The most embarrassing thing Joe Stiglitz ever wrote?

Geoffrey Manne —  30 September 2007

In case you haven’t already, I recommend taking a gander at today’s New York Time Book Review.  In it, there is a review of Naomi Klein’s new book, The Shock Doctrine, by Nobel-winning economist, Joe Stiglitz.  It’s an abomination (I’m sure the book is an abomination, too, but I’m referring to the book review). 

If you know anything about Klein you know that she is an ideological zealot, impervious to facts and reason (although I’m sure some would say the same of me.  Except in her case, it’s actually true).  I’m sure she’s well-meaning and all that, but her book No Logo (yes, I have read it), and now this book, as well (judging only by the reviews–I won’t make the mistake of reading more than one Naomi Klein book), reflect an ignorance of economics, markets and politics that can be born only of utter disdain.  I won’t belabor the point. 

But what’s truly embarrassing is that an economist of Joe Stiglitz’s stature would write an utterly fawning review of her book!  I didn’t know that Stiglitz had slipped as far as Paul Krugman into the land of the “formerly-great-now-blinded-by ideology-to-all-reason” but I can only conclude now that he has.  There is not a single word of criticism in this review.  Not one.  At one point he does note that “she’s not an economist but a journalist,” and he similarly says that she “is not an academic and cannot be judged as one.”  But one gets the powerful sense that these are actually compliments!  Rather than follow these statements by noting one or two errors of, say, oversimplification, omission or confusion (of the sort inexcusable, I guess, by an academic or an economist), he follows them with praise for her tenacity and perspicacity as a journalist and he excuses her oversimplification (apparently there is some in the book (shocking!), but Stiglitz can’t be bothered to hold Klein’s shortcomings up to the light) by claiming that her academic targets–Milton Friedman and his ilk–were guilty of oversimplification, too.  Nya, nya!  I’m rubber and you’re glue, whatever bad you say bounces off me and sticks to . . . economists I disagree with!  It’s very illuminating (but not at all in the way one might want to be illuminated by a book review.  But then I guess most reviews are more about the reviewer than the subject, right?).

And, of course, there is the obligatory, barely disguised self-promotion (remember that part about reviews really being about the reviewer).  Just read this paragraph:

Klein is not an academic and cannot be judged as one. There are many places in her book where she oversimplifies. But Friedman and the other shock therapists were also guilty of oversimplification, basing their belief in the perfection of market economies on models that assumed perfect information, perfect competition, perfect risk markets. Indeed, the case against these policies is even stronger than the one Klein makes. They were never based on solid empirical and theoretical foundations, and even as many of these policies were being pushed, academic economists were explaining the limitations of markets — for instance, whenever information is imperfect, which is to say always.

Now which academic economists were doing all this explaining about imperfect information, Joe?  I can’t recall.  Anyway, even the claims he generously makes here on Naomi’s behalf are themselves untenable oversimplifications.  Please, do show me where Friedman believes that ideas can be implemented in a frictionless world?  The claim that Friedman’s models employed simplifying assumptions is true.  But, then, that’s the point of models, even the ones Stiglitz uses.  They are called “models” not “complete, messy representations of reality.”  The implication that Friedman’s assumptions, because they were simplifications, led to results with no relevance is a claim only a journalist or a non-academic would make.   I commend one of Friedman’s most important works–The Methodology of Positive Economics–to Stiglitz’s attention.  He shouldn’t find it too troubling to read–it doesn’t even mention free markets or Ronald Reagan.  Here’s just one important bit:

A theory or its “assumptions” cannot possibly be thoroughly “realistic” in the immediate descriptive sense so often assigned to this term. A completely “realistic” theory of the wheat market would have to include not only the conditions directly underlying the supply and demand for wheat but also the kind of coins or credit instruments used to make exchanges; the personal characteristics of wheat-traders such as the colour of each trader’s hair and eyes, his antecedents and education, the number of members of his family, their characteristics, antecedents, and education, etc.; the kind of soil on which the wheat was grown, its physical and chemical characteristics, the weather prevailing during the growing season; the personal characteristics of the farmers growing the wheat and of the consumers who will ultimately use it; and so on indefinitely. Any attempt to move very far in achieving this kind of “realism” is certain to render a theory utterly useless.

Most important, however, what Friedman knew and what Stiglitz and Klein utterly ignore is that world is a messy place, and implementation of even the best academic ideas must be undertaken with appropriate expectations about the limitations of the institutions doing the implementing.  The only oversimplification here is the one (propounded by Klein, who is an ardent activist, and Stiglitz, who has no excuse) that says that because markets don’t always work perfectly, government solutions are better.  If you read Stiglitz’s review, you’ll see that all of Klein’s examples have one thing in common:  The only alternatives to the actions she abhors are ones entailing more government “solutions” to the endemic problems of the market. 

But the best part is that the refutation of her (and Joe’s) philosophy jumps off every page of her books.  For the common element in each of the actions she decries (Bush taking advantage of misery in Iraq to impose capitalism; the Sri Lankan government displacing poor fishermen in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, etc.) is that the evil being perpetrated, even by her own standards, is being perpetrated by the government!  I know enough about Klein from her other book to know that the irony of this is completely lost on her.  While advocating tirelessly for various forms of government solutions to the evils of capitalism run amok, it is completely lost on her that all of her alleged examples of such run-amokery are perpetrated by . . . governments.  I’m sure she and Joe believe that if only the right governments were in charge, then none of this would happen and the world would be a shiny, happy place.  The naiveté in that is thick.  Again, excusable for an anti-globalization hack like Klein; a bit jarring for a Nobel Prize winner like Stiglitz.

But enough ranting.  There are more important things to do.  I’ll leave you with just this:

I’ve included a longer excerpt from Friedman below the fold.  It contains not only the above bit about the usefulness of simplifying assumptions, but also a nice refutation of the specific claims Stiglitz makes about the irrelevance of models assuming perfect competition.  Frankly this may be the most embarrassing part:  That Stiglitz would make the claims he does in full knowledge that the very person he tries to tar with irrelevance had long ago penned his own clarification (and refutation) of precisely this point.  As I said, it’s an abomination.

A theory or its “assumptions” cannot possibly be thoroughly “realistic” in the immediate descriptive sense so often assigned to this term. A completely “realistic” theory of the wheat market would have to include not only the conditions directly underlying the supply and demand for wheat but also the kind of coins or credit instruments used to make exchanges; the personal characteristics of wheat-traders such as the colour of each trader’s hair and eyes, his antecedents and education, the number Of members of his family, their characteristics, antecedents, and education, etc.; the kind of soil on which the wheat was grown, its physical and chemical characteristics, the weather prevailing during the growing season; the personal characteristics of the farmers growing the wheat and of the consumers who will ultimately use it; and so on indefinitely. Any attempt to move very far in achieving this kind of “realism” is certain to render a theory utterly useless.

Of course, the notion of a completely realistic theory is in part a straw man. No critic of a theory would accept this logical extreme as his objective; he would say that the “assumptions” of the theory being criticised were “too” unrealistic and that his objective was a set of assumptions that were “more” realistic though still not completely and slavishly so. But so long as the test of “realism” is the directly perceived descriptive accuracy of the “assumptions” — for example, the observation that “businessmen do not appear to be either as avaricious or as dynamic or as logical as marginal theory portrays them” or that ”it would be utterly impractical under present conditions for the manager of a multi-process plant to attempt . . . to work out and equate marginal costs and marginal revenues for each productive factor” — there is no basis for making such a distinction, that is, for stopping short of the straw man depicted in the preceding paragraph. What is the criterion by which to judge whether a particular departure from realism is or is not acceptable? Why is it more “unrealistic” in analysing business behaviour to neglect the magnitude of businessmen’s costs than the colour of their eyes? The obvious answer is because the first makes more difference to business behaviour than the second; but there is no way of knowing that this is so simply by observing that businessmen do have costs of different magnitudes and eyes of different colour. Clearly it can only be known by comparing the effect on the discrepancy between actual and predicted behaviour of taking the one factor or the other into account. Eve the most extreme proponents of realistic assumptions are thus necessarily driven to reject their own criterion and to accept the test by prediction when they classify alternative assumptions as more or less realistic.

The basic confusion between descriptive accuracy and analytical relevance that underlies most criticisms of economic theory on the grounds that its assumptions are unrealistic as well as the plausibility of the views that lead to this confusion are both strikingly illustrated by a seemingly innocuous remark in an article on business-cycle theory that “economic phenomena are varied and complex, so any comprehensive theory of the business cycle that can apply closely to reality must be very complicated.” A fundamental hypothesis of science is that appearances are deceptive and that there is a way of looking at or interpreting or organising the evidence that will reveal superficially disconnected and diverse phenomena to be manifestations of a more fundamental and relatively simple structure. And the test of this hypothesis, as of any other, is its fruits — a test that science has so far met with dramatic success. If a class of “economic phenomena” appears varied and complex, it is, we must suppose, because we have no adequate theory to explain them. Known facts cannot be set on one side; a theory to apply “closely to reality,” on the other. A theory is the way we perceive “facts,” and we cannot perceive “facts” without a theory. Any assertion that economic phenomena are varied and complex denies the tentative state of knowledge that alone makes scientific activity meaningful; it is in a class with John Stuart Mill’s justly ridiculed statement that “happily, there is nothing in the laws of value which remains [1848] for the present or any future writer to clear up; the theory of the subject is complete.”

The confusion between descriptive accuracy and analytical relevance has led not only to criticisms of economic theory on largely irrelevant grounds but also to misunderstanding of economic theory and misdirection of efforts to repair supposed defects. “Ideal types” in the abstract model developed by economic theorists have been regarded as strictly descriptive categories intended to correspond directly and fully to entities in the real world independently of the purpose for which the model is being used. The obvious discrepancies have led to necessarily unsuccessful attempts to construct theories on the basis of categories intended to be fully descriptive.

This tendency is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the interpretation given to the concepts of “perfect competition” and “monopoly” and the development of the theory of “monopolistic” or “imperfect competition.” Marshall, it is said, assumed “perfect competition”; perhaps there once was such a thing. But clearly there is no longer, and we must therefore discard his theories. The reader will search long and hard — and I predict unsuccessfully — to find in Marshall any explicit assumption about perfect competition or any assertion that in a descriptive sense the world is composed of atomistic firms engaged in perfect competition. Rather, he will find Marshall saying:, “At one extreme are world markets in which competition acts directly from all parts of the globe; and at the other those secluded markets in which all direct competition from afar is shut out, though indirect and transmitted competition may make itself felt even in these; and about midway between these extremes lie the great majority of the markets which the economist and the businessman have to study”. Marshall took the world as it is, he sought to construct an “engine” to analyse. it, not a photographic reproduction of it.

In analysing the world as it is, Marshall constructed a hypothesis that, for many problems, firms could be grouped into “industries” such that the similarities among the firms in each group were more important than the differences among them. These are problems in which the important element is that a group of firms is affected alike by some stimulus — a common change in the demand for their products, say, or in the supply of factors. But this will not do for all problems: the important element for these may be the differential effect on particular firms.

The abstract model corresponding to this hypothesis contains two “ideal” types of firms: atomistically competitive firms, grouped into industries, and monopolistic firms. A firm is competitive if the demand curve for its output is infinitely elastic with respect to its own price for some price and all outputs, given the prices charged by all other firms; it belongs to an “industry” defined as a group of firms producing a single “product.” A “product” is defined as a collection of units that are perfect substitutes to purchasers so the elasticity of demand for the output of one firm with respect to the price of another firm in the same industry is infinite for some price and some outputs. A firm is monopolistic if the demand curve for its output is not infinitely elastic at some price for all outputs. If it is a monopolist, the firm is the industry.

As always, the hypothesis as a whole consists not only of this abstract model and its ideal types but also of a set of rules, mostly implicit and suggested by example, for identifying actual firms with one or the other ideal type and for classifying firms into industries. The ideal types are not intended to be descriptive; they are designed to isolate the features that are crucial for a particular problem. Even if we could estimate directly and accurately the demand curve for a firm’s product, we could not proceed immediately to classify the firm as perfectly competitive or monopolistic according as the elasticity of the demand curve is or is not infinite. No observed demand curve will ever be precisely horizontal, so the estimated elasticity will always be finite. The relevant question always is whether the elasticity is “sufficiently” large to be regarded as infinite, but this is a question that cannot be answered, once for all, simply in terms of the numerical value of the elasticity itself, any more than we can say, once for all, whether an air pressure of 15 pounds per square inch is “sufficiently” close to zero to use the formula s = 1/2gt2. Similarly, we cannot compute cross-elasticities of demand and then classify firms into industries according as there is a “substantial gap in the cross-elasticities of demand.” As Marshall says, “The question where the lines of division between different commodities [i.e., industries] should be drawn must be settled by convenience of the particular discussion. Everything depends on the problem; there is no inconsistency in regarding the same firm as if it were a perfect competitor for one problem, and a monopolist for another, just as there is none in regarding the same chalk mark as a Euclidean line for on e problem, a Euclidean surface for a second, and a Euclidean solid for a third. The size of the elasticity and cross-elasticity of demand, the number of firms producing physically similar products, etc., are all relevant because they are or may be among the variables used to define the correspondence between the ideal and real entities in a particular problem and to specify the circumstances under which the theory holds sufficiently well; but they do not provide, once for all, a classification of firms as competitive or monopolistic.

Geoffrey Manne


11 responses to The most embarrassing thing Joe Stiglitz ever wrote?


    I hate to see people dismissed as a zealot who can’t listen to facts and reason.

    How long have their been business schools, the history of business, lawyers. You would think you folks would have worked out all the kinks to make economics work correctly. I only see people like you who have an ignorance of economics cause you guys, for all your knowledge, can’t get it right.

    A lot of things that are really complex can be started simply. Also, a lot of things (like business and economics) that are extremely complex should be simplified. However, then you would be out of a job and where would we been then? A lot better off I think.



    Many of the economic crises Klein discusses were caused by failed socialist policies. The move to freer markets weren’t imposed from above by Milton Friedman, but from below by the very people these policies were hurting.

    To claim that China moved towards freer markets because of some capitalist conspiracy rather than from it’s own people rejecting the government’s utterly ruinous economic policies and brutal methods (including political imprisonment, torture, and execution) is completely laughable.

    There is zero evidence that people living under socialist dictatorships are better off than people living in free societies.


    “stop calling your political enemies zealots”

    And if they are zealots? FWIW, there are obviously reasonable people who reasonably differ in the way they see the world. But there are also zealots whose views tend towards the unreasonable.

    I’ve seen and read enough of Naomi Klein to know where she falls in that continuum. I’ve no reason to expect that her latest book would be anything different.

    And shame on Joe Stiglitz for misstating the beliefs of Dr. Friedman, who is no longer here to correct the record himself. Friedman never believed in the ‘perfection’ of market economies that I ever read.

    Most people who haven’t bought into the enlightenment philosophy have pretty much resigned themselves to understanding the such a thing as perfection, when talking of human endeavors, has never and will never exist.


    For all your posturing on the theoretical aspects of the free market, you utterly fail to engage the issues that Klein brings up and that Stiglitz critiques – the use of free market ideology in violent overthrows and disastrous economic implementations in the third world. I realize your site is by hacks, for hacks, but that doesn’t make it any more relevant for the rest of us looking for engaging discussion. Please, stop calling your political enemies zealots, and show me, with data, where they are wrong…or I will be forced to continue to conclude, as I currently do, that you have no agenda but your political one.



    This paper very probably goes into Friedman’s views on perfect competition:

    I haven’t read it yet, so forgive me if it doesn’t but it seems relevant to your question.


    To my knowledge, no free market thinker has ever claimed that perfect knowledge or “pure and perfect competition” are neccessary in a free market. In fact, those I know of have refuted the “pure and perfect competition” idea. I haven’t read much Friedman, but I would guess he repudiated the idea, too. Anyone know if he did?


    Maybe Stiglitz didn’t really write the review.

    Maybe he was kidnapped and impersonated so they would take away his Nobel for severe economic incompetence.

    Maybe I’m being too optimistic about the world.


    But he *did* read the review. Does the Nobel Committee ever retract prizes?


    “I’m sure the book is an abomination, too, but I’m referring to the book review.”

    So you didnt read the book?

    Ok, then youre thoughts about this is very interesting…


    And that is why I canceled my subscription to the NY Times.

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