What Good Are Economists?
NEW HAVEN – Since the global financial crisis and recession of 2007-2009, criticism of the economics profession has intensified. The failure of all but a few professional economists to forecast the episode – the aftereffects of which still linger – has led many to question whether the economics profession contributes anything significant to society. If they were unable to foresee something so important to people’s wellbeing, what good are they?
Indeed, economists failed to forecast most of the major crises in the last century, including the severe 1920-21 slump, the 1980-82 back-to-back recessions, and the worst of them all, the Great Depression after the 1929 stock-market crash. In searching news archives for the year before the start of these recessions, I found virtually no warning from economists of a severe crisis ahead. Instead, newspapers emphasized the views of business executives or politicians, who tended to be very optimistic.
The closest thing to a real warning came before the 1980-82 downturn. In 1979, Federal Reserve Chair Paul A. Volcker told the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress that the United States faced “unpleasant economic circumstances,” and had a “need for hard decisions, for restraint, and even for sacrifice.” The likelihood that the Fed would have to take drastic steps to curb galloping inflation, together with the effects of the 1979 oil crisis, made a serious recession quite likely.
Nonetheless, whenever a crisis loomed in the last century, the broad consensus among economists was that it did not. As far as I can find, almost no one in the profession – not even luminaries like John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, or Irving Fisher – made public statements anticipating the Great Depression.
As the historian Douglas Irwin has documented, a major exception was the Swedish economist Gustav Cassel. In a series of lectures at Columbia University in 1928, Cassel warned of “a prolonged and worldwide depression.” But his rather technical discussion (which focused on monetary economics and the gold standard) forged no new consensus among economists, and the news media reported no clear sense of alarm.
Interestingly, contemporary news accounts reveal little evidence of public anger at economists after disaster struck in 1929. So why has the failure to foresee the latest crisis turned out so differently for the profession? Why has it – unlike previous forecasting failures – stoked so much mistrust of economists?
One reason may be the perception that many economists were smugly promoting the “efficient markets hypothesis” – a view that seemed to rule out a collapse in asset prices. Believing that markets always know best, they dismissed warnings by a few mere mortals (including me) about overpricing of equities and housing. After both markets crashed spectacularly, the profession’s credibility took a direct hit.
But this criticism is unfair. We do not blame physicians for failing to predict all of our illnesses. Our maladies are largely random, and even if our doctors cannot tell us which ones we will have in the next year, or eliminate all of our suffering when we have them, we are happy for the help that they can provide. Likewise, most economists devote their efforts to issues far removed from establishing a consensus outlook for the stock market or the unemployment rate. And we should be grateful that they do.
In his new book Trillion Dollar Economists, Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution argues that the economics profession has “created trillions of dollars of income and wealth for the United States and the rest of the world.” That sounds like a nice contribution for a relatively small profession, especially if we do some simple arithmetic. There are, for example, only 20,000 members of the American Economic Association (of which I am President-Elect); if they have created, say, $2 trillion of income and wealth, that is about $100 million per economist.
A cynic might ask, “If economists are so smart, why aren’t they the richest people around?” The answer is simple: Most economic ideas are public goods that cannot be patented or otherwise owned by their inventors. Just because most economists are not rich does not mean that they have not made many people richer.
The fun thing about Litan’s book is that he details many clever little ideas about how to run businesses or to manage the economy better. They lie in the realm of optimal pricing and marketing mechanisms, regulation of monopolies, natural-resource management, public-goods provision, and finance. None of them is worth even a trillion dollars, but, taken together, Litan’s conclusion is plausible indeed.
The 2010 book Better Living through Economics, edited by John Siegfried, emphasizes the real-world impact of such innovations: emissions trading, the earned-income tax credit, low trade tariffs, welfare-to-work programs, more effective monetary policy, auctions of spectrum licenses, transport-sector deregulation, deferred-acceptance algorithms, enlightened antitrust policy, an all-volunteer military, and clever use of default options to promote saving for retirement.
The innovations described in Litan’s and Siegfried’s books show that the economics profession has produced an enormous amount of extremely valuable work, characterized by a serious effort to provide genuine evidence. Yes, most economists fail to predict financial crises – just as doctors fail to predict disease. But, like doctors, they have made life manifestly better for everyone.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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