Heterodox Economics & Marginal Revolutionaries

The “Austrian” school of economics, which traces its roots to 19th-century Vienna, is sternly pre-Freudian: more inhibition, not less, is its prescription. Its adherents believe that part of the economy’s suffering is necessary, an inevitable consequence of past excesses. They do not think the Federal Reserve can rescue the economy. They seek instead to rescue the economy from the Fed.

The Austrians see the bogeyman as inflationary bubbles, and for good reason. Indeed, the Austrian school has thrived on the back of massive disillusion with mainstream economics, which held that the economy would grow steadily if central banks kept inflation low and stable, and that there were no great gains in the offing from fiscal expansion, nor any great cause for concern over financial instability. And they have benefited hugely from blogging.

Economics, perhaps more than any other discipline, has taken to blogs with gusto. Mainstream figures such as Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen have commanded large online audiences for years, audiences which include many of their peers. But the crisis has made the academic establishment fractious and vulnerable. Highly credentialed economists now publicly mock each other’s ignorance and foolishness. That has created an opening for the less decorated members of the guild, and the truly peripheral. In the blogosphere anywhere can be “The Center of the Universe”. And that center now pivots on Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason University whose “Marginal Revolution” blog has drawn wide acclaim.

Tyler Cowen is a proponent of Austrian economics—a resurgent school of thought that, unlike market monetarism, has not been doing much to change the minds of most mainstream economists but, unlike neo-chartalism, has built up a broad constituency on and through the web. Its adherents differ a lot in their preoccupations and prescriptions. But they agree that interest rates should reflect the fundamental forces of thrift rather than the whims of central bankers.

The Austrian school’s thinking centres on the way “malinvestment” orchestrated by central banks distorts the business cycle. By keeping interest rates artificially low, central banks trick entrepreneurs into believing that society is more abstemious than it really is. The entrepreneurs then embark on ambitious, long-gestation investment projects, only to discover that the men and materials they require are otherwise engaged in the production of more immediate gratifications. Once this realisation dawns, the entrepreneurs abandon their follies, firing their workers. If wages are flexible and workers mobile, this bust need not be too bad. But misguided attempts by the government or the Fed to prevent unemployment will delay the necessary reshuffling of labour from industries too tied up in the future to those catering to the needs of the present.

Scholars such as Lawrence White of George Mason University see in this the grounds for replacing central banks with “free banking” in which private institutions take deposits and issue their own banknotes without government permission or protection. To make these liabilities credible, free banks would probably have to make them redeemable into something else, such as gold. As a consequence, banks will hesitate before expanding too quickly, lest their gold reserves come under threat. This, Mr White argues, would impose a natural check on overexpansions of credit.

The resurgence of Austrian analysis is not merely a web-based phenomenon. In 1981 Margit von Mises approved the establishment of an institute in the name of her late husband, Ludwig von Mises, one of the giants of the Austrian tradition of economic thinking. The Mises Institute set up shop at Auburn University in Alabama, attracted by a couple of “Austrian-friendly” faculty members and a timber owner willing to donate money to the cause. From early days in the shadow of the football stands, the institute now boasts its own amphitheatre, conservatory, recording studio and library. At one of the institute’s soirées, accompanied by a recital on its Bösendorfer piano, Vienna may not seem so very far away. Yet the institute’s impressive web presence, with ever more signing up for its online classes, makes its ideas, if not its ambience, available to all.

Austrians still struggle, however, to get published in the principal economics journals. Most economists do not share their admiration for the gold standard, and their theory of the business cycle has won few mainstream converts. According to Leland Yeager, a fellow-traveller of the Austrian school who once held the Mises chair at Auburn, it is “an embarrassing excrescence” that detracts from the Austrians’ other ideas. While it provides insights into booms and their ending, it fails to explain why things must end quite so badly, or how to escape when they do. Low interest rates no doubt helped to inflate America’s housing bubble. But this malinvestment cannot explain everything.

As for the Austrians, Brad DeLong, a Keynesian Berkeley professor who also blogs, has called an acquaintance with their ideas a useful part of a diversified intellectual portfolio. But his frequent comrade in arms, Mr Krugman, does not seem to have revised his view that their business-cycle theory is “as worthy of serious study as the phlogiston theory of fire”.

His analogy implies that economics, like chemistry and physics, makes enough intellectual progress to allow economists to ignore some old thinkers. But is economics that kind of science? Its practitioners cannot run controlled experiments on whole economies, contrary to Krugman’s pseudo-scientific claims.

The Economist