June 2, 2009
Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias are talking about “prestige cross-pollination” in economics:
“…the habit of distinguished economists using prestige acquired within their field to pass off sloppy work in other fields.”
Klein backs it up:
…it’s not just about commentary. Take the Obama administration. Brian Deese, the guy quarterbacking the auto restructuring, is a 31-year-old members of the economics team. Peter Orszag is probably the most powerful voice on health-care policy. Larry Summers, by most accounts, has a hand in literally everything. Economists, in other words, are the prime movers on not only the economy, but health care, climate change, housing policy and much else.
Klein finished with: “I’m not saying whether this is good or bad.”
I think it’s probably bad. Economics has been afforded a strange, special status in our society. It’s become the master science of large-scale planning. It’s become psychohistory.
Except it’s not cut out to be either of those things. There are simply too many important values in the world that we can’t tally in monetary terms. (And when we try, it’s a hack — better than nothing, but still a hack.)
Well, one caveat: To the degree it’s been able to absorb social insights from other fields — sociology, cognitive psychology, math, law, even some biology — sometimes “economics” is just a convenient umbrella for a lot of very different tools.
But that integrative role needn’t belong to economics alone. I think certain kinds of social scientists, and certain kinds of historians, could frame big policy decisions just as well — or better — than economists.
“Now do it bigger! And more humble.”