Monday, August 02, 2004


I have become increasingly cynical about the dismal science of economics. To be sure, economists spend much time, energy, and grey matter trying to understand and describe the incredibly complex phenomenon that is our modern global economy. But I am struck by the fact that there seems to be very little in the way of a consensus among economists on anything. And I am also struck by the fact that one can seemingly find an economic theory (or a real flesh-and-blood economist) to support just about any political position or policy. And there is always the old canard about wondering why all economists aren't fantastically wealthy if they understand the workings of the economy so thoroughly and so much better than the rest of us. Hence my only somewhat facetious equation of economists with diviners who read goat entrails of earlier ages. When they're right, they credit their theories. When they're wrong, some outside factor must have made the difference. Enter this interesting study that is summarized as follows:
Mathematical and statistical rigor is a prized aspect of academic economic research. The economics profession officially claims that such rigor advances our understanding of the economy and public policy issues, that there is, in effect, a public good created by research published in economics journals. Yet, a majority of AEA members who responded to a survey I conducted admit, at least privately, that academic research mainly benefits academic researchers who use it to advance their own careers and that journal articles have very little impact on our understanding of the real world and the practice of public policy.
Some findings:
More to the point of “scholastic” vs. “public discourse” orientation, the majority say that economic research in nationally recognized journals is not useful for individuals in business or industry or for teachers of college-level principles courses. It is mostly useful for academic economists engaged in research and for economics graduate students. And most economists agree that the profession and its members are ineffective at communicating with the lay public. Finally, a majority of responding economists either agreed with, or were neutral about, the statement that economic research in nationally recognized journals is not useful to government policy makers and does not provide spillover benefits for society.
Of course much of this would probably describe any number of other academic disciplines as well. So why do we continue to insist on such less-than-useful forms of knowledge production? Because, contrary to the popular perception of universities as hotbeds of liberalism if not radicalism, the academy is in many ways a very traditional and conservative institution.

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