We’ve known for a while now that Homo sapiens is not like that (see “Team humanity“). Over the years, there have been various attempts to inject more realism into the field by incorporating insights into how humans actually behave. Known as behavioural economics, this approach has met with some success in microeconomics – the study of how individuals and small groups make economic decisions. It has persuaded governments to “nudge” people into doing what’s best for the economy, influencing behaviour by more subtle forms of persuasion than financial inducements. In 2010, the UK government set up the Behavioural Insights Team (known as the Nudge Unit) and the White House established something similar in the US in February last year.