The reputation of economics and economists, never high, has been a victim of the crash of 2008. The Queen was hardly alone in asking why no one had predicted it. An even more serious criticism is that the economic policy debate that followed seems only to replay the similar debate after 1929. The issue is budgetary austerity versus fiscal stimulus, and the positions of the protagonists are entirely predictable from their previous political allegiances.
The doyen of modern macroeconomics, Robert Lucas, responded to the Queen’s question in a guest article in The Economist in August 2009. The crisis was not predicted, he explained, because economic theory predicts that such events cannot be predicted. Faced with such a response, a wise sovereign will seek counsel elsewhere.
But not from the principal associates of Lucas, who are even less apologetic. Edward Prescott, like Lucas, a Nobel Prize winner, began a recent address to a gathering of Laureates by announcing ‘this is a great time in aggregate economics’. Thomas Sargent, whose role in developing Lucas’s ideas has been decisive, is more robust still. Sargent observes that criticisms such as Her Majesty’s ‘reflect either woeful ignorance or intentional disregard of what modern macroeconomics is about’. ‘Off with his head’, perhaps. But before dismissing such responses as ridiculous, consider why these economists thought them appropriate.