I doubt academic economists are to blame for the crisis in any direct sense -- the real perps are on Wall Street and Main Street -- but they do deserve blame for the "ideological capture" of regulators and policy makers, many of whom, through years of indoctrination in undergraduate and professional school courses have come to believe in a semi-strong version of efficient markets (see below). The academics also deserve blame for intellectual dishonesty if they fail to admit that we know almost nothing about macroeconomics and that the profession itself cannot agree on what caused the crisis and how best to recover.
Will Economists Escape a Whipping?
It is remarkable how economists have been able to deflect blame for the economic crisis that erupted last September with the sudden collapse of the international banking industry and that continues to afflict the world's economies. Last November, Queen Elizabeth visited the London School of Economics and asked the faculty why "nobody [had] noticed [before September 2008] that the credit crunch was on its way?" ...
Yesterday, another letter to the Queen, this one dated August 10 and signed by ten English and Australian economists, was released ..., also responding to the Queen's question ... The August 10 letter states that "their overall analysis is inadequate because it fails to acknowledge any deficiency in the training or culture of economists themselves." The nub of their criticism is that "in recent years economics has turned virtually into a branch of applied mathematics, and has...become detached from real-world institutions and events." They criticize economics education as excessively narrow, "to the detriment of any synthetic vision," and fault Besley and Hennessy for saying nothing about "the typical omission of psychology, philosophy or economic history from the current education of economists" and for mentioning neither "the highly questionable belief in universal 'rationality' nor the 'efficient markets hypothesis.'"
A more focused criticism would, in my opinion, be more effective. The Queen was asking about the failure to foresee the financial collapse of last September, rather than about the health of modern economics in the large. That failure was I think due in significant part to a concept of rationality that exaggerates the amount of information that people have about the future, even experts, and to a disregard of economic factors that don't lend themselves to expression in mathematical models, or are intractable to formal analysis. The efficient markets theory, when understood not as teaching merely that markets are hard to beat even for experts and therefore passive management of a diversified portfolio of assets is likely to outperform a strategy of picking underpriced stocks or other securities to buy and overpriced ones to sell, but as demonstrating that asset prices are always an adequate gauge of value--that there are not asset "bubbles"--blinded most economists to the housing bubble of the early 2000s and the stock market bubble that expanded with it. In modeling the business cycle, economists not only ignored, because difficult to accommodate in their mathematical models, vital institutional detail (such as the rise of the "shadow banking industry," which is what mainly collapsed last September)--often indeed ignoring money itself, on the ground that it doesn't really affect the "real" (that is, the nonfinancial) economy. They also ignored key concepts in Keynes's analysis of the business cycle, such as hoarding and uncertainty and business confidence ("animal spirits") and worker resistance to nominal (as distinct from real) wage reductions in depressions. Lessons of economic history were ignored, too, leading to a belief that there would never be another depression, let alone a collapse of the banking industry. Even when the collapse occurred, in September, many macroeconomists denied that it would lead to anything worse than a mild recession; the measures that the government has taken to recover from what has turned into a depression owe little to post-Keynesian economic thinking; and the economists cannot agree on what further, if anything, should be done, and which of the government's recovery measures has worked or will work.
Besley and Hennessy's letter, when first published, was described in some quarters as a letter of "apology" by English economists. It was not that; nor is the August 10 letter--the latter is a denunciation of mainstream economics.
The notion of a profession's apologizing for its failure in a letter to the monarch is charming, however. It would be an apology to the nation, personified in its monarch. The English monarch does not exercise political power, but does personify the nation, and it is easier to write a letter to a person than to a nation.
The English economics profession failed the United Kingdom; the American economics profession failed the United States. Not that the profession should be equated to its macroeconomic and financial divisions. The study of business cycles is only a small part of modern economics. Other areas of economics bear significantly on the study of business cycles, such as labor economics, without being implicated in the failures of response to the current crisis. But the control of the business cycle had until the present crisis been regarded as a principal triumph of modern economics and justification for regarding economics as the queen of the social sciences. We have no monarch; the President is not a personification of the nation but rather the head of the national government; there is no one to write the letter of apology to. No matter. The urgent need is for the part of the profession that concerns itself with business cycles to acknowledge its inadequacies and reorient its training and research.