The Tyranny of the Economists
Matt Yglesias has an interesting post on "prestige cross-pollination," which he defines as "the habit of distinguished economists using prestige acquired within their field to pass off sloppy work in other fields." As example, he offers up Greg Mankiw's unfortunate dip into moral philosophy and Martin Feldstein's recent excursion into questions of international relations and climate change.
It's worth saying two things on this. The first is that it appears to be a special privilege of economists. You don't see sociologists being asked to write op-eds on the Federal Reserve, or biologists being given a forum to talk about health-care policy.
The second is that it's not just about commentary. Take the Obama administration. Brian Deese, the guy quarterbacking the auto restructuring, is a 31-year-old members of the economics team. Peter Orszag is probably the most powerful voice on health-care policy. Larry Summers, by most accounts, has a hand in literally everything. Economists, in other words, are the prime movers on not only the economy, but health care, climate change, housing policy and much else.
The argument for this, of course, is that these issues have heavy economic components. Cap and trade, for instance, is based around the construction of a new market for carbon. And it's not as if there aren't issue specialists -- think climate czar Carol Browner -- around the table. But these issues also have heavy political components, and there aren't mega-powerful political scientists in the White House. And these issues have heavy behavioral components, but though the economists often bring behavioral studies to bear, there aren't research psychologists wandering the West Wing. All these disciplines have skill sets that could be applied broadly, but only economists are given these massive portfolios.
Incidentally, I'm not saying whether this is good or bad. I'm really not sure. I'm just saying that it's happening. No wonder Larry Summers -- pictured above -- is exhausted.
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
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