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How Strong is the Economics Guild? A look at the discussion of economics

The Economist

I have had two contrasting experiences. First, I had a student come to office hours saying it was hard to figure which of all the cacophony of economy ideas put forward in the news to take seriously. I pointed out that unlike climate science, where good journalists usually feel that for a quotation meant to be taken seriously (as plausibly true) they need to quote people who are PhD’s in appropriate disciplines and are also usually professors or government employees, they will quote as plausibly true the economic opinion of a much wider set of people, including at least business people and politicians in addition to PhD economists. The picture one gets from the news about the economy and economic policy is much different if one focuses primarily on what the PhD economists are saying.

On Twitter as well, I notice the large number of people who are not pedigreed members of the economics guild who are happy to disagree vigorously with me and with other economics professors there. So my experience has not been one of the economics guild having a monopoly on public discourse about economics.

The second experience was reading Cameron Murray’s blog post about the book Econocracy. Here is Cameron’s summary of the books main points:

  1. Economics is now the default method of analysis in serious social and political debate, undermining the legitimacy of other modes of analysis, making anyone who doesn’t understand economics and its jargon unable to participate in the major political debates of our time.
  2. Despite the great power granted to economists, the discipline has become nothing more than a narrow ideology, with that last defining theoretical battles happening back in the 1970s, and little openness to criticism or new ideas since.
  3. Changes in how economists and their discipline function could benefit democracy. These changes are a) economists training their next generation in a more pluralist way, giving them exposure to many methods of analysis to avoid the ideological indoctrination that is economics education and b) economists being less insular by reaching out to the public to promote a culture of “citizen economists”, who have sufficient understanding and confidence to bring their groups to the table and participate effectively in policy debate.

To take point 3b first, I see a thriving economics blogosphere and Twittersphere effectively reaching out to the public in exactly this way. (I especially admire how George Mason University has supported and encouraged its economists in this kind of public outreach.) And the economics blogosphere/Twittersphere includes quite a few strong heterodox voices, both inside and outside the guild. Let me give as examples my Twitter friends TakingHayekSeriously inside the guild and John L. Davidson outside the guild.

On point 3a, economic training can often be so narrow that even someone like me – who doesn’t think of himself as heterodox at all, but makes some effort to be broad-minded – can count as “training [the] next generation in a more pluralist way.” The narrowness I see and lament in subfields of economics can be quite severe: often a limitation to a tiny slice of all possible ways of working in that subfield. But at least the narrowness within subfields of economics periodically shifts from narrowness in one direction to narrowness in another direction. There are often very detailed rules about what one is allowed to do and what one is not allowed to do that shift only when someone with enough prestige within the guild decides to break those rules. (For a particular broadening of the rules, see my post and paper “Cognitive Economics.”)

On point 2, it is worth noting that while economics tends to pull people trained in it in what is conventionally thought of as a “conservative direction,” the median economist working in the U.S. remains left of center politically relative to the average U.S. citizen. This is evidenced by the deep bench of top guild economists that Democratic administrations have to choose from, and the relatively limited bench of top guild economists that Republican administrations have to choose from. The combination of the bulk of economists being left of center nationally and the important minority of economists who are much more right-wing gives the lie to the idea that economics is a “narrow ideology,” unless one considers 90% of the U.S. political spectrum a “narrow ideology.”

The Economist

About Miles Kimball

Miles Kimball

Miles Kimball holds the Eaton Chair in Economics at the University of Colorado Boulder, and is Emeritus Professor of Economics and Survey Research of the University of Michigan. (Born in 1960, he is now 57.) Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

Articles by Miles Kimball

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