Economists as straw men, the future of the profession

One my wonderful colleagues, Richard Green, and I were discussing Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan the other day. Richard, a kinder soul than me, finds value in the book. I think the Taleb is a self-aggrandizing poseur who simply restated what all of us interested in low probability events have said for years. (Take a look at his website, which advertises “Quotes from the Black Swan that the Imbeciles Did Not Want You To Hear.” Barf. Go stroke your beard, Nassim. ) I guess if there is a contribution there, it’s taking the empiricism of low probability events and making it Bill O’Reilly blunt. Good job. What the world needs is less nuance.

Richard notes that Taleb shows particular disdain for economists. In response, I brought Richard the most recent Hedgehog Review which has a discussion of economics and its recent “failures”. Philip Mirowski’s piece is particularly cutting. This morning I picked up Shopcraft as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford, and one of the first things he does is take a shot at economists and how they think.

For years, the larger discussion about planning and planners has been “whither planning” in a world where the profession’s reputation has been tarnished by its association with modernist institutions and their pet project of urban renewal. Subsequent decades have seen the attrition of the profession into being an apologist for real estate development, which real estate development doesn’t need, and an advocate for design qua regulation as part of real estate development.

We may be at a similar “whither economics” moment post-recession. Just like it’s not right to associate all of planning with Robert Moses for intellectual convenience, it’s not fair to associate all economists with Milton Friedman. Moreover, given how innumerate most of the world is about probability and statistics, I’m less sure that bad economics led us anywhere as much as a misunderstanding and misapplication of what economists have been telling us.

Still, among the social sciences, who should be far humbler than we are in our attempts to build knowledge about society–for it’s more like an constantly mutating virus than anything else–economists have been amongst the biggest bullies on the block for a long time. Ratcheting that down a peg, to where it is one voice and one approach–and a partial one at that–to understanding society, is not a bad idea.

In addition, I think there are lessons here for the profession itself in thinking about knowledge formation. Chatting with economists, which I do routinely because I like and respect the ones I know very much, can be in my experiences less an exercise in communicating ideas and more like a boxing match where the point isn’t to reach a shared understanding, but to establish who is smarter. While that may serve a purpose, it’s no way to get yourself understood–and it might not be a way to get to the best social strategies. Instead, it may simply uncover the one who has best mastered playground-style male banter, not the best idea. Deliberation is harder than throwing punches and deriving counter-examples; listening is a very undervalued skill in knowledge formation. I do think that one thing economists have systematically failed to do is listen to dissent among their own ranks and listen to the plurality of voices out there. Nothing, perhaps, sums this up more than this recent episode. Yeah, sure, training in economics increases your ability to understand the issues–absolutely–but that doesn’t mean you’re the only person entitled to have ideas or to speak about the issues.

If being a professional planner has taught me anything, it’s this: you never know where the next great idea is going to come from.

Nonetheless, there is a tremendous amount of human capital in the economics profession. These are very smart, highly trained people, and it makes sense to think about what is “baby” and what is “bathwater” about the past three decades of economic thought rather than swinging from the extremes that we have: economists are all-knowing wizards who hold the handles of economy and who merit big salaries when the boom is on and there’s money in everybody’s pockets, but they are know-nothing do-nothings when the bust comes and we’re all sad about that. There’s a point in between those two straw men where the social sciences reside in providing information about policy, and it would be nice if we could achieve that perspective for all of us.

One thought on “Economists as straw men, the future of the profession

  1. Agree about the need for nuance, but economists bring a lot to the dull party that is their deadly reputation. The male schoolyard thing definitely figures, esp. directed at people lacking quant skills or studying topics where numbers are hard to find or understand. The incessant reductionism of market-market-market is hard to take, particularly since economists clearly don’t know that much more about markets than regular people do. Most economists’ lack of attention to nature, community, culture, courage, humor and decency, among many other parts of human life, makes it hard to take them seriously. There are always individual economists who are impressive, but as a field it would do well to follow Keynes’ advice that it model itself on dentistry.

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