Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!


Friday, October 09, 2009

 
Hell freezes over

yes folks, it's the last part of the Freakonomics review. I think I'll gather them all together and do a summing up post on Crooked Timber (this last bit added just simply as a sort of methadone for me to ease the cold-turkey process from sweet, sweet procrastination).

(Update! Christ, I could have saved myself some time if I'd found John DiNardo's review, which makes substantially all of my important points and which was written in December 2005!)

(Update! Or for that matter, this pithy summary of James Heckman's work on what's wrong with the natural experiment methodology, written by ... Steven Levitt!)

Part Five - How Freaked Is Economics?

Well, I promised myself I'd finish this before the sequel appeared in the shops, and the conclusion has been made, shall we say, somewhat easier by the fact that the burden of my conclusion - that there is something terribly, horribly wrong with the state of modern economics - has become somewhat of an open door to push against. I swear that my notes for this review (begun in 2003 2005, thanks Dave W!) contain the draft passage:

"When future generations ask the economics profession 'What were you doing while the great bubble built up ahead of the Second Great Depression?', and we have to reply 'Lots and lots of quirky little working papers about sumo wrestling and speed-dating', it is going to be really, really, fucking embarrassing"

And we did, and it was; thank God nobody told the truth to HM The Queen, or the high brows of the economics profession might be decorating a series of pikestaffs outside Traitors' Gate.

The basic problem with the Freakonomics era was that the profession abandoned the study of production, consumption and exchange. I don't wholly agree with Lord Skidelsky, but he is right - economics is the study of the economy, it's not the study of "rational choice" or "behaviour" in the abstract, and the fact that econometricians have invented a huge part of the toolkit of modern statistics doesn't mean that anything you can estimate using an econometrics package is thereby "economics".

We stopped doing economics and started doing awful amateur-hour sociology, basically, because we believed that all the major problems had been solved, that some form of dynamic general equilibrium was all that there was to be said about the economy considered as a system, and that the only interesting things to do were growth theory and finance. It is no coincidence that Freakonomics began in Chicago; for a guy like Levitt who doesn't possess the engineering-maths to be a finance theorist or the empirical skills to do endogenous growth, there was literally nothing to do.

The sociology of academia in the USA also played its part, as James Heckman spotted at the time. Because of the unenviable economics of the academic labour market in American universities, graduate students were encouraged to finish their PhDs according to a specific schedule, to write dissertations that were capable of being turned into journal articles in a specific way, and to follow fashion in citation-gathering. Heckman was tearing his hair out over this, obviously, as this made it more or less economically unviable to carry out the kind of economic work that he does (and did) - careful, time-consuming, incremental, often abstruse but always relevant to the very big questions of the economy.

And so we ended up with Freakonomics, the disciplinary equivalent of the battery chicken. The subject matter became more and more cutesy and trivial, methodological corner-cutting in "natural experiments" became the norm, and the idea that there could actually be a subject of macroeconomics became almost quaint. The Freakonomics blog still tries to preserve itself against irrelevance by declaring the financial crisis to have been merely a failure of macroeconomics (thus presumably leaving Freakonomics to carry the field?), but it's desperately unconvincing, particularly given that they end up citing a fairly badly misconceived critique of the whole discipline in order to do so.

So, where to now? Well, I don't think it's 100% bad news. I am hoping that the instrumental variables/natural experiment movement will die on the vine, simply because the interest in the profession has now swung back to the big, important macro aggregates, and "quirky" datasets aren't considered as interesting as they used to be. Also, I profoundly hope that Charles Manski partial identification approach catches on, as it seems to me from half way through his book that this is clearly the correct way to address the kind of problems that natural experiment/instrumental variable literature does so badly. (The guts of the partial identification approach is that one models the data nonparametrically in order to put some very wide bounds on a quantity of interest, then start making parametric assumptions in order to narrow those bounds, checking all the way along what assumptions you need to make in order to get results. It's an approach that has safeguards intrinsically built into it against the central problem of Freakonomics; the tendency to say that "whichever way you cut it, X", when you mean "whichever way I cut it, X". My basic issue with the whole Levitt approach is that Freakonomists have this horrible habit of presenting their results as being much more authoritative than they actually are, often in policy contexts where this overselling is almost guaranteed to have baleful implications.

But however things have turned out, my intuition is that Freakonomics has had its moment in the sun. The central selling point was always, basically, academic machismo; the presumption on the part of economists that because they were "smart" in the Larry Summers sense, they could turn their hand to anything and the rest of the world was bound to listen to them. Those days, to put it mildly, are gone.
41 comments this item posted by the management 10/09/2009 10:08:00 AM


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