Saturday, March 27, 2010

Poll: Why do you listen to economists?

Greg Mankiw has some interesting comments on his blog today about the role of economics in the public sphere:
In today's NY Times, David Brooks has an interesting column on the field of economics.

While the column is well worth reading, I think it is more wrong than right. Journalists are fond of writing articles about how recent events require a fundamental rethinking of economic theory. It is their job, after all, to identify new things on the horizon. But when they try to predict trends in academic theorizing from current events, they are usually incorrect. In particular, I think what we teach in economics courses is more robust than a reader of David's column would think.
Quoting directly from the column, I found this segment about Russ Roberts' beliefs interesting:
In The Wall Street Journal, Russ Roberts of George Mason University wondered why economics is even considered a science. Real sciences make progress. But in economics, old thinkers cycle in and out of fashion. In real sciences, evidence solves problems. Roberts asked his colleagues if they could think of any econometric study so well done that it had definitively settled a dispute. Nobody could think of one.

“The bottom line is that we should expect less of economists,” Roberts wrote.

According to the column, Roberts is an economist (see Cafe Hayek and EconTalk) who thinks that less should be expected of economists. Maybe people expect too much on some dimensions (forecasting and stock prices), but I would suggest that people should expect different things of economists. From reading Roberts' blog and listening to his podcasts, I think this is what he really meant.

In graduate school, they don't equip us each with a crystal ball, but they do equip us with some valuable tools for analysis. Don't expect us to forecast well, but do expect us to anticipate unintended consequences. By virtue of our training, economists are good at raising relevant concerns about policy proposals.

But, forecasting is hard for everyone, not just economists. With our tools (still not crystal balls), it might still be the case that economists have a comparative advantage here. To the extent that we need forecasting, the economist seems right for the job. Viewed in this light, maybe the problem is that people do not listen to the caveats and assumptions underlying the forecasts.

So, that brings me to my poll question of the week.

What is the most important social role for an economist?

(a) The rational thinker in the room. Economists raise issues of efficiency, scarcity and tradeoffs.
(b) The forecaster. Economists use sophisticated models to predict what the future holds.
(c) The strategy-maker/consultant. Economists don't fulfill a social role per se, but an economist knows strategy, both political and business.
(d) No important role.

The poll -- like all polls -- is open for a week. Please vote early and often (on the sidebar -->). Tell your friends, economists, parents, forecasters, siblings, consultants, and all of the important people in your life to vote. I'm interested in seeing what you have to say.

1 comment:

  1. Final Tally:

    Rational Thinker: 10
    Forecaster: 5
    Consultant: 9
    None: 2


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