On Campus

Economists of the ivory tower

Something is wrong with how the economics profession presents itself to the world.

I usually don’t read the famous Freakonomics blog, but this post caught my attention. I’ll quote the relevant bit:

But it was something President Robinson [former President of Ireland, high-ranking U.N. exec] said after the program that I’ll truly remember. I [Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics] asked her if, say, a well-regarded development economist from, say, Harvard or M.I.T. were to issue a paper on some important aspect of food supply or famine (like some of these, perhaps): would the folks in Robinson’s circle pay attention?

She smiled kindly as she said “I’m afraid not.” Which only further reinforced my belief that at the very least this is one person who truly does tell the truth.

From my limited tenure (four months last summer) as a policy wonk, I’d agree. Which I find somewhat disappointing, but of course I’m biased. There are undoubtedly a lot of people who are glad that the world is not run by hyper-rational economists.

I’ll concede that there’s lots of results from economic theory that fail the laugh test. But so much of the discussion that fills up the papers on a regular basis has a “right answer” in economics and yet doesn’t fully penetrate the public consciousness, but this is rehashing my tyranny of the majority post.

However, former presidents and UN authorities aren’t the public at large. Here’s the question I want to ask. What have economists done to ‘rub society the wrong way’? Because there’s something we’re missing if we can get quotes like the one above.

Yes, I understand that lots of papers are written solely to show off advanced mathematics or to colleagues. And that lots have extremely limited policy application. But there are metric tons of papers which are interesting, applicable, and ignored. What’s wrong with our PR?

Unrelated postscript: Here’s a paper that shows using standard assumptions that fiscal federalism promotes the accumulation of human capital, i.e. it really is better to leave education to the provinces.