11 July 2007

Economics Departments Growing Will to Debate Assumptions

In Economics Departments, a Growing Will to Debate Fundamental Assumptions - New York Times

Published: July 11, 2007

For many economists, questioning free-market orthodoxy is akin to expressing a belief in intelligent design at a Darwin convention: Those who doubt the naturally beneficial workings of the market are considered either deluded or crazy.

But in recent months, economists have engaged in an impassioned debate over the way their specialty is taught in universities around the country, and practiced in Washington, questioning the profession’s most cherished ideas about not interfering in the economy.

“There is much too much ideology,” said Alan S. Blinder, a professor at Princeton and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Economics, he added, is “often a triumph of theory over fact.” Mr. Blinder helped kindle the discussion by publicly warning in speeches and articles this year that as many as 30 million to 40 million Americans could lose their jobs to lower-paid workers abroad. Just by raising doubts about the unmitigated benefits of free trade, he made headlines and had colleagues rubbing their eyes in astonishment.

“What I’ve learned is anyone who says anything even obliquely that sounds hostile to free trade is treated as an apostate,” Mr. Blinder said....

Criticizing the approach that currently dominates the field, Mr. Blinder said economists must look more closely at the real world instead of modeling it in the lab. “Economics is insufficiently scientific,” he said. “Mathematics may be useful, but mathematics is not scientific. It doesn’t generate refutable hypotheses.”...

Max B. Sawicky at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, a nonprofit research organization that is a bulwark of heterodoxy, wrote in a discussion on tpmcafe.com that, “The duty of orthodoxy is clear: deny departmental positions and resources to inferior research programs and purify the top journals of incorrect thinking, all understood as maintaining high standards.”

This is the point where Mr. Rodrik, who has written extensively on the downside of globalization, departs from both Mr. Sawicky and Mr. Blinder.... he acknowledged that inflexible rules about how one makes an argument and what counts as evidence can create blind spots, but insisted that once those rules were accepted, there was tremendous openness inside the academy.

The problem is outside, where economists are expected to “regurgitate ideas” about the glories of the free market. Most mainstream economists think that voicing any skepticism or doubt provides “ammunition to the barbarians,” he said, and allows narrow-minded people to “hijack any argument to suit their purpose.”

Mr. Rodrik said he used to worry about this until he realized that “on any issue, there are barbarians on both sides,” so there was no point in shading an argument to “suit one set of barbarians over the other.”

“And I’ve slept a lot better since.”

1 comment:

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