Prof. Simon Wren-Lewis (economics professor at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College) has long been posting on the topic of prediction. In a recent post he writes:
"Macroeconomic forecasts produced with macroeconomic models tend to be little better than intelligent guesswork. That is not an opinion - it is a fact. (…) In other words, model based forecasts are predictably bad.His conclusion is that, even tough unreliable, macroeconomic forecast/prediction is "probably no worse than intelligent guesses". Although he doesn't specify, he is presumably speaking of predictions based on New Keynesian/Neoclassical models.
"The sad news is that this situation has not changed since I was involved in forecasting around 30 years ago."
In reply, Prof. Lars Pålsson Syll (professor of civics at Malmö University) wrote about the impossibility inherent in forecasting/prediction:
"The future is inherently unknowable - and using statistics, econometrics, decision theory or game theory, does not in the least overcome this ontological fact. The economic future is not something that we normally can predict in advance. Better then to accept that as a rule 'we simply do not know.'Syll goes further than Wren-Lewis: he seems to make a case for the impossibility of prediction/forecast in economics in general, and, unlike Wren-Lewis, accuses forecasting/prediction of being harmful.
"So, to say that this counterproductive forecasting activity is harmless, simply isn't true."
Regardless of their philosophical differences, or whether New Keynesian/Neoclassical models are to be blamed, both men seem to agree on two things: (1) prediction is essentially out of the question. What's more, if I am not mistaken, both (2) tend to favour government intervention in the economy.
While I disagree with them on what refers to prediction/forecasting, I am not taking sides in their debate, neither am I in their league and I won't pretend otherwise.
I can't, however, avoid this question: if prediction is at least very unreliable (if not outright impossible and harmful, as Syll seems to claim) -- i.e. point (1) above -- how can an active government -- i.e. point (2) -- predict the effects of its policies?
This is not a matter of simply making a general statement like "plan A is the way to go", and leave things at that, for if the government faces mutually exclusive courses of action (say, plan A, B, and C), it must decide which is the most beneficial; for that, it seems, it would need some kind of quantitative estimate: say, how many jobs it predicts each alternative would create.
If econometric methods are not reliable, what kind of methods would be used instead?
In the absence of good answers to those questions (and it would be incumbent upon both men to provide them), it seems to me the ultimate implication of their reasoning is that government intervention could be as unreliable and potentially as harmful as the predictions on which it is based on. To me, this seems a pretty good argument for a hands-off government: laissez faire.
What's more, although they focus on macroeconomic policy, I see no reason why their argument should be limited to that. Urban planning, for instance, uses pretty much the same kind of data and forecasting methods: should it be abandoned? How do public transport authorities decide how many lanes a new road should have? How many beds should a new hospital have?