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August 23, 2006

Why I don't trust economists

-- by John Emerson

I now think of economists the same way I think of lawyers. They're highly skilled advocates who have, in the best cases, a high degree of mastery of their material. But they work in the interests of their own political principles and those of their employers and grantors.

The range of economic opinion goes from the Ayn Rand far right to the center-left (more center than left). Perhaps a third of Americans are to the left of Krugman and DeLong, and well over half of Europeans. (But few of those who hire economists are left of center.)

Besides the economists' own biases, the science of economics itself is skewed. Labor, for example, is a cost, and the lower costs are, the better. (There are countervailing factors, of course -- for example, the buying power of labor. But these hardly override the need to keep labor costs low).

There are lots of ways to skew results -- choosing a dataset, deciding on which statistical analysis to use, selecting which variables to study . The gross skews get caught, but the little tweaks don't. Skewing is not done consciously, I suppose, but results that "don't look right" get a second look, whereas results that look right get reported.

The best way of getting the right skew, of course, is to not study a question at all, and just report what basic economic principle say should happen. For example, economists have been condemning the minimum wage for decades without bothering to look for empirical backing. When a study was finally done, it was found that there wasn't much backing there.

Now, basic economic principles tell us that of course outsourcing and high immigration will both reduce wages -- it's simple supply and demand. But economists, including Krugman and DeLong, don't want this result, so now they do empirical studies (!) which prove -- hold your breath -- either that there's no effect on wages, or that the effect on wages is very small.

There's always a subtext, too: only the lowest-paid, lowest-skilled workers are impacted. People we wouldn't care to know.

Economists don't like Stiglitz's book on his experiences with the World Bank / IMF. I haven't read it (it's on my list) but my guess it's because it isn't written in economic terminology, because the kinds of things Stiglitz wants to say can't be expressed in within economics. Economics as such has enormous blindspots, and just by working professionally, economists effectively adopt a rightward bias.

(Revised version of my comment here.)

Posted by John Emerson at August 23, 2006 10:35 AM

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Comments

I don't trust economists because they seem to feel entitled to use other people's time, effort and creativity without compensating them for it.

Posted by: filedh [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 15, 2007 7:20 AM

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