Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In Economics Departments, a Growing Will to Debate Fundamental Assumptions

New York Times: By Patricia Cohen
“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. ...

But as issues like income inequality, free trade and protectionism have become part of the presidential candidates’ stump speeches, more thinkers have joined the debate. In addition to Mr. Blinder, other eminent economists like Lawrence H. Summers and the Nobel Prize-winner George A. Akerlof have pointed out what they see as the failings of laissez-faire economics.

“Economists can’t pretend that the consensus for free markets and free trade that existed 30 years ago is still here,” said Robert B. Reich, a public policy professor at Berkeley who served in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet.

Part of the reason is the growing income inequality and dislocation that global markets and a revolution in communications have helped create. Economists who question the free-market theories “want to speak to the reality of our time,” Mr. Reich said.

Meanwhile, critics have also pointed out the limits of standard cost-benefit accounting to measure items like the cost of inequality or damage to the ecosystem. ...

Mr. Reny and others point out that the increasing popularity in the mainstream of behavioral economics, which looks at people’s complex psychological reactions to events, has offered a fuller picture of how consumers operate in the marketplace. Still, Mr. Lee criticizes neoclassical economics for maintaining that the market, if left alone, would ultimately find a happy balance. He also takes the discipline to task for relying on abstract theories and mathematical modeling instead of observation and sociological analysis. ...
Although he acknowledged that inflexible rules about how one makes an argument and what counts as evidence can create blind spots, but insisted that once those rules were accepted, there was tremendous openness inside the academy.

The problem is outside, where economists are expected to “regurgitate ideas” about the glories of the free market. Most mainstream economists think that voicing any skepticism or doubt provides “ammunition to the barbarians,” he said, and allows narrow-minded people to “hijack any argument to suit their purpose.”

Mr. Rodrik said he used to worry about this until he realized that “on any issue, there are barbarians on both sides,” so there was no point in shading an argument to “suit one set of barbarians over the other.”

“And I’ve slept a lot better since.”

Ah, does this bring back memories. I started out in Economics, and left when I realized I was not cut out to be a true believer in anything, and particularly not the true faith of (purportedly value free) neoclassical economics. I've never looked back, although I've taken some interesting side-glances at Tversky-Kahneman style "behavioral economics," which I find intriguing.

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