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Economists

[ 55 ] August 22, 2012 |

I guess I always assumed that most economists were political hacks hiding behind academic credentials. I don’t have a problem with academics looking to influence public policy. But it is a fine line between supporting a political candidate and sacrificing professional credibility in service of that end. That’s true whether we are talking about economists going whole hog for Romney and falsely accusing Obama of destroying the economy or whether we are talking about Sean Wilentz embarrassing himself in service of his desire to be the Clintons’ Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Of course, one person’s hack is another’s principled academic.

Comments (55)

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  1. josh buhs says:

    This

    Of course, one person’s hack is another’s principled academic.

    would seem to be a species of both-sides-do-it-ism. There are objective standards by which one can measure hackitude, just as there are standards for measuring integrity.

  2. Warren Terra says:

    “the Clinton’s” should either be “the Clintons’” (if you’re referring to the both of them) or “The Clinton’s” (if you’re giving Hillary some sort of title).

  3. SBN says:

    Please connect the title of this article and the first sentence with the rest of the article. What do economists have to do with this? As for Wilentz, he is an historian with a PhD in history, tenured in an history department where he teaches social and political history.

  4. Kurzleg says:

    Isn’t it important to compare the relative price of marginal income tax rate changes versus changes in SS deductions versus benefits to drill down on the relative impact of each? He kind of glosses over that.

  5. Furious Jorge says:

    I guess I always assumed that most economists were political hacks hiding behind academic credentials.

    We aren’t. Not all of us, anyway.

    The problem is that most people have only ever heard of the ones who are, because they’re the most shameless self-promoters.

    • Furious Jorge says:

      Also, there are a shit-ton more than just 500 of us.

      • laura says:

        Also, I’d be very surprised if economists in the US as a whole leaned Republican this election. I believe there was some research on this a few years ago which found that economists were signficantly more Democratic than the population on average, though less so as a group than professors in most humanities.

  6. PZ says:

    Looks like Ryan isn’t just having a hard time deciding where he stands on Medicare. He can’t even pick just one position on what his football team is-

    http://www.totalpackers.com/2012/08/21/paul-ryan-just-sold-you-out-packers-fan/

    • Cody says:

      Thank God he didn’t wave around a Chicago Bears flag. The man would be in danger for his life if he ever stepped foot into Wisconsin again.

  7. Colin says:

    I’m pretty sure the University of Chicago was implicated long before this.

    • Cody says:

      I’m not fan of Freidman, but it seems to state the group he worked with created many Nobel prize economists.

      Must’ve been doing something right?

      • AcademicLurker says:

        but it seems to state the group he worked with created many Nobel prize economists.

        That would be the fake Nobel prize that seems to have been created specifically lend some borrowed prestige to the Chicago school economists.

  8. Bijan Parsia says:

    Then there is the increasingly nasty op-ed war pursued by political economists, such as Paul Krugman and Glenn Hubbard, who have so closely aligned themselves with one of the two parties that it’s impossible to know where their politics stop and their economic analyses begin.

    It’s impossible to know where Krugman’s politics stop and his econmic analyses begin? Really?

    Erik, what did I do to you to deserve you posting first the “We lofty historians of undisputed accuracy write a super hackish, factually challenged whine about popular historians” and then this!?

    No research assistants for YOU!

    • Erik Loomis says:

      One can disagree with the sentence about Krugman and not disagree with the overall point of the piece.

      • LeftWingFox says:

        This is also a guy saying that social security is to blame for the lack of savings in the US, and tried to run under the Tom Friedman “Americans Unite” party.

        Until you said that, I was assuming you were posting this as Irony. Centrist Politica hack calls right-wing and left wing political hacks political hacks.

      • Well, you could, but I think that you would also have to thereby agree with the premise itself completely irrespective of this guys column, which is pretty obviously rubbish from beginning to end.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        At some level of abstraction, I’m sure.

        I’m not very much inclined to take seriously articles that contain such howlers which are not somehow straightforwardly walled off. Seriously, if you claim that you can’t figure out Krugman, much less that NO one can (it’s IMPOSSIBLE), then you are very hard to take seriously. Esp. when that line EXEMPLIFIES the problem you are talking about (i.e., clearly this is a bit of the author’s politics dressed up as analysis, just as wide chunks of the Trained Historian Do The Accuracy was riddled with inaccuracies).

        And sorry, the whole thing is pretty similarly shoddy. “No impartial economist would make such blanket assertions. By their very nature, such statements represent political, not scientific, opinion.” It’s as if this person knows nothing about the philosophy or sociology of science! And then we have:

        Having run for president on the Americans Elect platform before it was disbanded in May, I may be questioned about my own impartiality in objecting to the politicization of economics. But in my short campaign, I limited my public statements and Web postings to the policies I favor, and I almost entirely avoided any criticisms of either the president’s or former governor’s positions. I did this because I was running as an economist, not as a politician.

        WTF. Championing your policies rather than criticizing others is the measure of either impartiality or “being a proper economist”?

        This person is clearly bonkers.

        AFICT, the economics is total rubbish as well. We need to save more? Really?

        The overall point of the article is not, “Those 500 hacks are hacks” but “My stupid position which goes against sensible thinking is the True Science Due to my Civility and Bare Assertion”.

  9. James E. Powell says:

    The idea that ‘economics is a science’ has got to be thrown on the ash heap of history (which is also not a science).

    I am not sure how to feel about 500 economists. Is that a lot? How many are there in the country? What, exactly, is an economist? How is it that they are any more qualified than, say, the loud guy at the end of the bar who despite having only a high school diploma knows that this country ought to hire people to do work on the infrastructure because the work needs to be done and there are people who need the work.

    Do economists have some superior insight into things like that?

    • sparks says:

      I once thought economics was a “soft science”. Then I realized there is no such thing.

      • tt says:

        This is silly. The scientific method can be applied to any subject of human inquiry.

        • This. If economics isn’t a “science,” then neither is any of the other social sciences.

          • Bill Murray says:

            right; and they aren’t

          • Warren Terra says:

            I think you can usefully make a distinction between the so-called “soft” sciences – not that I’d insist on that term – and those sciences more amenable to experimentation and rigorous testing of ideas. This isn’t to impugn the scholarship or the seriousness in the former – but in other sorts of sciences you can’t really have persistent disagreements of the magnitude and sort you do in economics, and history, and the like.

            On the other hand, the incentives are quite different. Even where there are persistent and significant differences of opinion that do not get resolved – the validity of String Theory, for example, not that I know much about it – there aren’t the same opportunities for corruption, for self-interested and disingenuous dealing. The nature of physical reality is important, but thus far there isn’t a lot of money to be made in weak and convenient arguments promoting or opposing one version of it like there is in similarly weak attempts to justify lower capital gains taxes.

            • tt says:

              I think the distinction is between the study of simple systems and the study of complex systems. Most scientists today are in the latter category. The typical medical researcher is closer to the economist in methodology and conception of the scientific method than to the archetypal experimental physicist working on neatly controlled experiments.

              • Philip says:

                Considering the things being examined, I don’t think any branch of science can meaningfully be said to examine “simple” systems anymore. Certainly the “hard” sciences (physics and chemistry) are not generally studying simple systems anymore.

    • tt says:

      How is it that they are any more qualified than, say, the loud guy at the end of the bar

      Knowledge and expertise? Do you think evidence, reasoning, etc. are useless when applied to economic problems?

      • Bill Murray says:

        I think the crappy assumptions of most economics keeps them down at the end of the bar

      • gmack says:

        I’m going to punt on the “is Economics a science?” question (when did my old seminars in philosophy of social science take over this blog?). The reason is that I think that’s a distraction from what I take to be the more important issue, which is that technical-economic issues are different from political ones. Expertise and economic training does not provide any special insight into, say, who I should vote for President. This is true for a very simple reason: politically speaking, it is always allowable (and even sometimes a good thing!) for someone to reject the criteria of value upon which, say, the academic study of economics is based. And good thing too, because otherwise we’d have no reason to allow non-experts to have rights of democratic participation.

        • tt says:

          I don’t know. The political parties don’t really disagree on whether unemployment is good or not. Not all political disagreement on economics comes down to technical questions, but most of it does. And I can think of a bunch of reasons to allow non-experts democratic rights even if expert consensus were always better (1. power corrupts 2. democratic outlets for resolving conflicts reduce the attraction of violence).

          • gmack says:

            The political parties don’t really disagree on whether unemployment is good or not. Not all political disagreement on economics comes down to technical questions, but most of it does.

            Interesting, because I see both of these sentences as pretty arguable. I know that people talk about the need to create jobs and put people back to work, etc. However, is it not the case that, for the most part, our political and economic elites tend to view the deficit and not unemployment as the main crisis the U.S. faces? If so, then disagreement that the hypothetical guy at the bar (or me, for that matter) has with them really isn’t “technical,” except around the edges.

            Or maybe I’m too sensitive about these things; all I know is that irritates me to no end when I hear politicians argue that they would make good political leaders because of their business experience teaches them how best to be profitable and satisfy their customers. The problem is that profitability isn’t the purpose of a political community, and also that I’m not a Goddamned customer. I’m a citizen, and that’s something different. (Sorry about the rant here; I know it’s only tangentially related to our current discussion, but I felt the need to vent for a moment).

            • tt says:

              However, is it not the case that, for the most part, our political and economic elites tend to view the deficit and not unemployment as the main crisis the U.S. faces?

              Do people care about the deficit in itself as a moral issue or do they claim that the deficit will lead to other economic problems? I think if you go deep enough questioning someone who sees the deficit as our biggest problem you will eventually come to a disagreement on technical, not value grounds.

              I mean–there is obviously one big value difference between the parties, on the appropriate distribution of wealth. But the elites on the right can’t admit that this is the main difference because few Americans agree with them on this point. So they come up with technical objections to redistributive policies which are mostly wrong on objective merits. And economics can explain why.

              • gmack says:

                Do people care about the deficit in itself as a moral issue or do they claim that the deficit will lead to other economic problems? I think if you go deep enough questioning someone who sees the deficit as our biggest problem you will eventually come to a disagreement on technical, not value grounds.

                Cool. I think this brings us to the heart of our disagreement. Partly because of the stuff I study (I’ve been writing a book about the ways in which folks talk about welfare and the poor), I think many people’s objection to the deficit is precisely moral. At any rate, that’s how it is often characterized rhetorically, e.g., in all of the concerns about “dependency,” or the preoccupations about “those people” getting luxuries they don’t deserve, etc. I gather that you, by contrast, think that the objection is basically rational-economic, i.e., that people object to the deficit insofar as they believe it undermines economic growth, increases, inflation, or some such.

                Anyway, I can’t resolve this disagreement tonight (it’s after midnight here, and I’m off to bed), but I appreciate the clarity with which you’ve stated the position.

            • Quercus says:

              I was going to be a bit blunter and say if you’re in a position to be hiring, then you might well think unemployment is a GOOD thing. Heck, if you’re just in a position where you’re supervising people, high unemployment makes it a lot easier to keep the troops in light, right?

              Of course, even if you’re the political party that is a fully-owned subsidiary of the factory-owning class, you can’t come right out and say that, so both parties pretend to be concerned about unemployment, but one of them seems very happy not to take clear and obvious steps to decrease it, and in fact take steps that will increase it. But now we’re back to hack economists again aren’t we?

  10. snarkout says:

    I can’t actually get past the Americans Elect thing.

    • I can’t get past the “Social Security is a ponzi scheme” claim and the subsequent out of touchness with actual living people that always follows. At least considering that, you know, he took it upon himself to label 500 of his compatriots “hacks.”

      • snarkout says:

        No, I mean my eyes glaze over and I literally stop reading when he says he was running for President on the Americans Elect non-ticket. I’d probably learn more about politics from listening to someone scream about chemtrails or the lizard people.

        • “No, I mean my eyes glaze over and I literally stop reading when he says he was running for President on the Americans Elect non-ticket.”

          Should’ve run with straight strategy when I had the chance.

  11. Cody says:

    I can understand there is some leeway on the exact science of economics (we can’t test all the results as in some other fields), but it seems pretty obvious to me there is no way you can “agree” with Romney/Ryan’s budget on a pure “economics” standpoint.

    Why? Because THEY DON’T SAY HOW THEY’RE GOING TO ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING IN IT! How can you honestly look at a proposal that says “using undisclosed methods I’ll raise $3 trillion” and say that it’s following your preferred method of running the economy?

    I mean, I guess I like that budget too. My personal finances operate like that. This month, I’m going to make $5,000 and spend $25,000 but come out even by using unspecified loopholes to save $20,000 in expenses!

  12. dave says:

    I think the problem is that not enough academics are involved int he political discourse.

    Our political discourse is ruled almost exclusively by falsehoods and logical fallacies. Yet the experts and logicians never weigh in. Instead they sit back and let our discourse be run by charlatans, without any serious pushback.

    Krugman himself has stated that he was very hesitant to accept the job at the Times for fear it would hurt his career b/c his academic peers consider public advocacy of that sort to be a black mark on an academic.

    Given that Krugman is, IMO, the most valuable (though not nearly the most influential) participant in our public discourse, how much improved would that discourse bee if there were hundreds or thousands of Krugmans willing to lend their expertise to the discourse?

    Personally, I mostly blame academics themselves for this state of affairs. I think academics are quite comfortable staying on campus, cashing their checks, and talking amongst themselves and I do believe there is an element of elitism in the academy which looks askance at any engagement between the academy and the rabble.

    • dave says:

      My post above seriously needed an editor. Nevertheless, I stand behind its content.

    • Cody says:

      I would be rather tentative to get involved in politics publicly. What’s the first thing that happens when you speak the truth about economics ( a very touchy subject! ) into a newspaper?

      Everyone comes down on you for being Partisan. Sometimes it’s true, but if you’re telling the truth and it goes something like “slashing the deficit is going to send us into the great depression”, then everyone is going to say you’re a Democratic hack. Why even bother? Unless someone is paying you a lot or you can’t stand seeing the government go down the tube.

  13. Bloix says:

    Boy, it took a long time for someone to point out that Niall Ferguson is a historian.
    As for the linked article, isn’t it just the ever-popular both-sides-do-it POS? And why would you expect anything different from an Americans Elect type?

    The truth is that liberal – ie Keynsian – economists have been strong critics of this administration from the start. But “conservative” economists have shown themselves perfectly willing to discard the lessons of Milton Friedman in order to remain in lockstep with Republican party dogma.

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