Sunday, February 15, 2015

Smith on non-expert macro opinion

Noah Smith, responding to a post by Scott Sumner, suggests three reasons that non-economists are so fond of confidently entering the macro debate. They are (1) macro's relevance to regular people, (2) macro's political implications, and (3) "the perception that macroeconomists don't understand their own subject."

Points 1 and 2 are usually the first that come to my mind. Point 3 is ok, but I think it's largely driven by 1 and 2. A lot of people evaluate the quality of macroeconomists' analysis based on whether it supports their political views or aligns with their anecdotal experiences. I bet a lot of lay people are happy to credit a macroeconomist with great expertise if that macroeconomist tells the right stories.

As part of point 3, Noah writes:

The Great Recession convinced a lot of people that macroeconomics hasn't solved any of the problems it was created to solve. Contrast that with physics or chem, which have very obviously given us a lot of the awesome stuff that makes our society rich.

That's fair, but also somewhat unfair. When I fire up my web browser I'm not bombarded with confident non-expert opinions about earthquakes, despite seismology's apparent inability to predict them. Points 1 and 2 are the reasons that people notice and deeply care about how well macroeconomists can do economics; so, again, 3 may not be saying anything independent of 1 and 2. Moreover, there are the usual talking points: how well would physics and chemistry be doing if they had the physics/chemistry equivalent of 5 or maybe 10 data-rich, non-experimental recession observations to study? We can interpret the massive success of physics and chemistry and relative lack of success in macroeconomics as meaning physicists and chemists are better at their jobs than are economists, or we can interpret it as meaning that getting reliable answers in economics is a lot harder than it is in physics. A scenario in which economists know much more about economics than the typical lay person is not inconsistent with the latter interpretation. I also think it's a stretch to jump from the notion that there is much we don't know about recessions to "macroeconomists haven't gotten any answers out of the universe."

3 comments:

  1. When Ryan Decker wrote in response to Reason #3 above:

    "When I fire up my web browser I'm not bombarded with confident non-expert opinions about earthquakes, despite seismology's apparent inability to predict them."

    He should try

    Oklahoma earthquakes fracking

    or

    italy prosecution sesmologists

    Just sayin

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  2. The public does not think that seismologists are incompetent. Don't see the link to macro. Macroeconomists have so different views that at least 50% must be wrong by definition.

    True with the data, but that only means that economists need to use other methodology. Maybe history, maybe more link to micro, maybe model sectors of the economy instead of the whole economy

    ReplyDelete