More Econ

OK, I’ll promise that after this week, I’ll take a little vacation from econ. I’m pushing it, I realize. For those (three or four of) you still interested, I’ve got a response up over at the Bookclub, which goes a little something like this:

At this point, I have to say I feel blessedly ancillary to the discussion going on. The people with the most to say and in many respects the best insights into the issues that I tried to chronicle in the article are those who do economics for a living. It is, I think, pretty revealing that there seems to be such a thirst among practitioners of the field to participate in this discussion. It indicates to me that the issues I tried to raise don’t routinely get the airing they deserve. (A less charitable observer could also make the case that people who feel aggrieved always like to complain.)

I want to respond briefly to something that Tyler Cowen said in his thoughtful response:

There's much talk in Hayes' article about discrimination against heterodox economists, but he gives surprisingly little attention to which of their valid propositions have been neglected. I'd like to see a simple list and start the debate there

Ezra Klein over at his blog seconded this point writing:

There's one question as to whether herd-think and job pressures and social influences subtly suppress heterodox work and lead to a misleading impression of the general findings of economists. And then there's another, which Chris went into in his article, as to whether the neoclassical model is a proven failure, and must now be replaced by something different.

This is right on the money. There are two cases to be made against the dominance of neoclassical economics, a substantive case and a sociological one. The substantive case has nothing to do with the mechanics of the discipline, only with the descriptive and predictive value of the neoclassical theory: does it reliably predict certain phenomena, does it explain strange new phenomena, and does it do these things better than competing theories. I, alas, cannot make the best substantive case against neoclassical economics. I can recite some talking points, I can deploy some lay arguments that I’ve mulled or appropriated, but as I said, I’m not an economist. (Question for the rest of discussants: is there a list you’d submit in answer to Tyler’s question? I have my own, but, um don’t really want to go first).

The other case to make against neoclassical dominance is the sociological case, which chronicles the professional mechanisms that maintain the model’s hegemony, the ways in which certain borders and taboos are enforced, the professional incentive structures that serve to discourage budding economists to adopt or explore other models. The point of the sociological case is to show that merits aside, there’s clearly social forces at work maintaining the dominance of neoclassical economics, and social forces such as these are generally impediments to good science. The more it appears that clubbiness is what keeps the neoclassical model in the drivers’ seat, the more reason to doubt that the model is winning on the merits.

Now, the problem that Tyler points out is that the sociological case is somewhat trivial if there’s not a substantive case to go along. Here, I think, is a useful analogy. You could write a long feature article (in fact it’s been done) in which you talked to a bunch of professional midwives about the ways they’ve been marginalized and condescended to by the medical profession. But that article wouldn’t be particularly persuasive, if you generally are inclined to believe doctors, who are, after all, the product of seven years of very expensive education, and use the scientific method, and peer review to establish their methods for delivering children. But, if, in the article, you showed that a number of hospitals were starting to create “birthing wings” in their hospitals decorated to look nothing like a hospital, reject the use of drugs during delivery, and more or less adopt a lot of the major techniques employed by mid-wives, you might then think to yourself: well maybe these midwives aren’t so crazy after all. In fact, maybe they were right and the medical establishment was wrong.

The point of the article was to suggest the same about people like David Ruccio and Michael Perelman and Thomas Palley, and many others of their ilk.

Chris Hayes is the host of All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC.

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