It’s alive… it’s alive!!!!

The Phillips Machine has risen from the dead, or so says Guardian economics editor, Larry Elliott. Calling it a “computer model of the economy” in the lead, Elliott gets the ownership part of the story right, he notes that the machine was a joint venture of Phillips and Newlyn. He then mises the target by a fist asking Professor Brian Henry a “visiting fellow at the National Institute for Economic and Social Research” for historical insight. Henry explains: “It was a child of its time. It looked at how the economy could be stabilised when people were worried about the stabilisation of aggregate demand. That is the way things were in the 1950s.” Oh those crazy 50s, where people “stabilized.” As far as I know, Phillips and Newlyn were not particularly concerned with the business cycle, although I am sure Professor Henry is.

The article misses the target by an arm and a leg when it comes to revealing economists as hopeless model builders. First, make Phillips, the machine builder, into the man from Mars. In the first paragrah he is: “an engineer turned economist from New Zealand” in the second to last, he “after struggling to get a pass in his original subject, sociology, Phillips eventually became a professor of economics at the LSE.” Second, bring a man from Neptune, to make the machine work.

It took a lecturer from the department of engineering, Allan McRobie, to get it up and running again; no economist could work out quite how Phillips had pieced the original machine together.

The only difference with the original is that McRobie has dispensed with the cochineal because it would stain the Perspex. “Everything was in the wrong place. It had been here since the 1950s but everything was connected wrong. I had to work out what he was trying to do. Economics is run by people who didn’t understand it.

He only changed the cochineal, yet all was in the wrong place? I worry that McRobie faced with the artefact decided to redesign it to “work”, instead of doing careful archaeological reconstruction. If that is the case a precious heritage of economics’ history may have been lost.


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