Different Approaches to the Financial Crisis
Economic Thought, 2012, vol. 1, issue 1, 4
The economic crisis has exposed shortcomings in standard economic theory and provided an impetus for new economic thinking. But the theoretical debate in the wake of the crisis has been unduly constrained by the terms of the mainstream approach to economic theory. Like any approach, it is characterised by a way of framing reality, giving meaning to terms and setting criteria for good argument. It also determines how any economic theory is understood, whether from the history of economic thought or from the contemporary literature. But there are other approaches to economics which would open up the field to a much wider range of possibilities for new economic thinking. Addressing the challenge that any reader bases her understanding on her own approach, the purpose of this paper is to attempt to explain what it means to consider different approaches and why it matters for policy. This is done by discussing two features of the financial crisis which pose particular problems for economic theory. These are the role of changing market sentiment in driving asset prices on the one hand and the breakdown of trust relationships in banking on the other (the moral hazard issue). We will see how these are addressed by mainstream theory and by alternative approaches. First, market sentiment is discussed within the mainstream rational-optimising framework, where risk is quantifiable, and compared with the Keynesian approach based on the general uncertainty of knowledge, where reason, evidence and sentiment are integrated. The moral hazard issue is then discussed in its mainstream form in terms of rational opportunism and in its institutionalist form in terms of the foundation of social relations (including relations between institutions) in trust. It is shown that different ways of approaching theorising in each case imply different policy measures. It is argued further that an exclusively deductive mathematical approach to analysis of market sentiment and trust is unduly limiting and that a more pluralist approach would more fully address the issues.
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