Irrationality is the focus of behavioral economists, who appear to be gaining greater credibility in macroeconomic circles since the housing bubble of 2008 and the ensuing global financial meltdown. They are also at the center of an age-old debate recently reignited by columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman in a September 6 New York Times Magazine article titled, “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?,” which fires a salvo at the assumption underlying neoclassical economics — namely, that free markets are inherently rational and efficient.
Krugman’s article heaps scorn on so-called “freshwater economists” — as typified by the University of Chicago economics faculty, whose ideas have dominated government policymaking since the early 1980s. In contrast, “saltwater economics” exhibits more openness to the ideas promulgated in the 1930s by Britain’s John Maynard Keynes — that free markets often behave inefficiently, are self-destructive and at times need corrective policy actions such as government stimulus spending. Rather than ascribing perfect rationality to markets, these economists say people and institutions often behave irrationally and often in ways contrary to their own interests.
While the debate between the freshwater and saltwater viewpoints in macroeconomics may sound academic, it has a significant impact far outside the ivory towers of universities.