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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

RJ waldmann hears RJ

this DeLong clipping spooked me because an economis friend of mine (Andrei Shleifer) calls me RJW or RJ for short and we used to have discussions like the one Angelica had with RJ all the time. Now we don't, because we live in different continents and he is very busy.

I am going to quote a lot. Then my comments will make it clear why I found reading this post a spooky experience. I should confess that I "earn" my living "working" as an economics professor. The second set of scare quotes reflects the fact that I personally am lazy. I know many economists (like Brad and Andrei) who work very hard.

RJ was not impressed. In fact, he coolly let me know that he regards economics as a quackish science, somewhere in between sociology and astrology in respectability. In other words, bullshit. Of course, I couldn't let that pass unchallanged.


But this conversation haunted me. How is it possible for a guy like RJ to, for all intents and purposes, not believe in economics? He certainly is intelligent, and more importantly intellectually curious. He was even curious enough about economics at one point to take an intro to Econ class at college. Amherst College, which is among the best schools in this country, if I may say so myself. Yet despite the fact that he's a bright guy ready and willing to learn more about economics in one of the country's elite institutions, the class did not nurture his nascent interest. In fact, this introduction turned him against the whole subject so decisively that his has closed his mind.


And the larger question is this: Why is economics, the intellectual discipline most closely tied to the prosperity in our society, so ignored and misunderstood? And what are the consequences of this state of being?

(Watch this space for some further rumination on these questions. Where did Econ 11 go wrong? What eventually caused me to change my mind? What can we do right in the future to encourage greater interest and understanding rather than derisiveness and dismissal?)

posted by Angelica

Angelica must have had an interesting discussion with RJ, but in her post she doesn't share it with us. The whole post is predicated on the assumption that RJ is wrong.

When she asks
"How is it possible for a guy like RJ to, for all intents and purposes, not believe in economics?" she assumes that it must not be because RJ is right. Maybe it's something wrong with him ? No "He certainly is intelligent, and more importantly intellectually curious. " Notice Angelica does not have similar respect for sociology, so it's not that she thinks it is obvious that if a lot of smart people have worked on something they must have accomplished a lot.

I personally have asked how the scientific standing of real business cycle theory differs from that of astrology, and I have not yet heard a halfway convincing answer.

She notes that "economics [is] the intellectual discipline most closely tied to the prosperity in our society" but does not seem to recognise that the importance of the object of the study does not imply that people have studied it successfully. Medicine is important too, but an intelligent and curious person should have had no respect for existing medical science in say 1700. Doctors were asking important questions, but they didn't have the answers yet.

She contrasts "understanding" and "derisiveness and dismissal." It is not true that people never deride and dismiss thought that they understand (see e.g. Brad on the labor theory of value).

This is the first time I have read battlepanda, so I don't have a clue as to the context of Angelica's post. I suppose the battlepanda readership has already demonstrated that they think that we economists have accomplished something already so she feels no need to counter RJ's arguments. Still it is disturbing to find no engagement whatsoever with the arguments of an intelligent friend who approached an issue with an open mind. I wonder why Angelica did not choose to present one scientific accomplishment of an economist. I don't think it is because she can't think of any.

I suspect that the distress she felt speaking to RJ is based on the fear of losing faith in economics. Biologists do not fear loss of faith, when they talk to creation scientists. I don't know, but I suspect that creation scientists feel it all the time.

I myself have a great deal of respect for a small fraction of economic research. Typically it is the research which has least to do with economic theory. It is all empirical research in which identifying assumptions are based on common sense and comprehensible and convincing to non-economists.

I personally am working on several pure economic theory projects. I would never claim that they are science or a more useful activity than blogging (which is why I never finish them).

I wonder how intelligent, curious, *serious* people can participate in the academic economics research effort.


dilbert dogbert said...

Andrei Shleifer
Is he the guy that the US is sueing over the Harvard contract to advise Russian on Privitization? Sounded familiar.

Battlepanda said...

Yo, Robert

Why don't you mosey on over to my followup post? I think you'll find most of your questions answered.

I'm no blind econ booster. In fact, I think I will agree with your assessment of economics as being in an analogous state of development as medicine in the dark ages. But that's no reason for giving up on it, which is what (my) RJ has essentially done. We didn't give up on medicine alltogether because the leaches were no good.