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  • From the Cosmos to Strings: Parallels of Economics to Physics

    Posted by Kevin Villani on March 24th, 2020 (All posts by )

    The first macroeconomic model of the U.S. economy consisted of 20 boxes of punched cards at 2000 cards per box that I would wheel on a dolly stacked five feet high to the main frame computer center where it took about three days to get results back.

    Mathematics is the language of physics. Graduating with a BS in mathematics in the 1960’s, I faced a choice between my two minors, physics or economics. Some famous physicists had already declared that the quest for a unified mathematical explanation of the cosmos and its smallest building blocks was at hand. In economics, the attempt to build a mathematical macro model of the U.S. economy and fully integrate it with the micro economic mathematical models of human behavior represented a new frontier. I chose economics.

    In retrospect, physicists are still searching for a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) of the universe. In economics, mathematics and statistics have widened the disagreement about how the economy works and the proper role of government in economic management.

    God and Physics: from Aristotle to Hawking

    Aristotle (382-324 BC) described the cosmos of round bodies in motion circling around the earth. It took almost two millennia until the sun-centric Copernican model was popularized by Galileo, who was imprisoned by the Pope, the political enforcer of orthodoxy at the time, in 1633 for heresy, forcing him to recant. But only a half century later, Newton described the mechanics of the universe and sun-centric solar system in Principia Mathematica (1687), which remains the cornerstone of basic physics.

    In Newtonian physics, motion and speed are calculated relative to what you are moving away from. Maxwell’s discovery in the mid-1800’s that the speed of light was “absolute” required an explanation that stumped many physicists until the young patent office clerk Albert Einstein, unaware of these efforts, provided the novel Special Theory of Relativity (1905) that if light speed was constant space and time must be relative.

    His mathematical model proved over time to provide a more precise description of the movement of heavenly bodies, but the implication of his equations that the universe was expanding violated his belief in a master plan of a “creator,” so he inserted a mathematical cosmological constant (what economic model builders would subsequently call a “dummy variable”) to stagnate it. But other physicists confirmed his original model, which in reverse required a mathematical ”singularity” – a beginning of time with a “big bang” from an infinitely small spec. The Catholic Church approved this model in 1952 as consistent with its orthodox views of a creator.

    In 1970 Stephen Hawking proved that the big bang theory was the only one consistent with the existing models of the universe, but he later challenged those models. First, the violent path of destruction and creation over billions of years subsequent to the big bang that ultimately produced the building blocks of life was a “million to one shot”- is ours just one of millions of universes? Second, macro models of the universe broke down at the mathematical singularity, which remains inconsistent with micro models of the very small – in my youth molecules then atoms made up of protons, neutrons and electrons, now subatomic “quarks” and more recently sub-quark vibrating strings.

    The scientific method is a slog: to understand the universe, the models must not only be tested empirically but compared to all the potential alternative explanations. Pre-conceived orthodox ideology has at times set the investigation back centuries.

    The Progressive Orthodoxy of Mathematical Models in Economics

    Macro economics, the desire to understand and control the workings of the economy at large, developed in response to the Great Depression. The roots of the mathematical approach to economic management trace to the founding of the Econometrics Society in 1930. John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1935, the title invoking the universality and finality of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity published two decades prior.

    Paul Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947) provided a mathematical model of micro economic consumer and business behavior. I was a regular reader of Samuelson’s Newsweek columns in high school and used his undergraduate economics text at UMass, where I worked on the first macro economic model of the U.S. economy developed at the University of Pennsylvania by Samuelson’s first PhD student Lawrence Klein.

    As a student of former Federal Reserve Board economist Pat Hendershott, I worked on the first Flow of Funds model of the U.S. financial sector. The main frame computer at Purdue University would run the punch cards of a professor’s research overnight, a big improvement. Such macro economic models are “Keynesian” central government centric by design: fiscal and monetary policies are modeled to control the economy, mitigating recessions and unemployment.

    But other models haven’t been ruled out. In The Forgotten Depression (2014) James Grant argues that the Depression of 1921 – there was no official designating body at the time – following the end of the Great War cured itself in 18 months due to official benign neglect. In Grant’s view (and many others, including economists living through it) what made the subsequent Depression “Great” was massive political intervention that prevented the required adjustments.

    While the merits and long term effectiveness of “small scale” and “counter-cyclical” measures remain debatable, the merits of the socialist centrally planned economies are not: hundreds of millions died and the remainder suffered economic stagnation while the capitalist world prospered. Only self described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders openly touts the performance of the centrally planned economies, but there isn’t much difference in the government centric policy approach of progressive politicians.

    This macro narrative is generally consistent with anti-capitalist progressive ideology of business, workers and consumers dating back to Marx that is accepted by the majority of more recent college graduates. Economic statistical research across a wide spectrum from discrimination and labor exploitation to income inequality and market failure is offered in support, albeit inconsistent with a competitive market system. The competitiveness of the U.S. economy implies that correlation is too often assumed to imply causation without rigorously considering alternative explanations.

    Creative Destruction Produces Economic Expansion

    Humans owe their very existence to the massive creative destruction of the Cosmos (whether or not by the grace of God) for we are all made from the dust of exploding stars. In the economic sphere, virtually all human economic progress is attributable to capitalist competition and creative destruction, favoring the adaptive over the sluggish. Mathematical models haven’t adequately described entrepreneurial innovation. Progressive intervention to mitigate downside risk of creative destruction, broadly or to specific political constituencies, is highly correlated with stagnation.

    Historically, even natural disasters including pandemics such as the corona virus (I assume it was “natural”) have provided opportunities for creative destruction. Consider, for example, the requirement that university students study online during the pandemic. While traditional colleges aren’t yet offering rebates, we know from experience that without the room, board and administrative costs and with increased productivity of fewer professors, online degrees can be provided for as little as one tenth the cost of the traditional approach.

    Progressive proposals for taxpayers to foot the entire bill for the high cost model may be called democratic socialism but are indistinguishable from democratic crony capitalism for the political elite.

    Kevin Villani

    Kevin Villani was chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985. He has held senior government positions, has been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue on how politicians and bureaucrats with no skin in the game caused the sub-prime lending bubble and systemic financial system failure.


    4 Responses to “From the Cosmos to Strings: Parallels of Economics to Physics”

    1. Mrs. Davis Says:

      Amen. But a hat tip to the Austrians would have been nice.

    2. Grurray Says:

      A small quibble. Not only did the Catholic Church approve of the Big Bang theory, but a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaitre, was the one who first developed the theory.

    3. Anonymous Says:

      Thanks, Kevin. Very insightful and helpful macro view of these ideas and historical development. Keeping the broad sweep and connectivity of these ideas in mind is useful when engaging the specific issues of our time. Poorly done in most graduate programs and apparently virtually nonexistent today.


    4. MCS Says:

      Since we’re quibbling. It was the Michelson-Morely experiment in 1887 that first demonstrated the independence of the speed of light to the supposed direction of flow of the aether which was supposed to form the medium through which the waves propagated.

      Your actual point is unassailable.