The Superiority of Economists

Yves here. A twofer on entitlement! The first piece early today was on merger and acquisitions professionals and their hangers-on, and now we are on to economists.

By Jérémie Cohen-Setton, a PhD candidate in Economics at U.C. Berkeley. Originally published at Bruegel

What’s at stake: Marion Fourcade and her co-authors (Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan) have made a big splash this week in econ departments and in the blogosphere with a paper giving a sociological perspective on the economics profession and arguing that economists’ objective supremacy is intimately linked with their subjective sense of authority and entitlement.

Paul Krugman writes that Fourcade’s  basic point is that successful economists tend to be intellectually arrogant because they live in a social setup that is very hierarchical, with steep gradients of prestige, widespread agreement about what constitutes good work and who is doing it, and pretty big rewards by professorial standards for climbing to the top of the heap.

Livio Di Matteo writes that this is a rather unflattering portrait of the profession as a self-centered, financially privileged, male dominated clique of academic imperialists. Crooked Timber writes that a lot of economists are reading the piece don’t really get Fourcade’s argument, which is a Bourdieuian one about how a field, and relations of authority and power within and around that field get constructed.

How Economists See Themselves (and How Others See Them)

Marion Fourcade and al. write that economists see themselves at or near the top of the disciplinary hierarchy. In a survey conducted in the early 2000s, Colander (2005) found that 77 percent of economics graduate students in elite programs agree with the statement that “economics is the most scientific of the social sciences.” They see the field’s high technical costs of entry and its members’ endeavors to capture complex social processes through equations or clear-cut causality as evidence of its superior scientific commitment, vin­dicating the distance from and the lack of engagement with the more discursive social sciences.

Marion Fourcade and al. write that from the vantage point of sociologists, geographers, historians, political scientists or even psychologists, economists often resemble colonists settling on their land. Lured by the prospect of a productive crop, economists are swift to probe the new ground. They may ask for guidance upon arrival, even partner-up with the locals (with whom they share some of the same data). But they are unlikely to learn much from them, as they often prefer to deploy their own techniques.

economist arrogance

Noah Smith writes that a lot of academic disciplines look down on other disciplines – that’s part of the fun of academia. But psychologists certainly don’t think economists reign supreme over them. Nor, I assure you, do finance professors. It’s mostly sociologists who seem to have an inferiority complex. Peter Dorman is surprised by the data that suggests that economists are not collaborating more across disciplinary boundaries than they used to. One possible source of omitted evidence is that their list of external disciplines does not include psychology or biology, two fields where it seems to me that collaboration has been most fruitful.

Tyler Cowen writes that economists are in fact the smartest of the social scientists (on average), but this also has led economics to degenerate somewhat into a game of signaling smarts, to the detriment of breadth and knowledge of facts about the world.

The Clubby Character of the Economics Field

Paul Krugman writes that academic economics is indeed very hierarchical; but it’s important to understand that it’s not a bureaucratic hierarchy, nor can status be conferred by crude patronage. The profession runs on reputation — basically the shared perception that you’re a smart guy. Reputation comes out of clever papers and snappy seminar presentations. While it may seem like a vague concept, within each subfield everyone knows who the top guns are, and there’s a very steep slope downward from the few people at the very pinnacle and the next level. In my original home field, international trade, we used to joke that senior hires were difficult because there were only four people in the top ten. Because everything runs on reputation, a lot of what you might imagine academic politics is like — what it may be like in other fields — doesn’t happen in econ.

Crooked Timber writes that the paper provides good evidence that economics hiring practices, rather than being market driven are more like an intensely hierarchical kinship structure, that the profession is ridden with irrational rituals, and that key economic journals are apparently rather clubbier than one might have expected in a free and competitive market. What appears to economists as an intense meritocracy is plausibly also, or alternately, a social construct built on self-perpetuating power relations.

Marion Fourcade and al. write that several leading economic journals edited at particular universities have a demonstrable preference for in-house authors, while the AER is much more balanced in its allocation of journal space. Look­ing at home bias figures since the 1950s, Coupé (2004) finds a consistent pattern of over-representation of in-house authors over time. Between 1990 and 2000, for in­stance, the Harvard-based QJE “assigned 13.4 percent of its space to its own people” and 10.7 percent to neighboring MIT (against 8.8 percent to the next most prominent department, Chicago). Conversely, 9.4 percent of the pages of the Chicago-based JPE went to Chicago-affiliated scholars. This was equivalent to the share of Harvard and MIT combined (4.5 and 5.1 percent, respectively). Wu (2007) shows that these biases actually increased between 2000 and 2003.8 Our data (2003–2012) confirm this domination of Cambridge, Massachusetts over the QJE and (to a lesser extent) Chicago over the JPE.

Peter Dorman writes that the treatment of organizational structure focuses entirely on the AEA in relation to the professional organizations for American political scientists and sociologists.  This material was quite interesting, but aren’t they leaving out something important?  I’m thinking of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which provides support and especially networking for “core” researchers in economics.  From where I stand, many rungs beneath, this looks like a nomenklatura for the profession.  Perhaps this is a misinterpretation.  But if not, we ought to document how members of NBER are recruited and what the career consequences are for inclusion versus exclusion.

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  1. Gerard Pierce

    Back in the good old days when I was studying and teaching mathematics, we generally referred to sociologists and economists together as “the department of fuzzy studies”. It may have been a cheap shot, but looking back, we were a lot more accurate than we realized at the time.

    1. Sakman

      Hrm, when I look at the vast majority of top economic commentary and it’s predictive ability. . . I can say that it really doesn’t pass muster.

      However, the fact that economists make more money than scientists proves (to them) that they are better than scientists. Very scientific of them.

      I agree that economics might be the most scientific social science, but I disagree that this means it has anything amounting to scientific rigor.

      1. LeninReloaded

        For neoclassical economists, analytical rigor as understood by math departments is everything and empirical relevence is nothing.

        1. buffalo cyclist

          Agreed. Except for maybe behavioral economics, psychology is much more scientific than mainstream economics. I mean, psychologists actually conduct experiments, quite unlike neoclassical economists.

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          No, it is economists’ idea of mathematical rigor, not mathematicians’ idea of mathematical rigor.

          1. Real mathematicians look down on the math done by economists. As Steve Keen has discussed at some length, economists don’t use a lot of more sophisticated mathematical techniques, particularly ones involving dynamic analysis.

          2. The proof-like formulations that economists use are often sophistry. As Deidra McCloskey has pointed out (based on a large review), often the critical part of the argument comes in the verbal section and what gets mathed up is trivial.

          1. Aron Johnson

            Back in 2012, James Montier, author of “The Flaws of Finance” linked the deficiencies in mathematical modeling in both Physics and Economics as discussed in Naked Capitalism. In response to that post, I recalled that to my knowledge, no economics writer has ever made the distinction between stationary and non-stationary random processes. One of the reasons for this avoidance, is that for hybrid processes consisting of both deterministic and non-deterministic elements, the mathematical models get really complex and are frequently unsolvable even using supercomputers.

            The deterministic portions of complex problems generally require an equilibrium assumption which can be perturbed by systematically varying the boundary values to solve the partial differential equations. However in the world of reality, the boundary values are seldom stationary and may be unknowable so simplified assumptions are necessary for a solution. Hence gross weather predictions are not reliable beyond 3 days even with satellite image analysis. As reported in the Washington Post this morning, that may be sufficient for “Keeping a blizzard of packages away from storms”. Even though such predictions work on the average, they seldom predict extreme events, a problem shared with economic predictions. Since so many predictions are made in both fields, some of them are bound by the law of large numbers to be correct in hindsight.

            In the academic world (over 50 years’ experience in my case) the purpose of research in nearly all fields is related to publishing in peer-reviewed journals, a requirement for promotion. In the corporate world, the purpose of company sponsored research is to gain proprietary advantage. Hence the first step there is to get a patent, before sharing critical information. Mathematical models that work equate to profits for the company and are only licensed to others for a fee.

              1. Aron Johnson

                Thanks for the link!!!!! This is good news for the future of economics research. Not surprised at MIT, but how about the others?

      2. buffalo cyclist

        The fact that economics is the only social science that, contrary to all available evidence, insists on human rationality (though political sciences does this sometimes) makes it the least scientific social science.

        Also, the just world fallacy is probably the most common belief among economists (more common than even rationality and market equilibrium). Which is a very good reason for policy makers not to listen to mainstream economists.

    2. jrs

      Psychology a lot of it too (and I’m referring here to “scientific” psychology – the studies often seem poorly designed). How about nutrition? (although in nutrition, it might just be a field in it’s early stages).

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        I don’t want to disparage voodoo, so I won’t make any comparisons between it and economics

      2. Yves Smith Post author

        Don’t get me started on nutrition. It is the most retrograde area of the health sciences, and medicine is not a science, it’s a medieval art.

  2. Ulysses

    “What appears to economists as an intense meritocracy is plausibly also, or alternately, a social construct built on self-perpetuating power relations.” Yes! This is true for pretty much every organized human endeavor, even music and theater. Indeed, when push comes to shove the power relations always trump “merit.” You see this every day when the careers of young, exceptionally talented people are sabotaged by older, established people in the same field– who are insecure enough to dread the competition this new talent represents.

    This reminds me of cautionary advice I heard– given to a gifted young classicist at Brown, after she had presented a very impressive paper during her second year in grad. school: “If you’re going to be brilliant, make sure you do so in a way that flatters, and in no way threatens, those on the top rungs who desperately need others to think that they are the most brilliant of all.”

    1. David Lentini

      Agreed. Meritocracies are often illusory, especially in subejcts that are not more or less “closed”, i.e., have a set of agreed upon facts and methods that can be reliably tested. In other words, it’s more accurate to think of a meritocracy among automobile mechanics and plumbers, or among doctors and lawyers, than among economists, since there is no accepted body of reliable economic konwledge outside of a very basic set of concepts and facts.

      The misuse (and abuse) of the idea of meritocracy thus results in many fields becoming cliques that center on a few powerful individuals, who typically got their power by chance and means outside of their discipline such as carrying water for the powerful. Entry then becomes not based on some “objective” demonstration of merit as much as getting recognized as “meritorius” subjectively by the powerful. Those who seek entry and not recoil from the reality are thus often motivated by deep insecurities and a need for recognition or power. So, the so-called meritocracy is really just an exercise in narcissicism.

      Krugman’s response are a great demstration of this. For years, he has complained about the failures of the powerful in econmics, both in failing to predict the crash, failing to respond properly, and failing to learn from their failures. Now, when his own position of being at the top of the meritocracy is in question, he defends everyone.

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        Meritocracy only makes sense when there are enough good jobs for everyone. If there aren’t enough good jobs, meritocracy just gives a phony technocratic sheen to what is by definition an apportionment scheme that benefits a few at the expense of the many.

        Unfortunately, liberal progressives tend to be the most ardent defenders.

      2. GlassHammer

        “Krugman’s response are a great demonstration of this. For years, he has complained about the failures of the powerful in economics, both in failing to predict the crash, failing to respond properly, and failing to learn from their failures. Now, when his own position of being at the top of the meritocracy is in question, he defends everyone.”

        Look, the problem is that economics encourages you to talk about the quantity and price of things (the symbolic) without having to worry much about the conditions in which those things are made (the real). The truth is the view modern economics has of the world is very limited. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone when its best practitioners are oblivious to what is going on around them.

    2. Rosario

      True, true. Unfortunately, the only “true” form of meritocracy is nature’s brutal and indiscriminate genetic filter and that is no sound way to order a society. Ethics should be a required subject at every grade level.

    1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

      Social science is just not science. I don’t know when this particular camel got its nose under the tent. It’s not remotely as rigorous as something like physics or mathematics. Even the most ardent positivists who really look at the matter have to admit that humans are complex and their behavior defies easy predictions that economics seems to just assume as a matter of course.

      1. Newtownian

        You might add the rest of the hard sciences to that list.

        Which makes me wonder where economists would rate themselves compared to the non social science disciplines in general?

        Possibly they would rate mathematics higher, with Physics possibly on par with them as like economists (would like to claim for themselves) they explore ‘Universal laws’ .

        As for the rest of us notably in applied integrate sciences like ecology, hydrology, meteorology, climate science, environment etc. I am very curious. What I know is colleagues in the latter are quite self effacing especially about models which they routinely check to see if they pass many laugh tests. Mostly there are problems but unlike economists who seem to dismiss reality this causes pause for thought and demands for more testing. The absence of such self criticism seems the flip side of the economics profession as evidenced yet again in this fine article. Good to see the sociologists sticking in the stilleto near to the heart. Hopefully they will eventually draw blood.

  3. diptherio

    First off, let me say that I’m sure Noah Smith is a genuinely good person with many positive character traits, and that I wish him all the best in life.

    That said, the linked-to article is an inadvertent proof of the claim he is contesting! Economists don’t think we’re superior–we’re just more balanced and realistic than everyone else.

    And his claim that half the fun of academia is looking down on others makes him sound like quite the d-bag. Maybe that’s half the fun for him, but personally all of the fun in academia for me was in mingling with people with different knowledge bases. It was pretty obvious to me, even before I got to college, that there is WAAAAAY more knowledge to be had in this world than any one person could ever master. The best any one person can do is master a little piece of it, and then work with others who have mastered other pieces.

    The point of academia should be to synthesize and take advantage of the knowledge of all–not figure out who’s the smartest. I think it’s largely because of people like Noah, who admittedly like to look down their nose at others, that academics are so despised by large segments of our population. People know when they are being condescended to and most of them don’t like it. The Noahs of the world, who like to think they’re smarter than other people with advanced degrees, know that they’re smarter than people who haven’t even got a Master’s. If they look down their noses at fellow members of the Academy, how much more so on those of us who are not members?

    They certainly don’t care what some non-academic’s opinions might be and it shows in their tone (as it does in Noah’s, without him realizing it): “I’m the smart one, so I tell you what to think”. Thus, they end up acting a bit paternalistic, which has a tendency to rub people the wrong way.

    What Noah, and those like him, fail to understand is that, as the Japanese apparently say, “None of us is a smart as all of us.” Noah thinks academia is a matter of figuring out who is the smartest and putting them in charge (of the department, of the economy, whatever it may be), rather than a place to allow the intelligence of the group to emerge. The attitude that Noah evinces is a major obstacle for the advancement of knowledge.

    As ol’ Bill Black says, “it’s impossible to compete with unintentional self parody.”

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      If only it were parody. The one thing that will NEVER emerge from contemporary academia is “the intelligence of the group”. All the prestige incentives support the “genius” individual, not the intelligent group. Interestingly, the only place in academia where group work is actually promoted these days is business school – but even there it is only for the MBAs, not for the brilliant faculty.

    2. fresno dan

      Agree with you wholeheartedly – there is a very immature attitude a lot of these economists give off. But a minor quibble about “smart.” Being intelligent, being knowledgeable, and being wise may overlap, but they can also be very distinct.
      I think about how many papers I’ve read about cholesterol over the years, all written by highly educated, very intelligent, sincerely motivated people, and how many were not necessarily WRONG, but incomplete, and in being incomplete, gave a totally incorrect understanding of the subject. I look at things I knew that should have made me question some of the conclusions, but it seemed there were so many people, who truly were smarter, more educated, more informed than I, and their arguments were reasonable, logical, data based, and true. But incomplete.

    3. jgordon

      Then diptherio, perhaps it’s the thought processes of those like Mr. Noah Smith that led Mr. Gruber to consider the American people as nothing more than idiots–who presumably needed the assistance of Gruber’s superior intellect, and obfuscation skills, so that the people could experience the many wonders that Obamacare had in store for them.

      Smith and Noah alike are textbook examples of how even “smart” people can be complete morons. I’m not feeling as charitable as you. These poor deluded individuals are more of a danger to others than Charles Manson or Jeffery Dahmer ever was.

    4. MartyH

      Diptherio, I am reminded of the dominance behaviors of various populations I have encountered. It is all well and good posturing among one’s cohort and flaunting various talismans with self-assigned valuations. As meaningless theater goes, it can be quite amusing … if often quite irrelevant. It is not in this instance, however.

      It seems obvious that many economists are promoted, commoditized, and monetized like professional athletes, movie stars, or other “celebrities.” Their various pronouncements, musings, and publications are judged by the members of the cohort and by their primary consumers (and sponsors): the press, the finance industries, and the economic policy industrial complex. Merit is asserted and rewarded by their self-serving judges and no actual proof of their “value” is actually supplied to those outside the clicque.

  4. craazyman

    This post sounds like an insane asylum where each patient thinks he’s the real Napolean and that all the others are just imposters.

    1. Clive

      I initially skim read through the section sub headings and got far too excited at the thought that one of them was “The Chubby Checker of the Economics Field”. Then I read it again and was only a little less interested when I thought it said “The Chubby Chaser of the Economics Field”.

      It was of course, somewhat to my chagrin, neither of these.

      1. craazyman

        It must be a slow news week at NC for this nonsense to get posted. hahahah. This post is like opening up the paper and seeing an article about Miley Cyrus making out with Paris Hilton at some night club in Hollywood while one of the boyfriends watches with a combination of jealous incredulity and lust.

        1. Clive

          Oh craazyman, what’s come over you old bean ? You’re sounding so jaded and jaundiced. Where’s that sparky Rock Em Sock Em bundle of pizazz ? Are you suffering from seasonal affected disorder maybe ? I’ll send over one of those artificial natural daylight lights if you like. Or I could put in a word with Wills and Kate, who are apparently in town. I know a few people… That would toast your muffin wouldn’t it ? Regardless, please bring back the normal craazyman we know and love. Well, tolerate, anyway. If there’s more of this sort of grimness, I’ll have to ask Yves to get that dom she knows to make a house call, and have you clean the toilet out as punishment.

          1. craazyman

            dude, I’m cracking myself up at this nonsense! hahah

            Economics is a mental disorder. It’s an insane asylum where the inmates walk around thinking they’re Napolean and social scientists and political scientists are imposters. Then they lay back on the couch and make out with each other while their fanboys and fangirls watch in jealousy.

            it’s all a metaphor -= economics that is — but they don’t know what it’s a metaphor of. And this is their full-time job. It not a hobby or a passtime where you arent expected to know as well as the pros. It’s not like being a Sunday painter. This is what they do! And they don’t have a clue about he basic structure of the reality they analyze. That’s what so hilarious.

            1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

              GRE test question #101:

              The fact that Neanderthals didn’t have economists is a good reason why every nation needs economists.

              True or false?

  5. Left in Wisconsin

    I scanned the paper last week and was not impressed. Maybe I missed something: “arguing that economists’ objective supremacy is intimately linked with their subjective sense of authority and entitlement”?

    Seriously? Nothing to do with the coincidence that the underlying “science” supports the world view of those with all the money? That’s just coincidence?

    1. not_me

      Yep. Paul Krugman once said something to the effect that “one mustn’t touch the money system” and, of course, that’s precisely where the problem lies.

    2. James Levy

      No, but it’s a weird, complex journey from that fact to how it got that way. At one time Economics departments had large numbers of Marxists, radical Keynesians, and other heterodox and non-traditional practitioners (hell, even economic historians) in their midst. Today, that is rarely the case, and rarer still in the top six or eight departments, which completely dominate the field. You can be an historian at SUNY Binghampton or UCLA or Ohio State and be taken for a top practitioner in your field. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Economics.
      It seems that over time big money and access to power accrued to a few programs that were able to translate that into control of key journals, power, and prestige within the field. As tenure lines dried up compared to the growth of student bodies, the default setting everywhere came to be “chose a person from one of these elite schools and no one can second guess your choice.” This gave the orthodox, neoclassical, pro-capitalist types even more power to enforce their orthodoxy–come to our schools, buy into what we teach, get published and get a job–or else. Thus if you were smart and ambitious, you bought the new orthodoxy and passed it along. If you did not, you were “unserious”, “unscientific”, and fated to publish in niche journals and maybe get hired by a second-rate department whose Chair was an old Lefty with a soft spot for oddballs.

      What is most depressing here is that Economics is supposed to be a predictive “science”. There is no attempt to establish any correlation between being right in your predictions and where you wind up in this supposedly merit-driven hierarchy. This is why the whole thing is a sham. If I told Krugman that the people who predicted 2007-9 crash should have the best jobs because their predictions were so much better than the Ivy experts, I doubt he’d even bother to consider such nonsense. You see, he KNOWS who the “smart guys” (notice the gender bias) are (like Larry Summers and Alan Greenspan!) –who would want to share a department with these nobodies who graduated from nowhere just because they got lucky.

    3. Benedict@Large

      Actually, the reason that the people who have all the money have all the money is that they have encoded within their DNA sequence the one true economics, the same economics which but a few wise and brilliant PhDs happen to come to understand. The people who have all the money then hire these few wise and brilliant PhDs to preach their Gospel for them, being too busy themselves obtaining all the money to do so.

    4. hunkerdown

      Oh, it works both ways, as every “meritocracy” is wont to do. The “meritorious” have an outsize share in defining “merit”. Iterate the game a few times, and the eventual outcome is clear.

  6. William C

    At the university I attended, Economics was regarded as the ‘sportsman’s subject’ because it was considered intellectually undemanding, allowing plenty of time for training, so I am having difficulty adjusting to the idea that economists can be considered superior to, well, any other academic discipline.

    It was a long time ago and arguably atypical, I will confess, but I am doubtful things have changed much at my alma mater.

    1. PeonInChief

      I’ve heard that too about a number of universities with demanding sports programs. An economics degree requires relatively few units, so more time can be devoted to practice.

  7. MaroonBulldog

    It’s not their economics that makes them arrogant; it’s their arrogance that makes them economists. I am quite certain these persons were arrogant teenagers, who next went on to become arrogant college students, who then went on to become graduate students because employers were unwilling to hire persons so lacking in deportment and civility.

      1. jrs

        Really though it probably takes a certain amount of that to pursue academia all the way to the PhD and then post graduate level. That wheat not so easily separated from that shaft.

    1. bh2

      It seems this work simply confirms remarks by Frederick Hayek on the occasion of his 1974 acceptance speech at the Nobel Banquet:

      Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

      Now that the Nobel Memorial Prize for economic science has been created, one can only be profoundly grateful for having been selected as one of its joint recipients, and the economists certainly have every reason for being grateful to the Swedish Riksbank for regarding their subject as worthy of this high honour.

      Yet I must confess that if I had been consulted whether to establish a Nobel Prize in economics, I should have decidedly advised against it.

      One reason was that I feared that such a prize, as I believe is true of the activities of some of the great scientific foundations, would tend to accentuate the swings of scientific fashion.

      This apprehension the selection committee has brilliantly refuted by awarding the prize to one whose views are as unfashionable as mine are.

      I do not yet feel equally reassured concerning my second cause of apprehension.

      It is that the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess.

      This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence.

      But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.

      There is no reason why a man who has made a distinctive contribution to economic science should be omnicompetent on all problems of society – as the press tends to treat him till in the end he may himself be persuaded to believe.

      One is even made to feel it a public duty to pronounce on problems to which one may not have devoted special attention.

      I am not sure that it is desirable to strengthen the influence of a few individual economists by such a ceremonial and eye-catching recognition of achievements, perhaps of the distant past.

      I am therefore almost inclined to suggest that you require from your laureates an oath of humility, a sort of hippocratic oath, never to exceed in public pronouncements the limits of their competence.

      Or you ought at least, on confering the prize, remind the recipient of the sage counsel of one of the great men in our subject, Alfred Marshall, who wrote:

      “Students of social science, must fear popular approval: Evil is with them when all men speak well of them”.

      Better said, in fewer words.

      1. skippy


        Refresh yourself,

        “So, Hayek turned instead to constructing political philosophies and honing a metaphysics rather than engaging in any substantial way with the new economics that was emerging. When pure logic and empirical reality ceased to support Hayek’s emotionally charged ideology he turned, to the more malleable sphere of meaning and metaphysics. He became concerned with watery terms like “freedom” and “liberty”, which he then set out to impregnate with a meaning that would support his dreams. The most famous result of this period of conversion, which resembled less St. Paul on the road to Damascus and more so an alcoholic who had hit rock bottom, was Hayek’s 1944 work The Road to Serfdom. In a very real way it was this book that marked the close of Hayek’s career as a serious economic thinker and set him on the path of the political propagandist, agitator and organiser.”

        Skippy… enjoy!

        1. bh2

          Refresh yourself, Skippy …

          Hayek, like Krugman, was a recipient of the Nobel in Economics. Pilkington is an anthropologist who (in the body of your linked reference) says, in pertinent part:

          This is what I mean by the fact that the economists have come to believe their own fictions. It is very strange stuff altogether. They build the models based on the a priori assumptions that they hold. Seemingly they then forget these assumptions. Then when they need an answer they consult the model which spits back at them what they already built into it. This output is then assumed to be Truth because it comes imbued with a sort of aura. In more practical, real-world sciences this has a name: its called GIGO which stands for Garbage-In, Garbage-Out. In more primitive societies this is similar to constructing altars to supposed oracles and then going to these altars to find out about the future, only to find a Truth that you yourself have already built into the altar. (For a more colloquial example think of when people read images into clouds).

          One may reasonably wonder how Pilkington’s description of Hayek as having become “the political propagandist, agitator and organiser” would not equally apply to the likes of Krugman — which you apparently overlook owing to the very same sort of built-in confirmation bias Pilkington aptly describes above.

          People who “believe their own fictions” are precisely the kind Hayek was describing in his commentary. They cannot be trusted as “scientists” of any sort.

        2. skippy


          Whats Krugman go to do with any thing, hes just one delineation away from Hayek, that and the banking prize is a sad attempt at providing some gravitas to the Lippmann advertizing dept.

          Skippy… Pilkington is a anthropologist??? lmmao. Nope… he’s a post Keynesian, who now works for an investment firm. AET is about as sanguine as vapors issuing from a crack in the ground, after passing through the cognitive filters of rank ideologues.

  8. impermanence

    How few people understand the nature of the intellect. Regardless of the field of study, it is not that which you can understand that matters in the least, instead, that which points towards the truth.

    Economists just happen to be in a position where their bullshit has a particular market value based on the idea that stealing seems considerable more palatable if there is an faux-intellectual basis for such.

    If there was an honest economist out there, then s/he would put down their words/formulas/theories and take up some kind of productive activity.

  9. Doug Terpstra

    In the inverse ratio of arrogance to one’s objective grasp of reality, economists are exceeded only by Neocons.

    1. Benedict@Large

      Actually, there are good numbers of economists out there who are not arrogant. They are largely ignored, and obtain tenure only at schools no one has much heard of. Like UMass-Amherst, Cal State U-Chico, and UMissouri-Kansas City.

      1. Doug Terpstra

        Indeed. Thank you. I should have stipulated “neoliberal” economists. Dean Baker and Joseph Stiglitz are notable exceptions to my stereotype, though the inverse ratio holds: theur grasp of economic reality is high, their arrogance negligible.

  10. casino implosion

    A hyphenator-double accent grave horning in on Pilkington’s beat.

    All hands on deck Phil.

  11. Globus Pallidus XI

    Indeed, an interesting article. But I would also agree with those comments suggesting that professional economists are not so much intellectual prima donnas, as intellectual whores.

    Modern economics is to the real economy as alchemy is to chemistry. Looked at objectively the main thing that stands out about modern economists is their total lack of concern that their theories have no predictive power. Or to use Popper’s metric, that their theories are not falsifiable.

    I am in the physical sciences, and what strikes me about economists is their total lack of interest in talking with scientists and engineers who are not economists. I mean, the economy is not just money, it’s also resources and machines and energy and weather and hydrology… I should think that in many areas non-economists might have a lot to say about the real economy. But ‘economists’ have no interest in this, it’s all just brilliant financial castles in the sky…

    I suggest that one reason that economists have so closed off their field, is that they are afraid of intelligent criticism. The emperor has no clothes, and they don’t want to hear about it. I recall a little while ago that some economists proposed that only people with PhDs in economists be allowed to talk about economics (!) Only an intellectually bankrupt field would even imagine such a rule.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      ” I recall a little while ago that some economists proposed that only people with PhDs in economists be allowed to talk about economics (!) ” If that were adopted, there would be a lot fewer people marketing their BS services for them.

  12. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Economics – noun, derived from the adjective ‘economic.’

    Thus, economics is all about less consumption.

    Well, that’s what I say to myself anyway.

    1. Lambert Strether

      economy (n.)

      1530s, “household management,” from Latin oeconomia (source of French économie, Spanish economia, German Ökonomie, etc.), from Greek oikonomia “household management, thrift,” from oikonomos “manager, steward,” from oikos “house, abode, dwelling” (cognate with Latin vicus “district,” vicinus “near;” Old English wic “dwelling, village;” see villa) + nomos “managing,” from nemein “manage” (see numismatic). Meaning “frugality, judicious use of resources” is from 1660s. The sense of “wealth and resources of a country” (short for political economy) is from 1650s.

      So we see the dead metaphor of the household is buried very deeply, as well as the moralizing aspects so beloved of austerians.

    1. Stephenjay

      yes, a lot of things make more sense if one regards economists as priest/theologians of the religion of Mammonism.

      1. TheraP

        Yes, this whole thing sounds more like religion to me than anything – with the top purveyors of it more like a pantheon of gods. Greek mythology may yield some useful metaphors.

  13. Rosario

    I respect the idea of economics as a social sciences/mathematical (grudgingly) discipline but its current popular manifestation is bunkum. Typically, a modern economist’s relevance hinges on their capacity to “predict” future outcomes from present economic decisions, two problems:

    1) If an economist and all the other economists are playing/commenting-on the same game with the same rules “predicting” is not really that difficult for an expert at the game.
    2) The link to the material world is tortured.

    A example of the first is the Federal Reserve purchasing bonds, boosting liquidity, and propping assets. They do it because it works according to the rules that have been set years before their time and it is all at the expense of the real world mentioned above. For number two, look to petroleum. An incredibly undervalued commodity if there ever was one, and now it is going into idiot territory. Economics should be one of the most difficult professions as it must entail nearly every aspect of the natural and human condition. I’m hoping for a sea change in the discipline as it is practiced in the mainstream but I’m not holding my breath.

  14. ChrisPacific

    I was surprised at how much Krugman got on board with this idea. I’d have expected him to leap to the defense of the profession, but no, he basically admitted that they are a bunch of charlatans all riffing on their own cleverness to impress each other. Then in the final paragraph he admits to a remarkable lack of correlation between ‘reputation’ as he describes it and an ability to demonstrate understanding or make meaningful predictions related to the real economy (or rather to understand the equations they use, a far more damning indictment, as everybody knows it’s the real economy’s job to conform to academic theory rather than vice versa).

    All in all it’s a bit more self-awareness than I would have expected from Krugman. I suppose that how to navigate the minefield of academic economics and rise to the top is one subject that he has real and demonstrated expertise in, so maybe it makes sense that he would be worth listening to on this point. But I would have expected him to make more of an effort to keep up the appearance of academic integrity.

  15. micky9finger

    It’s not so must being the smartest person in the room but being positioned to control the intellectual output of your students and the submitters of scholarly papers. This then covers the schools where endoctrination and advancement are controlled. My way ( neo-classical) or the highway.

    The journals control what is printed. Once again
    (My way or the highway).publish or perish. MMT (modern monetary theory need not apply. The hallowed halls of economics are reserved for those who think rightly.
    This is a big issue in the ranks of MMT. They are training a new generation of economists and utiIzing blogs to publish their ideas. Check out Bill Mitchel who is trying to educate Australia and the world. Check out the University of Missouri
    Kansas City. there are many others.

  16. bayoustjohndavid

    FWIW, back in the early 80’s I majored in Economics. I realized there was a lot of bs involved, but didn’t bother changing fields. I just paid more attention to courses in my History minor & decided to try to go grad school in that subject. However, one thing I still remember 30+ years later is the instructors in both my intro Sociology and Poli/Sci classes insisting that their fields were every bit as scientific as Economics. That struck me as hilariously funny since Economics didn’t strike as particularly scientific & left me with a bit of contempt for all of the social sciences.

    That’s also a very small bit of anecdotal evidence in support of Noah Smith’s statement.

    1. ChrisPacific

      Because being right about the direction of the economy is not one of the criteria for being considered smart by the economics establishment. Krugman pretty much stated this explicitly.

  17. animalogic

    Neoliberal economics is a political ideology which maifests itself through the language of economics. Its primary, overarching purpose is to justify and advance the class interests of the 1 %.
    Academic rigour, explanatory power and logical consistency are purely secondary. Do neo-liberal economits know this ? I don’t know. But I suspect many do.

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