Why critique in economics is so important
Some of the economists who agree about the state of macro in private conversations will not say so in public. This is consistent with the explanation based on different prices. Yet some of them also discourage me from disagreeing openly, which calls for some other explanation.
They may feel that they will pay a price too if they have to witness the unpleasant reaction that criticism of a revered leader provokes. There is no question that the emotions are intense. After I criticized a paper by Lucas, I had a chance encounter with someone who was so angry that at first he could not speak. Eventually, he told me, “You are killing Bob.”
But my sense is that the problem goes even deeper that avoidance. Several economists I know seem to have assimilated a norm that the post-real macroeconomists actively promote – that it is an extremely serious violation of some honor code for anyone to criticize openly a revered authority figure – and that neither facts that are false, nor predictions that are wrong, nor models that make no sense matter enough to worry about …
Science, and all the other research fields spawned by the enlightenment, survive by “turning the dial to zero” on these innate moral senses. Members cultivate the conviction that nothing is sacred and that authority should always be challenged … By rejecting any reliance on central authority, the members of a research field can coordinate their independent efforts only by maintaining an unwavering commitment to the pursuit of truth, established imperfectly, via the rough consensus that emerges from many independent assessments of publicly disclosed facts and logic; assessments that are made by people who honor clearly stated disagreement, who accept their own fallibility, and relish the chance to subvert any claim of authority, not to mention any claim of infallibility.
This is part of why yours truly appreciate Romer’s article, and even find it ‘brave.’ Everyone knows what he says is true, but few have the courage to openly speak and write about it. The ‘honour code’ in academia certainly needs revision.
The excessive formalization and mathematization of economics since WW II has made mainstream — neoclassical — economists more or less obsessed with formal, deductive-axiomatic models. Confronted with the critique that they do not solve real problems, they often react as Saint-Exupéry’s Great Geographer, who, in response to the questions posed by The Little Prince, says that he is too occupied with his scientific work to be be able to say anything about reality. Confronting economic theory’s lack of relevance and ability to tackle real probems, one retreats into the wonderful world of economic models. While the economic problems in the world around us steadily increase, one is rather happily playing along with the latest toys in the mathematical toolbox.
Modern mainstream economics is sure very rigorous — but if it’s rigorously wrong, who cares?
Instead of making formal logical argumentation based on deductive-axiomatic models the message, I think we are better served by economists who more than anything else try to contribute to solving real problems. And then the motto of John Maynard Keynes is more valid than ever:
It is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong