Thursday, July 12, 2007

Is It Okay to Ask Questions?

From yesterday's NYT:

For many economists, questioning free-market orthodoxy is akin to expressing a belief in intelligent design at a Darwin convention: Those who doubt the naturally beneficial workings of the market are considered either deluded or crazy.

But in recent months, economists have engaged in an impassioned debate over the way their specialty is taught in universities around the country, and practiced in Washington, questioning the profession’s most cherished ideas about not interfering in the economy.

“There is much too much ideology,” said Alan S. Blinder, a professor at Princeton and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Economics, he added, is “often a triumph of theory over fact.” Mr. Blinder helped kindle the discussion by publicly warning in speeches and articles this year that as many as 30 million to 40 million Americans could lose their jobs to lower-paid workers abroad. Just by raising doubts about the unmitigated benefits of free trade, he made headlines and had colleagues rubbing their eyes in astonishment.

“What I’ve learned is anyone who says anything even obliquely that sounds hostile to free trade is treated as an apostate,” Mr. Blinder said.

And free trade is not the only sacred subject, Mr. Blinder and other like-minded economists say. Most efforts to intervene in the markets — like setting a minimum wage, instituting industrial policy or regulating prices — are viewed askance by mainstream economists, as are analyses that do not rely on mathematical modeling.


Blinder makes two claims: economists oppose all government regulation, and the economics profession hates words, favoring equations.

I just don't think the first claim holds up at all. Redistribution is quite an intrusive form of regulation, and far and away most economists I know favor it strongly. (and, yes, I know a LOT of economists.) Most economists are registered Democrat (although it is true that the Republicans are hardly free market, either).

But it is clearly true that the profession scorns qualitative or "imprecise" analysis for published work. The harder to understand, the better. The less connected to real applications, the more "fundamental" the work.

Which may explain why I have been in Poli Sci for 21 years, yes?

(Nod to NeanderBill, who questions EVERYTHING)