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Friday, August 21, 2009

Pop Keynesianism

In response to the posts about Judge Richard Posner playing economist and getting the basics wrong, Tim Duy reminds me of Paul Krugman's "Pop Internationalism" and sends along links to Stephen Gordon and Google books (I am out of town this week, and I appreciate Tim's suggestions as I have a long, long drive ahead of me):

The anatomy of anti-economics, by Stephen Gordon: I recently had occasion to re-read Paul Krugman's "Pop Internationalism", and this passage from 'The illusion of conflict in international trade' jumped out at me. His point of reference is international economics, but in my experience it also applies to other fields as well:

As far as I can tell, the attitude of policy-minded intellectuals to economics is pretty much unique. Many people have opinions about legal matters or about defense policy; but they generally accept that a fair amount of specialized knowledge is necessary to discuss these matters intelligently. Thus a law degree is expected of a commentator on legal affairs, a professional military career or a record of study of military matters is expected of a commentator on defense, and so on.

When it comes to economics, however, and especially international trade, it seems to be generally accepted that there is no specialized knowledge to master. Lawyers, political scientists, historians cheerfully offer their views on the subject, and often seem quite sure that whatever it is that professors have to say – something they are fairly blurry about – is naïve and wrong…

[T]he attitude … that international economics requires no special knowledge, and that the theories of the academics, whatever they are, are obviously silly … is extremely common…

[W]hy is this attitude so prevalent? At this point, I am in the awkward position of having to defend economic professionalism by playing amateur sociologist, but let me offer the following five-part hypothesis.

First, economics is a subject that touches so many real-world concerns that there is a great incentive to claim expertise. This is especially true of international economics, in which the romance and allure of anything to which to word “global” is attached adds to the attraction of the enterprise. As a result, a large number of people inevitably propound views about international economics without much background in the subject.

Second, ignorance finds strength in numbers. Since so many lawyers, political experts, etc. feel free to opine on economics, others considering such a role do not hesitate over their lack of formal qualifications or knowledge of the field.

Third, economics written by non-economists often sounds more persuasive than the real thing. This is not just a matter of jargon: no matter how well explained, serious economic analysis is often intrinsically difficult…

Fourth, there is a lot of bad-mouthing of economists. This is understandable. After all, suppose you are, say, a military expert who has decided that he is an economic expert too. You write an article or even a book on the subject; then an academic economist tells you that all of your ingenious arguments are familiar fallacies covered in an undergraduate textbook, and that your basic thesis involves a contradiction because you do not understand national accounts. You might decide that you really should go back and read a basic textbook; more likely, you begin denigrating economists as pompous types who actually don’t know anything.

And finally, the bad-mouthing of economists, by people who typically have rapport with their audience because they share that audience’s misconceptions, reinforces the perception that economists have nothing to offer – which encourages more non-economists to declare themselves experts, enter the fray, and reinforces the cycle.

In short, there is a circular process by which bad ideas drive out good. As far as the public discourse on international trade is concerned, this process is essentially complete: not only sophisticated theories, but comparative advantage and even S – I = X – M have been driven out of the discussion.

Here's the original from Google books. Begin with "The Anatomy of Anti-Economics at the bottom of page 78. The missing piece at the end is in the post above.

And for even more on this, see Justin Wolfers and Menzie Chinn.

    Posted by on Friday, August 21, 2009 at 12:18 AM in Economics | Permalink  Comments (17)


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