Are economists good judges of their own accountability?

As an urban planner, I have the legacy of urban renewal rubbed in my face all the time. As I tell students, planners did the wrong thing with urban renewal–we sided with power and institutions rather than neighborhoods–and it takes time to rebuild trust and legitimacy. Urban renewal was a long time ago. I wasn’t even born yet, and neither were any of my young planners.

But the legacy remains. Harm lingers.

One of the basic aspects of privilege is that it allows you excuse your own wrongs. Power creates its own rationality.

I hesitate to even post on this editorial as it is obviously very personal to economists, and I don’t understand why students would sign up for a class and then boycott it at Harvard prices, but I’m getting tired of listening to Mankiw talk about how he and his fellow economists are, somehow, victims of “the liberals” here.

Is it really that the “occupy” students have a silly, unfocused agenda, or are Mankiw and his choir just not self-reflexive enough to get it?

A) Economics is the king of the social sciences. No other social science wields as much political influence, and it is that level of political influence that carries with it the requirements of self-reflexivity.

When was the last time a sociologist was appointed to head the Fed? How many lousy policies have been imposed through the World Bank or other powerful institutions based on the advice of economists, who never have to face the consequences of policies they routinely prescribe for other people?

For instance, a bit from Mankiw:

That is not to say that economists understand everything. The recent financial crisis, economic downturn and meager recovery are vivid reminders that we still have much to learn. Widening economic inequality is a real and troubling phenomenon, albeit one without an obvious explanation or easy solution. A prerequisite for being a good economist is an ample dose of humility.

Ok, so what Mankiw casts as a “learning moment”–the financial crisis and recession–are causing REAL HARM TO PEOPLE. Real people. Real suffering.

I hazard that people might be forgiven for asking what the hell good are you or your profession if you contribute to this harm, or if you can’t prevent this type of harm. They might not be right about blaming you. But they have a legitimate reason to mistrust you if you are willing to frame what feels like economic catastrophe–people losing homes they’ve saved their whole lives for, losing their retirement savings, etc—like a blip on your personal learning curve and them as rats in your grand experiment.

It’s one thing to pay lip service to humility. It’s another to actually demonstrate humility.

B) Mankiw was a part of the administration that passed the policy disaster known as the “Bush Era Tax Cuts”, the effects of which are now being used as a thinly veiled rationale to cut social programs like Medicare and privatize Social Security. (eek! Dr. S doesn’t think stupid tax cuts during a very expensive war are a good idea! Eek! She must be a class warrior!)

Some more insights from Mankiw of why the students are wrong:

As with much of the Occupy movement across the country, their complaints seemed to me to be a grab bag of anti-establishment platitudes without much hard-headed analysis or clear policy prescriptions. Ironically, the topic of the lecture that the protesters chose to boycott was economic inequality, including a discussion of recent trends and their causes.

So maybe he’s right, and it’s irony. Or maybe it’s that folks are annoyed about A and B, and Mankiw doesn’t have the reflexive capacity to understand his own profession’s impact.

At the risk of going super-geeky, with great power comes great responsibility. (Spiderman reference for those of you who actually went on dates in high school.) Leadership and power mean that you sometimes become the symbol of the harm your profession has exacted–whether it’s strictly “fair” to you or not.

When you say “yes” to the power and prestige that comes with being part of presidential administration or being a celebrated professor at Harvard, you also say “yes” to flack-catching for stuff that you may or may not have contributed to, but your profession has. It’s part of leadership.