Friday, March 26, 2010

Is Economics Dead?

In its current form as an academic discipline, David Brooks thinks so.

First, a caveat about me and my opinion of David Brooks. Sometimes I think he is right on the money, other times I think he is on some other planet. On this score, I tend toward the former.

Economics is considered one of the "social sciences," basically disciplines that attempt to explain human behavior (in one way or another) using empirical methodologies. These disciplines usually include political science, psychology, sociology and economics.

Brooks does not take issue with the "social" part. It is the "science" that he has a problem with. He basically argues that economics will, in the future, be more like history or philosophy. It will be a powerful voice in a chorus of voices trying to explain the human condition as it is, was or will be.

What he thinks is at an end, though, is economics as a science in the sense that it is meant to render definitive answers about certain questions, follow a method of experimentation, value the quantitative over the qualitative and (perhaps most importantly) make predictions about how people might behave in the future. He posits, in fact, that economics will become more like art than science.

I do agree with Brooks that human behavior is a slippery thing that is not easily explained by any of the social sciences. What's more, I also agree that any pretense that any of these things are close to the "hard" sciences like chemistry or physics or biology. These sciences can explain how people work. The social sciences attempt to explain why people work, and this is a much harder thing to do.

I disagree with Brooks in that I don't think it was the recent economic crisis that was the "tipping point" for this supposed change in economics. I think of it in a more positive manner. Interdisciplinarity has been a force in academia for some time now and I think economists are finally coming out from behind their figures and charts to realize that they can learn from their colleagues. I think that this is a good thing, in the main.

The question, as a bit of an aside, arises: well, can any discipline keep its integrity in such an environment? Yes, because there are certain sorts of questions that one discipline answers better than others. Want to know about the causes of schizophrenia? A historian might be able to tell you how this disease and the perception of it changed over time, but for the direct answer, best to ask a psychologist. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Greg Mankiw offers a different take on this, disagreeing pretty much in whole with Brooks. He says that journalists fundamentally misunderstand changes in academia and does not realize that professional economists are not really in the business of predicting the future anyway.

He goes on to admit that, while certain changes do need to be made to basic econ courses, the breadth and depth of them are good for now. He admits he might be biased on this score, and he is right to do so. He is the author of damn near the most popular text for Microeconomics 101 classes today.

In the end, though, I think Brooks is on to something here. He is calling economists to remember that their roots are not in the sciences. The earliest people you could call economists came from other, older disciplines that probed the human mind and condition.

To take but one example: if you were to meet Adam Smith and call him an "economist," he would have no idea what you were talking about. He was really a moral philosopher, interested in how people can achieve happiness and live, well, the right way.

It was in this spirit that he wrote his first (under-read, in my opinion) book The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759. This book provides the moral and philosophical underpinnings for his later (more quoted, less read, even less understood) work The Wealth of Nations in 1776.

You would get the same quizzical looks from other early "economists" like David Ricardo, Francois Quesnay, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot and others. In fact, the first person you might be able to call an economist as they developed to the present day might be Alfred Marshall, leader of the "marginal revolution."

So, back to my original question: is economics dead. I think not, but the way the discipline looks at its problems and itself will, and should, change. Economics can be a powerful voice in explaining human behavior, motivation and action.

One voice, however, does not a chorus make.

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