Gideon Rachman of the FT wants to dethrone economists. I am all for it, but what grates in his article is the view that economics as a science is defined by its ability to forecast the future. No, it is not, and whoever said that is not very knowledgeable about economics as a discipline.
Well, except that Rachman takes his definition from … Joe Stiglitz!
I am sure Stiglitz would recant, or at least argue that his comment was taken out of context, upon close examination. At best, economics can help us make contingent predictions -- a long way off from forecasting.
There is plenty wrong with the way that economists have behaved in the run-up to the financial crisis without ascribing such grandiose claims to economics.
My take is that you should blame economists, not economics:
The problem is that economists (and those who listen to them) became over-confident in their preferred models of the moment: markets are efficient, financial innovation transfers risk to those best able to bear it, self-regulation works best, and government intervention is ineffective and harmful.
They forgot that there were many other models that led in radically different directions. Hubris creates blind spots. If anything needs fixing, it is the sociology of the profession. The textbooks -- at least those used in advanced courses -- are fine.
Non-economists tend to think of economics as a discipline that idolizes markets and a narrow concept of (allocative) efficiency. If the only economics course you take is the typical introductory survey, or if you are a journalist asking an economist for a quick opinion on a policy issue, that is indeed what you will encounter. But take a few more economics courses, or spend some time in advanced seminar rooms, and you will get a different picture.
Labor economists focus not only on how trade unions can distort markets, but also how, under certain conditions, they can enhance productivity. Trade economists study the implications of globalization on inequality within and across countries. Finance theorists have written reams on the consequences of the failure of the “efficient markets” hypothesis. Open-economy macroeconomists examine the instabilities of international finance. Advanced training in economics requires learning about market failures in detail, and about the myriad ways in which governments can help markets work better.
Macroeconomics may be the only applied field within economics in which more training puts greater distance between the specialist and the real world, owing to its reliance on highly unrealistic models that sacrifice relevance to technical rigor. Sadly, in view of today’s needs, macroeconomists have made little progress on policy since John Maynard Keynes explained how economies could get stuck in unemployment due to deficient aggregate demand. Some, like Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman, would say that the field has actually regressed.
Economics is really a toolkit with multiple models – each a different, stylized representation of some aspect of reality. One’s skill as an economist depends on the ability to pick and choose the right model for the situation.
Economics’ richness has not been reflected in public debate because economists have taken far too much license. Instead of presenting menus of options and listing the relevant trade-offs – which is what economics is about – economists have too often conveyed their own social and political preferences. Instead of being analysts, they have been ideologues, favoring one set of social arrangements over others.
Furthermore, economists have been reluctant to share their intellectual doubts with the public, lest they “empower the barbarians.” No economist can be entirely sure that his preferred model is correct. But when he and others advocate it to the exclusion of alternatives, they end up communicating a vastly exaggerated degree of confidence about what course of action is required.