The Dance of the Meta-Axioms: How economics makes itself perpetually irrelevant. Today at the New School, NY

Click here for the relevant paper: Dance of the Meta-axioms

While the eurozone is dancing itself into oblivion, Greece and Italy are appointing new Prime Ministers whose greatest claim to fame was to be part of the policy mindset that brought us where we are, I am taking a break (just for today) from this incessant euro-debacle-debate. To day, I shall be presenting a (wonkish) paper at the New School University, in New York. The title is:

THE DANCE OF THE META-AXIOMS: On economics’ most peculiar nemesis

Thursday, November 10, at 2:00 pm.  The event will be in room 901 at 6 East 16th St (between 5th Ave and Union Square West).  


  • Aren’t you and Mr. Papademos colleagues? And when you say that he is “part of the policy mindset”, do you mean he was a tax evading, rousfeti and corruption advocate?

    • No. But he did hold onto a professorship for 14 years, without teaching one hour, in order to secure (one assumes) the University’s meagre pension (on top of a huge ECB one)!

    • Prof. Varoufkis, maybe you should take back the ” without teaching one hour” since he did offer an elective course, if you check the records. Is it true that one gets a pension as a professor after 14 years? Not even mothers with young children are given that option.

      More seriously, I think he probably needed the professorship for the prestige and weight it gave to further his ambitions, (check all those doctors of medicine in professorships) and there is nothing bad with ambitions, imo. They are what makes the human world go round.

  • Yani,

    It is obvious that the ideas described in the Modest Proposal constitute a brilliant set of proposals in leading the Eurozone out of the crisis.

    What I have been wondering, however, while watching things unfold in Greece and Italy, is the possibility that Merkozy have in fact long rejected such ideas, not because they failed to consider them, nor because they are not ready to move in that direction yet, nor even because they are too busy servicing a grand illusion; but, rather, because the interests of the powers they serve are indeed better served by a completely different set of agendas. So, my question to you, Yani, is, have you ever considered those possible other agendas? If you did, did you come to the conclusion that co-authoring books that served the development and execution of those possible other agendas would likely not sell and therefore never lend themselves to tours and hours of interviewing for the benefit of audiences in Europe, Australia, North America… even for audiences like Al Jazeera’s?

    I suppose, what I am asking you, Yani, is what is your agenda in promoting the Modest Proposal? One response from you on your website was that your job was not to predict what would happen but to propose what should happen – obviously, I am paraphrasing you here. And, indeed, to the greatest extent possible , that is what you have done all along. However, other than exposing myself to a lucid analysis of the GFC, why else do I want to stay tuned in to your agenda from the point of view of one who wants to see Merkozy finally (and I really mean soon) endorse the Modest Proposal. Clearly, this is not what has been happening, nor does it seem likely to happen going forward, yet the underlying assumption that drives your work is that what you are sharing with the world through the Modest Proposal is what would happen if only the Europeans and the powers that be had an “uh-ha” moment, courtesy of your very research.

    Put simply, are you selling your stuff, Yani, so thoughtfully because you think in your heart the actual movers and shakers in Europe will buy; or are you, just as thoughtfully, just… selling your stuff? Which is it, Yani?

    Harris P

  • Wish I were there to attend! However, I am not aware of lectures from Y. Verifaki in Athens open to the public. We get to hear of many incipid lectures going on in cosmopolitan Athens, but Y. Verifaki has an intellectual following in Athens waiting to hear him speak on T.V. when invited on infrequent occasions. Lecturing for the public in Greece, not only Athens – at the various universities or elsewhere – would provide an important alternative stimulous to the nonsense we are bombarded with daily.

  • In Plato’s Republic, which is both a philosophical and intellectual debate about the composition of the ideal state, it is made abundantly clear that we need to avoid @ all cost characters who gravitate towards politics for lust of power. (the avoidance of the unfit)

    As such, everyone who pursues politics for reasons of limelight (enter here the names of Papandreou and Samaras) should be outright rejected from holding the highest office.

    Plato proceeds to tell us that only virtuous citizens who dislike the trappings of power and politics, ought to be installed as the head of the ideal government.

    I believe this part of Plato’s Republic exactly describes a fellow like Loukas Papademas, the new Greek PM.

  • Love that “Dance of the Meta-axioms” chapter. Am teaching it in a Soc–Collective Behavior course. Wish me good luck.

  • This was an amazing talk. Is there a paper we can access anywhere or do we have to wait for the book?

    Here is a question I couldn’t ask (I ended up asking about the possibility of escaping the dance of meta-axioms with fancier mathematical tools).

    You said that any closed model, even outside of neoclassical economics, drives irrelevant conclusions… How about closing models or accounting relationships according to the understanding of particular economies in particular points in time, which is the idea of so-called “structuralist macroeconomics”? The choice of which closures to use may depend on the specific question asked, and can be based on the reading of the Financial Times or on the knowledge of economic history (to use your own sources)… In other words, are models always useless, even if the choice of how to close the model is made explicit and justified based on one’s understanding of the real economy?

  • Thanks so much for your presentation today – it was great to think about the big picture of the discipline. I have two points:

    1. After thinking about it, my classmate and I are wondering if what you outline is more of a feature than a bug. The reason I am attracted to economics is that there is a methodology built in to the discipline, unlike, for example, history. Thus, when faced with a question, there is a ready-made way forward: think about individuals, think about constraints, think about how they would act in equilibrium. Certainly if other methodologies provide “better” results (however we want to score that), we should use them, but being able to start from a consistent viewpoint is an advantage, not a detriment.

    2. I would think that most economists would agree with your assessment – the limitations of these meta-axioms are not unknown or unacknowledged. But wouldn’t an overall abolition or limitation lead to fewer “answers” (given that the answers may not be exact, and may not hold in all cases, etc.) – in other words, isn’t the system we have the one that leads to the most knowledge?

    • If it led to more knoweldge, I would not have said all that I did say today. I am all for knowledge, enlightenment and truth (not to mention beauty). Alas, my paper was about the capacity to our profession to obfuscate – not to enlighhten; to hide the truth and to put a great distance between ourselves and our reality. In short, we have ended up with a ‘science’ whose failure is designed (as opposed to accidental) and symbiotic with narratives that enhance the social power of the worst kind of rentiers.

  • Yanis, So far, the “new word” technocrat sounds an awful lot like the old word: “politician”. They even both have the same number of letters.

  • It’s funny, because I very clearly remember him teaching ME and several other students for a whole of a very interesting semester and course. (So more than one hour, then.)
    Greek academics are famous for their disputes and I do hope you are not letting one such dispute cloud your judgement. Give the guy a chance.
    Systemic though the European crisis may be, it sits on top of a very messy and particular socioeconomic system, I fact I fear you are forgetting rather, er, systematically.

  • Hasn’t it been a deeply political decision to award two economists with the nobel prize this year who advocate neoclassisist economics and the rationality of the markets? “Rationality”? Every lay man on the streets can tell you, what we experience has nothing to do with reason.

  • Very interesting topic indeed

    Two things

    1. On Maynard Smith’s (J.M.S.) ESS. It was a core feature of neodarwinism and it’s influence on every scientific field was on a par with Nash’s ideas about equilibrium. But biology moved on and J.M.S.’s work is now viewed upon much more critical. In biology we now speak about attractors, co- evolution (on a massive scale), symbiosis and parasitism (on an even larger scale), non linear ecology population dynamics etc. Even J.M.S. himself at his latter years used ESS and game theory much more carefully. Repetitive games are not that easy to comprehend and when whole ecosystems are involved (with millions of interconnections involved), game theory is not at all helpfull.

    2. Homo Economicus, by yannis desctription of what neoclassicists think of him, seems to me no more than an insect, and even less. I do understand Nash’s oversimplification in order to prove his thesis but, at the bottom line, Nash only provided a certain Model and not the universal Holy Grail. Humans and their societies learn and act accordingly, and this produces a kind of repetitive, massive, continous feedback that game theory is incapable of handling efficiently. In the real world even ant or bacteria colonies regulate their behaviour in much more complex ways than (even) tit – for – tat.

    So, if mainstream economists believe (or pretend) that the basic economic unit behaves like a form of bacteria and that the behaviour expected from human societies must be similar to the one we see in a Petri disk, then one can’t wonder we are in so deep trouble.

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