Quote of the Day: The Problem With Economics


From Matt Yglesias, talking about the current state of macroeconomic theorizing:

It’s far too easy for people with the relevant skills to demonstrate just about anything.

Technically, of course, this is true of just about any field. I’ve seen plenty of sophisticated debunkings of Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example. Luckily, it turns out that physics is a fairly simple field, which makes it possible for the physics community to gather enough empirical data to keep the cranks safely at bay. If your GPS device gets you safely home, then the theory of relativity can’t be too wrong, after all.

At the same time, climate science is only moderately more complex than relativistic mechanics, and its standing in the relevant scientific community is very nearly as strong. What’s more, there’s a ton of empirical data suggesting that the globe is indeed warming dangerously. But that hasn’t done it much good. In the end, it turns out that the reason the theory of relativity is widely accepted in the outside world has very little to do with how strongly the physics community believes it. It has to do with the fact that, unlike climate science, it doesn’t gore any powerful oxes. (Oxen?)

Sadly, macroeconomics combines the worst aspects of just about everything. It’s wildly complex. Its fundamental precepts change over time as the basis of the economy changes. Reliable experimental evidence is practically impossible to come by. Even the effect of fairly simple changes to basic quantities—hell, even the direction of the effect—is often contested. And of course, it’s a field that gores just about every ox in existence. So there’s always a ready audience for any result, no matter how strained an interpretation of reality it takes to get it.

The part I can’t figure out is why there’s so much contention even within the field. In physics and climate science, the cranks are almost all nonspecialists with an axe to grind. Actual practitioners agree pretty broadly on at least the basics. But in macroeconomics you don’t have that. There are still polar disagreements among top names on some of the most basic questions. Even given the complexity of the field, that’s a bit of a mystery. It’s understandable that economics is a more politicized field than physics, but in practice it seems to be almost 100 percent politicized, with the battles fought out by streams of Greek letters demonstrating, as Matt says, just about anything. I wonder if this is ever likely to change? Or will changes in the real world always outpace our ability to build consensus on how the economy actually works?

One More Thing

And it's a big one. Mother Jones is launching a new Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on the corruption that is both the cause and result of the crisis in our democracy.

The more we thought about how Mother Jones can have the most impact right now, the more we realized that so many stories come down to corruption: People with wealth and power putting their interests first—and often getting away with it.

Our goal is to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We're aiming to create a reporting position dedicated to uncovering corruption, build a team, and let them investigate for a year—publishing our stories in a concerted window: a special issue of our magazine, video and podcast series, and a dedicated online portal so they don't get lost in the daily deluge of headlines and breaking news.

We want to go all in, and we've got seed funding to get started—but we're looking to raise $500,000 in donations this spring so we can go even bigger. You can read about why we think this project is what the moment demands and what we hope to accomplish—and if you like how it sounds, please help us go big with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate