Economists have earned our distrust. They oversimplify things, presenting normal elements of an economy – such as strikes, tariffs and corruption – as aberrations. They overcomplicate things, too, smuggling ideological agendas into objective-looking newspaper columns. And they do it all in the name of ‘science’, even as their spectacularly unscientific recent failures have done nothing to moderate their arrogance. Well into his career as an editor at MIT’s Technology Review, Jonathan Schlefer armed himself with a doctorate in political science so that he might talk back to economic theorists in their own idiom. One of the results is The Assumptions Economists Make, a knowledgeable but uneven broadside against neoclassical economics.
By neoclassical economics, Schlefer means the kind taught in American university textbooks, such as the late MIT professor Paul Samuelson’s perennial undergraduate bestseller and the standard graduate text by Berkeley macroeconomist David Romer. But he also intends to draw a contrast with two ‘classical’ economists: Adam Smith (whom he belittles)