Mainstream economists are worried about their standing in the world—and rightly so. They failed to consider even the possibility of a crisis in the years before 2007-08, and they didn’t haven’t anything useful to offer once the crash happened.
They still don’t.
So, they’re concerned—about the level of disagreement among academic economists and between academics and the rest of the people. For, in their view, substantial disagreement indicates that normal science within economics is not working, either to create a consensus among academic practitioners or to convey that consensus to the great unwashed, uneducated masses.
Chrystia Freeland is comforted by the idea that “Economists. . .seek to objectively establish the truth and have a widely agreed-on body of knowledge about how the economy works.” While Greg Mankiw notes with evident concern that economists are absent from the list of bestselling authors on Amazon.
As it turns out, those two worries informed a panel at the recent American Economic Association meetings, “What Do Economists Think about Major Public Policy Issues?” (The webcast of the session can be viewed here.) One paper on that panel, “Views among Economists: Professional Consensus or Point-Counterpoint?” by Roger Gordon and Gordon B. Dahl [pdf], is the one that gave comfort to Freeland, since they find that there is “close to full consensus” among economists, at least in cases where the economic literature is large. The problem is that their finding is based on a very narrow survey, of 41 economists at 14 “elite” institutions. In other words, they found a consensus among a narrow slice of mainstream economists. That’s not much comfort, unless you already believe in the idea that the “best and the brightest” are the ones who have landed jobs at Harvard, Berkeley, and so on—and you can write off the views of nonmainstream economists who teach in economics departments outside the elite universities.
The other paper, “Economic Experts vs. Average Americans,” by Paola Sapienza and Luigi Zingales [pdf], actually confirms the basis of the second concern, that everyday economists often disagree with academic economists. They found, on average, a large (37 percentage point) difference between the two groups. In their view, “This difference does not seem to be justified by a superior knowledge of economists, but by a different way average Americans interpret the questions. Economists answer them literally and take for granted that all the embedded assumptions are true, average Americans do not.”
It seems both papers, for different reasons, provide cold comfort to those who are worried about the standing of academic economists. The only way they get a consensus among academic economists is by narrowly restricting the sample. And even when confined to that sample, they find a wide gulf between the views of academic economists and those of the general public.
What’s at stake in these disagreements is mainstream economists’ obsession with “science,” in the singular. Their view is that, if the protocols of science are followed, academic economists will come to substantial agreement—and, if they communicate their views effectively, the rest of the world will finally come around. What they simply can’t accept is the idea that economics is an agonistic field, both within and outside the academy—that there are incommensurable differences among the discourses produced by academic economists and between academic and everyday economists. So they spend their time worrying about the continued existence of those differences and attempting to stamp them out.
As they stand in the midst of the temple of doom and watch the giants falling.