31 Jan 2017

Economics: The User's Guide -- the review

I’m a fan of Ha-Joon Chang, a “heterodox” economist who has made a name for himself by pointing out the drawbacks to orthodox economics. Chang is not exactly an outsider (he’s a Reader — equivalent to an American associate professor — at Cambridge), but his critique of mainstream economics gives outsiders useful insights that might protect them from over reliance on overly formal (and thus mainly useless) models.

Peter Boettke claims (with cause) that “mainstream” economics left the path of “mainline” economics after World War II, when mathematical economics rose to dominate the field. This resort to “mathterbation” has, IMO, weakened the discipline by making most research both inaccessible to lay readers and inaccurate in terms of “findings” (read Skidelsky). Such weaknesses explain why experimental, behavioural and institutional economics have grown so quickly in the past 20-30 years — mainstream economics just doesn’t help with important questions or facts.

I downloaded this book on the prodding of one of my students as well as my own curiosity. I wanted to read a book that “gives us the tools we need to understand our increasingly global and interconnected world often driven by economics.”

The short answer is that it does not.

Chang's book is not going to be helpful to the average reader with little knowledge of economics as Chang’s method of listing many schools of economic thought (before discussing the pros and cons of each school) will leave most readers confused. Worse, in my opinion, is that Chang oversimplifies — often to the point of caricature — complex sets of ideas that few economists buy into 100 percent. Chang, in other words, is battling with paper tigers in front of an audience that may not know what a real tiger looks like, and without the realities that a real tiger-fighter might need to consider.

In my review of Freakonomics, I say that that book presents a series of entertaining “just so” stories that will be good for cocktail conversation but counterproductive to anyone seeking to understand how economists think. Chang’s book has the same problem but for different reasons. Freakonomics fails because it puts too much weight on case studies. Chang fails (in terms of educating readers) because he puts too much weight on theoretical quibbles.

My advice here is the same as there, i.e., that readers seeking to understand the economic way of thinking read Economics in One Lesson [free download].

Putting that heavy remark aside, I DO recommend this book to graduate students in economics seeking a quick and dirty overview of the various schools of thought and how they overlap and contradict with each other. I would advice they read it AFTER reading Heilbronner’s Worldly Philosophers because his “history of economic thought” explains how the current schools emerged. After reading these two books, it makes a lot of sense for those students to read primers or handbooks in each school as a counterpoint to the neoclassical (often more mathematical than useful) perspective they might get from Mas Colell, Whinston and Green — the doorstopper we used in graduate school that was as rigorous as it was useless.

I would NOT recommend this book for non-economics gradate students because they will walk away with the (mistaken) opinion that “economists can’t agree on anything, so I can ignore economic thinking and make up my own version of human behaviour.” For those students, I would recommend Heilbronner (to see the depth and evolution of economic thinking) in combination with a course in microeconomics (to understand why demand slopes down), with a finisher looking into the economics of non-market goods. (I’ll be reviewing Ostrom et al.’s book on common pool resources soon!)

For readers looking for more detailed criticisms, I’ll give only a few because I make over 70 notes in the text and don’t want to bore all of us with so many details.

Early on, Chang notes that Europe’s GDP grew by less between 1000 and 1500 than China’s did between 2002 and 2008, but this measure of “material progress” (growth) misses much of what people care about (development). I doubt that any historian would agree that Europe did less in 500 years as China did in six (read this).

Chang is a “macro guy” and Keynesian from South Korea, so he’s clearly got a different perspective from me (a micro guy and institutionalist from California), but I found myself constantly amazed by his oversimplified explanations for large scale events (e.g., how declining colonialism lead to World War I or that “Soviet industrialization was a big success… due to its ability to repel the Nazi advance”). In these cases — and many more — I had counter examples to his claims. That doesn’t matter in terms of who’s wrong or what school is right, but it indicates a deeper problem: Chang’s habit of oversimplifying in ways that cannot be generalized (the same problem that Freakonomics had). This may be my perspective as a “micro foundations” guy, but Chang is the one who needs to substantiate (or more carefully state) his claims, and his lack of caveat or rigour undermines both those claims and the rest of his “reasonable perspective.”

I would have loved to read more of Chang’s insights into South Korea’s development as an competitive exporting economy led by conglomerates under a military dictatorship, but that discussion was not in this book (perhaps it is in others). That said, his summary of economic policies in the Reagan years is a shallow and partial caricature that leaves out the importance of higher interest rates in reducing inflation and the role of trade (including imports of Korean cars!) in producing America’s Rust Belt. It was frustrating to miss so many important facts (and perhaps even economic policies!) in those discussions.

I could go on, but I’ll stop.

Bottom Line I give this book THREE STARS because it does not “explain how the global economy actually works--in real-world terms” (and so on), but instead offers a series of mini critiques on economic thought that would be useless — or misleading — to the average reader. I recommend that anyone interested in a quick and entertaining summary of Chang's main message watch this 11 minute RSA video.

For all my reviews, go here.


  1. Hi David -- thanks for the review, and your site. I'd been debating about delving into this one or not. The various links are appreciated, but I would love in particular to see your recommended set of "primers or handbooks in each school" if you become so inclined.

    1. "Primers" and "handbooks" are a generic category, e.g, "A handbook on Keynesian economics", so search for the school of thought with those words... (The books may not be easy for a reader without a basic degree in econ.)


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