Friday, March 26, 2010

Brooks on Economics

David Brooks had an article in the New York Times today on the future of economics. It is the usual stuff about how economics was too narrow but the financial crisis will make it better as economists become humanists:

Economics achieved coherence as a science by amputating most of human nature. Now economists are starting with those parts of emotional life that they can count and model (the activities that make them economists). But once they’re in this terrain, they’ll surely find that the processes that make up the inner life are not amenable to the methodologies of social science. The moral and social yearnings of fully realized human beings are not reducible to universal laws and cannot be studied like physics.

Once this is accepted, economics would again become a subsection of history and moral philosophy. It will be a powerful language for analyzing certain sorts of activity. Economists will be able to describe how some people acted in some specific contexts. They will be able to draw out some suggestive lessons to keep in mind while thinking about other people and other contexts — just as historians, psychologists and novelists do.

At the end of Act V, economics will be realistic, but it will be an art, not a science.

Greg Mankiw explains some of the flaws of the article.

I could nitpick this article forever, but one important point I think is that Brooks confuses what sells in the wider market for what economists will be doing. Thus, he writes:
One gets the sense, at least from the outside, that the intellectual energy is no longer with the economists who construct abstract and elaborate models. Instead, the field seems to be moving in a humanist direction. Many economists are now trying to absorb lessons learned by psychologists, neuroscientists and sociologists. They’re producing books with titles like “Animal Spirits,” “The Irrational Economist,” and “Identity Economics,” about subjects such as how social identities shape economic choices.
What sells in the wider audience, however, is not what economists are actually doing. It is a good market response to write a popular book saying economists are stupid, or whatever. But the professional work is getting more technical not less. Despite the impressions of Brooks or Skidelsky economists for the most part do not see the financial crisis as a repudiation of their efforts. So there is no reason to re-evaluate what economists do. I think that is how this is viewed internally. And that is what governs the dynamics of the profession.

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