On the Problem of Vague Terms: A Glossary of Clearly Stated Assumptions & Careful, Patient, Descriptions
Coase 1930 endures through the decades as one of the most-cited papers in economics due to the fact that it highlights a fundamental and equally enduring problem: "Economic theory has suffered in the past from a failure to state clearly its assumptions. Economists in building up a theory have often omitted to examine the foundations on which it was erected. This examination is, however, essential not only to prevent the misunderstanding and needless controversy which arise from a lack of knowledge of the assumptions on which a theory is based, but also because of the extreme importance for economics of good judgement in choosing between rival sets of assumptions." In 1944 Von Neumann and Morgenstern offered the simply, yet invariably rejected solution: "In… economics the most fruitful work may be that of careful, patient description; indeed this may be by far the largest domain for the present and some time to come….Economic problems [have been and are often] not formulated clearly and are often stated in such vague terms as to make mathematical treatment a priori appear hopeless because it is quite uncertain what the problems really are. There is no point in using exact methods where there is no clarity in the concepts and issues to which they are to be applied. Consequently the initial task is to clarify the knowledge of the matter by further careful descriptive work." This paper offers a stone along the path to the solution to this problem by offering a glossary in this spirit, a glossary germain to some of the most fundamental, open problems in economics. As the fate of the human race may lay in the balance to finding solutions to these problems, this glossary may be a steop in the right direction.
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