The current spectacle of infighting is one more reason mainstream economics must fall.
It’s not that we needed any more reasons—since, for all their claims to the mantle of science, mainstream economists have continued to move back and forth between contrasting positions. It’s unemployment, no it’s inflation. Fiscal stimulus works best; what we really is expansionary austerity. Let’s see more monetary easing; but watch out for policy uncertainty. And so on and so forth.
But the debate among mainstream economists has entered a new stage—with one group endorsing Team Republican, arguing that “The negative effect of the administration’s ‘stimulus’ policies has been documented in a number of empirical studies,” while the other group accuses them of “giving economics a bad name.”
This is sad, because it tells us as much about economics as an academic discipline as it does about the individuals concerned. In the past I have imagined something similar happening in physics. It actually stretches the imagination to do so, but if it did, the academics concerned would immediately lose their academic reputation. The credibility of their work would be questioned. Responding to evidence rather than ignoring it is what distinguishes real science from pseudo science, and doctors from snake oil salesmen.
In watching this spectacle unfold, I was reminded of the recent book by Till Düppe, The Making of the Economy: A Phenomenology of Economic Science.* It is a reflection on the idea of economics as “science” from the vantage point of the phenomenological tradition in philosophy. While I don’t agree with all the author’s arguments, I do think his conclusion is instructive:**
Reflection on the motives that give rise to an intellectual life is a condition of becoming socially responsible for one’s claim. In this sense economic science must fall for the sake of social responsibility.
The reasoning is clear: In a science that excludes the conduct of an expressive life, doing and using it exclude one other. Hence economists are necessarily socially irresponsible. Economics systematically excludes a reflection on its social use. A change of the connotations of an economic concept can change the world without economists even noticing. The problem of social irresponsibility, therefore, cannot be solved within economic science. If it is inherent in scientific authority to be irresponsive to the motives that give rise to it, but this authority nevertheless finds its way into economic talk, then economists cannot be held responsible for the consequences of their work. Being intellectually irresponsive for the sake of science, economists avoid all responsibility for the social effects of their scientific authority.
The problem of avoiding the economic suspicion is thus not that it makes economics politically irrelevant. Economics always finds its way into its discursive surrounding where there are people who (unknowingly or secretly) find associations with a political position. And if the very phenomenological constitution of economic science requires that its practitioners not be blamed for being ideological delinquents, economists have to be charged with this responsibility. Economic science must fall for the sake of moral integrity in economic discourse.
The current debate among mainstream economists demonstrates that their particular approach to economics must fall. But, and here I disagree with Düppe, it is precisely for that reason that the rest of us need to continue to operate within economics—because mainstream economists continue to exercise authority within the key debates, in the academy and the public arena, about how we’re going to make our way out of the Second Great Depression.
*I should reveal that, having reviewed the volume for Lexington Books, I provided a blurb:
Now more than ever — after the Global Financial Crisis, in the midst of the Second Great Depression — it is necessary to think critically about the relationship between economics and science, to interrogate the epistemic authority of mainstream economics. Till Düppe, in his The Making of the Economy, bravely takes up that challenge; bringing together history and phenomenology, he shows that mainstream economists “made the economy” by adopting a distanced attitude, a culture of suspicion, toward their object of study. But, along the way — through quantification and formalism, by invoking science as the beginning and end of economic practice, by forgetting about the life-world — the discipline of economics lost its reason for being. But Düppe does not mourn the loss of mainstream economists’ scientific authority. It was of no help to them anyway. Instead, he offers the only possible way of moving forward and thus of reviving interest in economic life: “Economists of the World-Disperse.”
**The quote is from the manuscript version, prior to publication.