Charles Munger: The Trouble With Economists & Economics

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Some years ago Shane Parrish at Farnam Street did a podcast in which he read the full text of Charlie Munger’s presentation – Academic Economics: Strengths and Weaknesses, after Considering Interdisciplinary Needs. It’s a must listen to for all investors.

Here’s an excerpt from Munger’s presentation:

3) Physics Envy

The third weakness that I find in economics is what I call physics envy. And of course, that term has been borrowed from penis envy as described by one of the world’s great idiots, Sigmund Freud. But he was very popular in his time, and the concept got a wide vogue.

Washington Post case study

One of the worst examples of what physics envy did to economics was cause adaptation and hard-form efficient market theory. And then when you logically derived consequences from this wrong theory, you would get conclusions such as: it can never be correct for any corporation to buy its own stock. Because the price by definition is totally efficient, there could never be any advantage. And they taught this theory to some partner at McKinsey when he was at some school of business that had adopted this crazy line of reasoning from economics, and the partner became a paid consultant for The Washington Post.

The Washington Post stock was selling at a fifth of what an orangutan could figure was the plain value per share by just counting up the values and dividing. But he so believed what he’d been taught in graduate school that he told the Washington Post they shouldn’t buy their own stock.

Well, fortunately, they put Warren Buffett on the Board, and he convinced them to buy back more than half of the outstanding stock, which enriched the remaining shareholders by much more than a billion dollars. So, there was at least one instance of a place that quickly killed a wrong academic theory.

It’s my view that economists could avoid a lot of this trouble that comes from physics envy. I want economists to pick up the basic ethos of hard science, the full attribution habit, but not the craving for an unattainable precision that comes from physics envy. The sort of precise reliable formula that includes Boltzmann’s constant is not going to happen, by and large, in economics. Economics involves too complex a system. And the craving for that physics-style precision does little but get you in terrible trouble, like the poor fool from McKinsey.

Einstein and Sharon Stone

I think that economists would be way better off if they paid more attention to Einstein and Sharon Stone. Well, Einstein is easy because Einstein is famous for saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no more simple.” Now, the saying is a tautology, but it’s very useful, and some economist – it may have been Herb Stein – had a similar tautological saying that I dearly love: “If a thing can’t go on forever, it will eventually stop.”

Sharon Stone contributed to the subject because someone once asked her if she was bothered by penis envy. And she said, “absolutely not, I have more trouble than I can handle with what I’ve got.” (Laughter).

When I talk about this false precision, this great hope for reliable, precise formulas, I am reminded of Arthur Laffer, who’s in my political party, and who is one of the all-time horses’ asses when it comes to doing economics. His trouble is his craving for false precision, which is not an adult way of dealing with his subject matter.

The situation of people like Laffer reminds me of a rustic legislator – and this really happened in America. I don’t invent these stories. Reality is always more ridiculous than what I’m going to tell you. At any rate, this rustic legislator proposed a new law in his state.

He wanted to pass a law rounding Pi to an even 3.2 so it would be easier for the school children to make the computations. Well, you can say that this is too ridiculous, and it can’t be fair to liken economics professors like Laffer to a rustic legislator like this. I say I’m under-criticizing the professors.

At least when this rustic legislature rounded Pi to an even number, the error was relatively small. But once you try to put a lot of false precision into a complex system like economics, the errors can compound to the point where they’re worse than those of the McKinsey partner when he was incompetently advising the Washington Post. So, economics should emulate physics’ basic ethos, but its search for precision in physics–like formulas is almost always wrong in economics.

You can listen to the full presentation here:

(Source: Farnam Street)

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