Economists as plumbers?

Posted: 13 February 2017 in Uncategorized
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Apparently, the latest attempt to redefine the role of economists is to encourage them to be plumbers.

Maybe it’s just my age but, when I read plumbers, I immediately think of the covert Special Investigations Unit in the Nixon White House—the operation that began with attempting to stop the leak of classified information (such as the Pentagon Papers) and then branched into illegal activities while working for the Committee to Re-elect the President (including the Watergate break-in).

I don’t think that’s what MIT economist Esther Duflo (pdf) had in mind when, in her Ely Lecture to the American Economic Association meeting last month, she suggested that economists seriously engage with plumbing, “in the interest of both society and our discipline.”

As economists increasingly help governments design new policies and regulations, they take on an added responsibility to engage with the details of policy making and, in doing so, to adopt the mindset of a plumber. Plumbers try to predict as well as possible what may work in the real world, mindful that tinkering and adjusting will be necessary since our models gives us very little theoretical guidance on what (and how) details will matter.

I’ll admit, I have a lot of respect for plumbers (especially when they’re able to fix the mess I’ve made trying to repair an existing fixture or install a new one). And I do think anyone involved in designing new policies and regulations should learn more about how they are actually implemented.

But economists, especially mainstream economists (of the sort Duflo is speaking for and to), are the last people I’d call in to fix the policy plumbing. Me, I’d pay them a large sum of money to learn about how policy formulation and implementation actually works. And then I’d pay them even more not to get anywhere near the process.

I’d much prefer that others—from the people actually affected by the policies to representatives from other academic disciplines and areas (such as anthropology, labor studies, peace studies, and so on)—be the ones who actually engage with the details of policy-making.

A good example of why I would want mainstream economists to be kept as far as possible away from the process of policy and implementation is a recent piece by Laura Tyson and Susan Lund.*

Their view is that capitalist globalization has had “disruptive effects on millions of advanced-economy workers” (and, we should add, on millions of workers—peasants, wage-laborers, and others—in economies that are not so advanced) and has aggravated income inequality within countries. So far so good.

But then they assert, without evidence, that the main culprit is not how globalization has been carried out, but technological change, which “automates routine manual and cognitive tasks, while increasing demand (and wages) for highly skilled workers.”

And because they take technological change as a given (rather than a strategy on the part of employers to boost profits), they recommend that workers (who, they presume, have no say in the development and implementation of new technologies) are the ones who need to adapt.

advanced economies must help workers acquire the skills needed to fill high-quality jobs in the digital economy. Lifelong learning cannot just be a slogan; it must become a reality. Mid-career retraining must be made available not only to those who have lost their jobs to foreign competition, but also to those facing disruption from the continuing march of automation. Training programs should be able to impart new skills in a matter of months, not years, and they should be complemented by programs that support workers’ incomes during retraining, and that help them relocate for more productive work.

Now, it’s true, Tyson and Lund don’t spend any time on the plumbing of creating and implementing lifelong learning programs. But that’s not the problem. Even if they were good economic plumbers, we’d still end up with a situation in which employers set the agenda and workers are forced to have the freedom to scramble to try to keep up.

That’s the plumbing Tyson and Lund leave out of their analysis. It’s what keeps the extra value flowing from workers to their employers. And, if workers are no longer useful for creating that extra value, they’re simply flushed down the drain.

If and when mainstream economists are willing to talk about those parts of the economic system, I’ll be the first to invite them to join the plumbers’ union.

But only, until they prove they can analyze and fix the problem, as plumber apprentices.


*This is not to pick on Tyson and Lund. I could have chosen any one of an almost infinite number of essays on economic policy by mainstream economists I’ve read over the years. Theirs just happens to be the latest I’ve run across.

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