Monday, January 12, 2009

A Largely Dishonorable Profession

Economists. What good are they?

Why So Little Self-Recrimination Among Economists?

Why is it that economics is a Teflon discipline, seemingly unable to admit or recognize its errors?

Economic policies in the US and most advanced economies are to a significant degree devised by economists. They also serve as policy advocates, and are regularly quoted in the business and political media and contribute regularly to op-ed pages.

We have just witnessed them make a massive failure in diagnosis. Despite the fact that there was rampant evidence of trouble on various fronts – a housing bubble in many countries (the Economist had a major story on it in June 2005 and as readers well know, prices rose at an accelerating pace), rising levels of consumer debt, stagnant average worker wages, lack of corporate investment, a gaping US trade deficit, insanely low spreads for risky credits – the authorities took the "everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds" posture until the wheels started coming off. And even when they did, the vast majority were constitutionally unable to call its trajectory.

Now of course, a lonely few did sound alarms. Nouriel Roubini and Robert Shiller both saw the danger of the housing/asset bubble; Jim Hamilton at the 2007 Jackson Hole conference said that the markets would test the implicit government guarantee of Fannie and Freddie; Henry Kaufman warned how consumer and companies were confusing access to credit (which could be cut off) with liquidity, and about how technology would amplify a financial crisis. Other names no doubt belong on this list, but the bigger point is that these warnings were often ignored.

Shiller has offered a not-very-convincing defense, claiming that economists were subject to "groupthink" and no one wanted to stick his neck out. That seems peculiar given that many prominent policy influencers are tenured. They would seem to have greater freedom than people in any other field to speak their mind. And one would imagine that being early to identify new developments or structural shifts would enhance one's professional standing.

But if a doctor repeatedly deemed patients to be healthy that were soon found to have Stage Four cancer that was at least six years in the making, the doctor would be a likely candidate for a malpractice suit. Yet we have heard nary a peep about the almost willful blindness of economists to the crisis-in-its-making, with the result that their central role in policy development remains beyond question.

Perhaps the conundrum results from the very fact that they are too close to the seat of power. Messengers that bear unpleasant news are generally not well received. And a government that wanted to engage in wishful, risky policies would want a document trail that said these moves were reasonable. "Whocouldanode" becomes a defense.

But how economists may be compromised by their policy role is way beyond the scope of a post. To return to the matter at hand: there appears to be an extraordinary lack of introspection within the discipline despite having presided over a Katrina-like failure.

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