¿Qué enseñar en un curso de introducción a la economía después de la crisis financiera de 2008?

El diario estadounidense The New York Times publicó recientemente un debate  en línea titulado “Rethinking How We Teach Economics” (Repensando cómo enseñamos economía). En él, varios profesores e investigadores distinguidos opinan sobre la manera en que la crisis financiera de 2008 afectó a la disciplina y su manera de ver el mundo, así como de la forma en que los cursos introductorios deben modificarse para responder las preguntas, antes olvidadas o relegadas, de los futuros economistas.

El debate completo es muy interesante y recomiendo que lo lean en su totalidad. En este artículo presento las partes que me parecieron de mayor relevancia.

Mona Chalabi, antigua estudiante de economía de Gran Bretaña y actual analista de riesgo, propuso el debate y abre con lo siguiente:

“…in most syllabi and textbooks, the changes are tweaks at most — an altered preface in the latest edition, some additional further reading. Little has changed. One enduring feature, also noticeable among economic policymakers, is the use of abstract language that defies logic. “Negative growth” and “growsterity” are, therefore, considered serious terms despite their internal contradictions.

The financial crisis offered a golden opportunity for university economists to question the utility of supposedly scientific models that failed to predict an economic earthquake. For most professors, however, a fervent attachment to their discipline and the mathematical models within it mean that the financial crisis is still perceived as just another inconvenient anomaly. “

Alan Blinder, profesor de economía en la Universidad de Princeton, asegura que los principios fundamentales de la teoría económica no han sido desacreditados. Sin embargo, argumenta que los cursos introductorios se han vuelto más difíciles de enseñar, pues es necesario introducir conceptos a los estudiantes para explicar lo que sucedió durante la crisis de 2008; conceptos que antes se relegaban para cursos más avanzados. Y como todos los economistas sabemos, los recursos son escasos (en este caso, el tiempo de clases) y los deseos, múltiples:

“Every one of these topics is a fine thing for students to learn about. No problem there. But the academic year hasn’t expanded, so something else must go.”

Agrega que la teoría monetaria, en particular, ha debido de ser enseñada desde nuevos puntos de vista:

“…students must now learn something about ‘unconventional’  monetary policies.

Remember ‘conventional’ monetary policy? The Federal Reserve shortens recessions by creating more bank reserves (“printing money”), which fuels a multiple expansion of the money supply and credit because banks don’t want to hold excess reserves. So they get rid of them making more loans and deposits, which also lowers short-term interest rates. Compare that to current reality: Banks are content to hold over $1.6 trillion in excess reserves, short-term interest rates are stuck near zero, and Fed policy often works on long-term interest rates instead. No, this is not your father’s monetary policy, and the old ways of teaching about it simply won’t do.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, autor del ya famoso libro “The Black Swan: The Impact of The Highly Improbable” y profesor del Instituto Politécnico de la Universidad de Nueva York, opina que deben de desecharse los modelos matemáticos y probabilísticos:

What goes out of the window? The entire discipline of modern finance and portfolio theory (the theories named after Harry Markowitz, William Sharpe, Merton Miller), the model-based methods of Paul Samuelson, much of time series econometrics (which don’t appear to predict anything), along with papers and theories that are based on “optimization.” These bring fragility into the system. So, simply, we would have great jumps in knowledge if we avoided teaching these models, and replaced them with anything, even gardening classes.”

Aunque concuerda con Blinder en que los principios de la ciencia económica se han mantenido sólidos:

“But the broad principles of economics survive such expurgation. We should just ignore much of what has happened in the past half-century of trying to be too sophisticated with quantitative and probability-based models, ending up in dangerous pseudo-science.”

Robert Skidelsky, profesor de la Universidad de Warwick, propone que se enseñen más cursos de historia económica y del pensamiento económico:

“The most important steps to improve the training of young economists would be to make economic history and the history of economic thought compulsory in all undergraduate teaching of economics…Behind the dismissal of economic history and the history of ideas lies the mistaken view of economics as a natural science, whose knowledge base automatically cumulates…This ignores the fact that, unlike in the natural world, the reality that economics aims to study and understand is constantly shifting, largely as a result of our own actions. The future is not just full of unknowns, but, in Donald Rumsfeld’s immortal phrase, of “unknown unknowns.”

The study of the past can help economists narrow the scope of the “unknown unknowns” by casting their net wider. Models that tell us economic collapses cannot happen are no use in trying to understand what did happen in 2008; for this we must go back to such historical greats as Keynes, Hayek and Schumpeter.”

Jeffrey Miron, director de la licenciatura en economía (undergraduate studies) de la Universidad de Harvard y fellow del CATO Institute, propone mayor humildad de los economistas y de sus modelos imperfectos. Además, menciona que la principal causa de desconocimiento en la macroeconomía reside en la imposibilidad de hacer experimentos en una economía:

“The crucial lesson for the future is therefore humility: whatever we think we “know” is far less certain than most textbooks and policy pronouncements presume. This does not mean we know nothing useful; but we should recognize that our current “understanding” might have major flaws…

The principal reason for our imperfect understanding is that macroeconomists and policy makers do not get to “run experiments” with the economy, and that is the only way to learn its true structure and determine how policies affect its performance. Stated differently, we never get to observe the counterfactual in which Fannie and Freddie do not expand mortgage lending, the fiscal stimulus does not take place, the Treasury does not undertake TARP, or the Fed does not engage in quantitative easing. So, maybe these policies helped, maybe they hurt, or maybe they did some of both; we will never know with great confidence.”

Menzie Chinn, profesor de la Universidad de Wisconsin en Madison y bloguero de Econbrowser, propone enseñar que, en la realidad, los precios no siempre pueden equilibrar los mercados:

“In the typical introductory textbook, wages and prices adjust so that labor is fully employed and goods are sold at the right price. A more sophisticated treatment shows up in more advanced texts, but even in some graduate texts, there is an emphasis on the self-correcting aspects of the modern macroeconomy. Recessions are eventually overcome as prices adjust to the right levels, even in the absence of government policy…In the real world, the price signal sometimes cannot do all the work, because of the presence of rigidities.

But the more important reality that has often been assumed away is the following: even when unconstrained, price movements are often insufficient to clear markets, as pointed out by George Akerlof, A. Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz in work that garnered them the Nobel Prize. This outcome is particularly likely in markets where both sides of an economic transaction have differing sets of information, like in the credit market. During the financial crisis of 2008, the asymmetry of information regarding each institution’s financial situation was so pronounced that lending fell precipitously as trust dissipated. These informational problems were only exacerbated as lending fell further. Eventually, no interest rate could induce lending and price failed to clear the credit market. Restoring the functioning of the credit markets required mitigating those information asymmetries, essentially by way of short-term government guarantees.

Finalmente, John Cotter, profesor de la University College de Dublín y fellow en el Ziman Center for Real Estate de UCLA, dice que debemos esperar un reenfoque en ciertas áreas de la economía:

“Expect greater focus on market imperfections, history, data analysis and the relationship between theory and practice.”

La lección más importante para Cotter, y para la sociedad en general, es que las crisis son importantes y los economistas también:

“…it has raised our awareness and interest in the dismal science. The crisis is important. Economics is important. They have relevance.”

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