August 26, 2007
Why are economists so great?
Posted by David Zaring

Greg Mankiw gets a mash note from a medical student asking: why are economists so great? They’re better in seminars, the student gushes, they’re aggressive and probing, they’re all business and no cant. The student then asks an economist – not Mankiw – if he knows why economists are so great. The economist is happy to answer. It turns out:

  • Economists have higher test scores than everybody else
  • Economists go to better graduate programs than everybody else
  • Economists get their jobs through a market that works better than everybody else’s
  • Economists aren’t advocates, most everybody else is

It’s a charming, modest takeaway. But there’s no question that economists are well trained social scientists, with plenty of math and a confident professional ethos. Economists are also good in workshops – and I occasionally think that the old law professor credo of “have a theory about anything and speak in full paragraphs rich with prosody” is less popular in the interdisciplinary seminar rooms of our universities now that economists are coming too, and biting into the confounders and omitted variables.

So maybe economists are totally awesome. I bet Mankiw thinks so. But at least he’s cute about it.  Economists may crush all comers in seminars, Mankiw thinks, because "economics may attract people with a particular set of personality attributes, and perhaps these attributes are not the same set of attributes you might choose for your next dinner party.”

Law & Economics | Bookmark

TrackBacks (0)

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Links to weblogs that reference Why are economists so great?:

Comments (9)

1. Posted by Frank on August 26, 2007 @ 22:11 | Permalink

Nice summary of that post; this is also related:

The comments on Mankiw's blog are very revealing. . . . especially the brags about being able to publish in statistics journals. There is deep confusion about methodological sophistication and the values it serves.

But overall, I'm heartened by the post because people are starting to realize that something like a law of conservation of authority. . . . as economists gain, other disciplines may lose. In response to that struggle between "word-people" and "number people," the basic points I would make are

a) a Peircean epistemological point--about the value of consensus, of people from a wide number of disciplines looking at a problem and gradually coming to agreement on it.

b) The Geertzian point that sometimes the role of the interpretive social scientist (who realizes the inextricability of facts and values) is not to develop some common language we can all agree on, but rather, to develop a pointed narrative that shows just how hopelessly in disagreement two conflicting sides of a debate are.

I think there is a fruitful tension between those points. A big job for legal scholars may be figuring out where a or b obtains.

There are some case studies of a); for instance, US ethanol subsidies get opposed on all sorts of grounds, by neoclassical economists as well as anthropologists who've noted their effects on maize prices and Mexican agriculture. Each of these "threads" may eventually form a "cable" of opposition epistemologically sounder than any of its constituent parts.

As for b): the recent "debate" over SCHIP reauthorization may fit the bill. The Bush Administration condemns "crowdout" of private insurance by public insurance. Many liberal-minded economists try to argue back that little crowdout will occur.

But a more interpretive-minded social scientist, less enamored of the market, might simply respond that such crowdout is a good thing--that the more people covered by government, the more pressure will build for improving government provision and expanding it. The effort to have a "rational," economically grounded debate on crowdout may be futile--assuming the very premises that should be contested.

2. Posted by David Zaring on August 26, 2007 @ 23:00 | Permalink

Nice points. Though frankly, I'm not sure we are still in the world of letting a hundred flowers bloom and so on. Per your breakdown, one always wonders whether if a), methodological agreement is true, the b)s, the methodologically heterodox, will be ignored.

My own view is that there will always be a place for humanistic methodologies, though, because that's simply how most people operate, including, of course, most lawyers. This isn't to deny any of the observations above about economists in seminars.

I'll add that the comments to Mankiw's post are pretty interesting, as is this:

3. Posted by Michael Guttentag on August 27, 2007 @ 7:03 | Permalink

I’m not sure, but it seems to me that the dominance of the economist is a fading story. There is probably a cyclical nature to which is the “dominant” field. Economists rode the tide of a number of powerful analytic and methodological approaches to provide new insight to old questions. But any approach faces the law of diminishing returns. We all certainly need to understand and appreciate the tools that economists use if we are to move the inter-disciplinary agenda forward, but my sense is that there is much opportunity elsewhere. And intellectual opportunity may act like a magnet, drawing in “alpha-scholars.”

4. Posted by Matt Bodie on August 27, 2007 @ 9:28 | Permalink

I just want to comment on the rhetorical devices in Mankiw's post. First, he posts a letter from an anonymous Harvard resident -- an outsider to the field, but someone with real credibility. The outsider then praises economists and offers flattering "questions" about the reasons for the discipline's superiority. Then we get some thoughts from an anonymous economist, who answers these questions with an even stronger -- and immodest -- encomium. Finally, Mankiw offers his thoughts, noting "I see a lot of truth to the observations described in the letter," but then making some discipline-deprecating comments about personality and dinner parties.

I'm not a communications professor, but these devices seem fairly obvious. First, there's the "reprint the letter from the fan." Even better -- a highly credentialed, seemingly impartial fan. (And the anonymity adds to the credibility, if you think about it -- it universalizes the comments.) Then there's the response by the anonymous economist, who gets to speak the truth -- but unvarnishedly. Mankiw agrees with "a lot" of the anonymous comments but adds his socially-acceptable, modest spin at the end. It's a rhetorical version of good cop, bad cop -- Mankiw gets the play the good cop, and the bad cop gets to stay anonymous.

It's an interesting issue Mankiw raises, but I could do without the trappings.

5. Posted by David Zaring on August 27, 2007 @ 9:44 | Permalink

Mike - Yes, people say that things are going to go neuro and move towards the other hard sciences - but that, we're also seeing a lot of neuroeconomists coming down the pike. The discipline is quite resilient - I doubt that even twenty years ago, they thought they'd all be analyzing large data sets.

Matt - I prefer to think of it as an epistle within an epistle. You know, sorta like Plato.

6. Posted by Daniel Goldberg on August 27, 2007 @ 11:21 | Permalink

As I remarked to Frank via email,

the response from the commentators is almost as revealing as the response from the economist, as 90% of them actually (astonishingly) engage the economist's sentiments instead of simply beginning by challenging some of the more ludicrous assumptions his beliefs are based on.

It shows just how much currency, no pun intended, the faith in numeracy as a proxy for objectivity enjoys in Western culture. Believe it or not, this is actually the subject of my (eventually) forthcoming dissertation on pain.

There is an important role for quantitative analyses, but too often they are presumed to define the role of legitimate scholarship. For many phenomena worth studying, they are inferior to other modalities. I had a very disappointing conversation with a mentor a few weeks ago who happens to be a physician, in which I actually had to explain to him why his definition of research in effect disallowed the possibility of any humanistic, qualitative, or non-empirical research.


7. Posted by Jake on August 27, 2007 @ 22:09 | Permalink

All respect to the law profs, but litigators recognize that you can hire any sort of economist to utter any sort of opinion you are willing to pay for. And this occurs in a litigation context that, unlike the activity of publishing law review articles, may actually cause a transfer of real wealth from one party to a lawsuit to another.

8. Posted by Mary Dudziak on August 28, 2007 @ 8:57 | Permalink

Well, perhaps when it comes to the humanities vs. economics, perhaps this explains it:

9. Posted by David Zaring on August 28, 2007 @ 9:24 | Permalink

Jake - Ah, but you might say the same thing about law professors.

Mary - Heh. Tell John Witt not to give up hope.

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In

Recent Comments
Popular Threads
Search The Glom
The Glom on Twitter
Archives by Topic
Archives by Date
July 2014
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
    1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31    
Miscellaneous Links