(from Unlearning Economics http://unlearningeconomics.wordpress.com/2013/10/23/18-signs-economists-havent-the-foggiest/)
I’d like to thank Chris Auld for giving me a format for outlining the major reasons why economists can be completely out of touch with their public image, as well as how they should do “science”, and why their discipline is so ripe for criticism (most of which they are unaware of). So, here are 18 common failings I encounter time and time again in my discussions with mainstream economists:
1. They defer to the idea that “all models are simplifications”, as if this somehow creates a fireguard against any criticism of methodology, internal inconsistency or empirical relevance.
2. They argue that the financial crisis is irrelevant to their discipline (bonus: also that predicting such events is impossible).
3. They think that behavioural, new institutional and even ‘Keynesian’ economics show the discipline is pluralistic, not neoclassical.
4. They think that the fact most economic papers are “empirical“ shows economists are engaging in the scientific method.
5. They think ‘neoclassical economics‘ doesn’t exist and is just a swear word used by their opponents.
6. When pushed, they collapse their theories and assumptions into ridiculously weak, virtually unfalsifiable claims (such as revealed preference, the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, or rationality).
7. They dismiss ideas from the past or comprehensive study of previous thinkers and texts as “not science”.
8. They think positive and normative economics are 100% separable, and their discipline is “value free“.
9. They simply cannot think of any other approach to ‘economics’ than theirs.
10. They believe in an erroneous history that sits well with their pet theories, such as the myths of barter and free trade.
11. They think that microfoundations are a necessary and sufficient modelling technique for dealing with the Lucas Critique.
12. They think economics is separable from politics, and that the political role and application of economic ideas in the real world is irrelevant for academic discussion (examples: Friedman and Pinochet, central bank independence).
13. They think their discipline is going through a calm, fruitful period (based on their self-absorbed bubble).
14. They think that endorsing cap & trade or carbon taxes is “dealing with the environment”.
15. They think making an unrealistic model consistent with one or two observed phenomena makes it sound or worthwhile (DSGE and other models are characterised by this “frictions“ approach).
16. They think their discipline is an adequate, even superior, method for analysing problems in other social sciences such as politics, history and sociology.
17. They think that the world behaves as if their assumptions are true (or close enough).
18. They think that their discipline’s use of mathematics shows that it is “rigorous“ and scientific.
Every above link that is not written by an economist is recommended. Furthermore, here are some related recommendations: seven principles for arguing with economists; my FAQ for mainstream economists; I Could Be Arguing In My Spare Time (footnotes!); What’s Wrong With Economics? Also try both mine and Matthjus Krul’s posts on how not to criticise neoclassical economics. As I say to Auld in the comments, I actually agree with some of his points about the mistakes critics make. But I think these critics are still criticising economics for good reasons, and that economists need to improve on the above if they want anyone other than each other to continue taking them seriously.
PS If you think I haven’t backed up any of my claims about what economists say, try cross referencing, as some of the links fall into more than one trap. Also follow through to who I’m criticising in the links to my previous posts. And no, I don’t think all economists believe everything here. However, I do think many economists believe some combination of these things.
Addendum: I have received predictable complaints that my examples are straw men, or at least uncommon. Obviously I provided links for each specific claim – if you’d like to charge that said link is not relevant, please explain why, and if you want more, I’m happy to provide them. However, my general claim is simply that a given article trying to expound or defend mainstream economics will commit a handful of these errors, perhaps excluding the more specific ones such as history or carbon taxes. Here are some examples to show how pervasive this mindset is:
Auld’s original article commits 2, 3, 4, 5 & 12.
This recent, popular defense of economics as a science in the NYT commits 2, 4, 8 & 13 (NB: I forgot “makes annoying and inappropriate comparisons to other sciences”, although both sides do this).
Greg Mankiw’s response to the econ101 walkout commits 8, 9, 12 & 13.
This recent ‘critique‘ of Debunking Economics commits 9, 11, 15 (though, to its credit, it avoids 2).
Stephen Williamson manages 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15 & 16 in his reviews of John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics (in fact, Williamson is a fantastic source of this stuff in general).
Paul Krugman committed 1, 7, 9 & 15 in his debate with Steve Keen
Dani Rodrik, who is probably the most reasonable mainstream economist in the world, committed 3, 4, 13 & 15 in his discussion of economics.
and so on”¦
(Note that, in the interest of fairness, I have left out the most ridiculous things I’ve seen since the crisis.)