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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)

By Ezra Klein  |  June 2, 2009; 4:12 PM ET
Categories:  Economic Policy , Obama administration  
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I agree. Paul Krugman should stop writing nonsense about subjects he knows nothing about.

Posted by: chrisg2 | June 2, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

I thought it was a bit strange that Geitner was at Project Hope in Roxbury recently. It made the local news, although oddly not one news story on google about it.

Posted by: Adrock1 | June 2, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Mankiw was purporting to be an expert on utilarianism from a philosophical perspective. His blog typically discusses economic-based concepts for the layman. It is not an economics-based blog for economists. If that were the case, very few people would be able to read it, much less enjoy it. To be fair, his blog usually does discuss economics-based issues. When Mankiw does range off-topic, he often prefaces the digression by noting that he is not a subject matter expert.

This is a statement of humility that we don't often see from Paul Krugman. As the first commenter notes, the foremost abuser of this alleged "cross-pollination" doctrine is Paul Krugman. Krugman is arguably the most influential pundit in America today. He has a bi-weekly NY Times column and he regularly appears on Stephanopolis. Yet Krugman often discusses non-economics based issues. For example, Krugman has used his leverage as a Nobel laureate based on proposing the intra-specific model of trade between developed nations to propose all sorts of non-economic ideas, such as the argument that Democrats should increase spending even though they have no plan to pay for it, because this is a necessary response to an allegedly cynical Republican "Starve the Leviathan" strategy. I find it strange that neither Klein nor Yglesias discusses Krugman as the prototype of this "cross-pollination" theory.

That said, I see nothing wrong with Krugman or Mankiw expousing their views on the issues of the day. They are up front about their expertise and academic training. Why not judge their arguments and statements on the merits? Readers do that regularly with Klein or Yglesias. Why not do that with Mankiw too?

Posted by: Dellis2 | June 2, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Let's not even begin to think that economists do this more than lawyers.

Posted by: staticvars | June 2, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

The more I learn about economics, the more I like sociologists.

Posted by: chrismealy | June 2, 2009 5:16 PM | Report abuse

Is there another high-prestige, high-wage soft or psuedo-science? (if you can't make reliable and controlled tests of hypotheses, it's not science)

Because they have such broad and fuzzy outlines, it gives something of a free hand to waltz all over human knowledge. Economy shares ground with philosophy, anthropology, history, psychology, political science, and so why not spout off about them? Nobody gives a crap about anthropologists, historians, psychologies, or philosophers, so that rules them out. Statistics is an actual hard math, rather than a pretend science, ruling statisticians out (also nobody particularly cares about them either).

Of my categories, that leaves the political arena. Students or experts of political science certainly suffer from the same problems as economic experts. They freely run their mouth over a wide spectrum of topics they have no business pretending to be an authority on.

Posted by: sullivanmatthewr | June 2, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps the "Larry Summers bellow" mentioned in the story about Brian Deese is actually a snore?

Posted by: bdballard | June 2, 2009 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Deese may be a member of the economics team but his only credentials according to the article seem to be that he is or has been a student at the Yale school of law. It does not appear as if has yet attained a J.D.

Posted by: TomLindmark | June 2, 2009 7:32 PM | Report abuse

According to wikipedia, Brian Deese has a political science undergraduate degree, so he's not exactly an economist.

Posted by: SimonCox | June 2, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse on Paul Wilmott

Posted by: gagkk | June 2, 2009 8:38 PM | Report abuse

I'm not so sure this is a bad thing (which you note). Ezra you of all people should know the function of economists in health policy--econometrics offers field researchers a reasonable and persuasive (if unpleasant and complicated) tool to show program effects in the absence of controlled studies. Where it works and where it is presented honestly, economics allows us to answer questions about government programs, hospital choice and patient response which would remain opaque if the only people working on it were MDs.

As for climate change, this is an even easier one. The whole notion of "cap and trade" is fundamentally economic. The Problem of Social Cost remains the ur-text for conceptualizing externalities and developing responses. It is not unsual to imagine that economics could spend considerable time studying cap and trade and offer commentary on proposed plans.

All of this is very much removed from the basic problem you mentioned. Mankiw and Feldstein's common linkage isn't that they are economists. It is that they opened their mouths and inserted their foot for all to see. This is not a unique quality of economics (c.f. almost all Washington punditry) or economists.

And where do these expertise borders lie? Can a game theory expert comment on international relations (considering that much of the IR literature in the 20th century was devoted to game theory)? Can a statistician make comments about political campaigns (one would hope so, after watching Gelman and Silver make such amazing points over the past few years)? Can a molecular biologist comment on evolutionary bilogy?

We shouldn't be policing these borders (especially not so parsimoniously as to determine what someone's undergrad major was) so much as we should identify those folks who continue to speak outside their field of expertise AND not avail themselves of the appropriate information prior to doing so. Once we have done so, we can just ignore them. If Paul Krugman isn't talking about international trade or financial crises, I usually tune him out (and those of you who hold the laughable position that he doesn't know enough about financial crisis should probably reassess that). The same can be done for the rest of these folks.

Posted by: protonk | June 2, 2009 8:55 PM | Report abuse

Nat Silver - a statistician making hell lot of a sense on so many political issues. The lad is smart and has revolutionized techniques of statistics to make solid political predictions as well as incisive social / political commentary.

Andrew Sullivan and Niall Fergusson – A Philosopher and a Historian respectively; applying techniques of their trade to practical issues of today's concern. Probably, that is how Greeks wanted Philosophers to work in the first place.

It is true that our Physicist Energy Secretary is quite circumspect in his opinions when it comes to matters outside his domain.

Basically, that is the nature of the beast - folks practicing Physical Sciences and Engineering are far more constrained and disciplined in opening their mouth whereas by nature Social Scientists (actually scientists is a wrong word here) have to hazard lot of guesses and judgments. Not that these folks want it that way, but Popper’s Falsification Criteria is not universally applicable / available in Social Sciences. Hence, inherent 'open ended' nature of these subject matters and need for these experts to throw themselves all over the map. (Apart from Economists, Historians is the other category who may be tempted to speak authoritatively on any matter of grave concern.)

Now, that only explains the propensity of practitioners of Social Theory in critiquing everything else compared to executioners of Hard Sciences and Technology. But it does not explain within the ‘art of social sciences’ why is it the economist who plays the role of ‘thou shall follow all of my wisdom’.

Nothing wrong in this, as long as we are more focused on their arguments instead of pedigree of those who talk. And meanwhile it is the job of domain experts to 'whack' any errant 'moles' from time to time who theorize without any basis.

Posted by: umesh409 | June 3, 2009 12:57 AM | Report abuse

Could it be that Larry Summers has sleep apnea and is therefore sleepy during the day?

Posted by: amsashworth | June 3, 2009 6:29 AM | Report abuse

"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."

This is ironic coming from a political scientist who writes op-eds on the Federal Reserve, health care, climate change, housing policy and much else.

How about the tyranny of journalists? Or the tyranny of bloggers? They use prestige in no field to pass of sloppy work in all fields.

Posted by: moziek | June 3, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

"Economics Wins, Psychology Loses, and Society Pays":

This is a nice paper by a pair of HBS profs arguing the point you're making here -- that an overreliance on economic methods and assumptions damages the quality of government decisions -- in detail, with an emphasis on how psychologists in particular could bring alternate insights to governance.

Posted by: davestickler | June 3, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

As compared to journalist-bloggers who demonstrate on an hourly basis how little they know about everything. So are you being intentionally ironic, or are you really this thick?

Posted by: toatley1 | June 3, 2009 9:13 PM | Report abuse

I think it's even simpler than the hypotheses presented above. If money is what you worship, and money is the "coin" in which you determine the value of every other outcome - then economists are the high priests of our culture. If your ROI is computed in a single dimension - dollar value returned to your equity investors - and much of the public watches the shenanigans of the stock market with the kind of breathless anticipation that our ancestors put on the results of reading tea leaves and chicken entrails - then why are we surprised when economists are held to be "experts on everything?"

Someday we'll learn that money is actually a neutral energy, a resource that we can use to enable us to feed ourselves and to compute our "wealth" at a much more profound level than just how much cash is sitting in our designer wallets. And when we reach that point we'll have to acknowledge that economics is a "soft science" that owes far more to (abnormal) psychology than it does to mathematics. And perhaps that anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and yes, even, religious leaders, may have more to teach us than economists.

Posted by: swkidder | June 8, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

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