Wednesday, May 25, 2005

What Economics Isn't

Economist Steven D. Levitt is co-author of Freakonomics and the Freakonomics blog with Stephen J. Dubner, a journalist who carries the writing burden. In an article at Slate, Levitt allows Dubner to say this:
What is economics, anyway? It's not so much a subject matter as a sort of tool kit -- one that, when set loose on a thicket of information, can determine the effect of any given factor.
Actually, that's statistics, not economics. Economics is about understanding why and how resources are allocated among alternative uses, and why and how the course and level of economic activity is influenced by individuals, businesses, and governments. Statistics is but one tool in the economist's tool kit.

Levitt's confusion illustrates Arnold Kling's point:
The most distinctive trend in economic research over the past hundred years has been the increased use of mathematics. In the wake of Paul Samuelson's (Nobel 1970) Ph.D dissertation, published in 1948, calculus became a requirement for anyone wishing to obtain an economics degree. By 1980, every serious graduate student was expected to be able to understand the work of Kenneth Arrow (Nobel 1972) and Gerard Debreu (Nobel 1983), which required mathematics several semesters beyond first-year calculus....

The raising of the mathematical bar in graduate schools over the past several decades has driven many intelligent men and women (perhaps women especially) to pursue other fields. The graduate training process filters out students who might contribute from a perspective of anthropology, biology, psychology, history, or even intense curiosity about economic issues. Instead, the top graduate schools behave as if their goal were to produce a sort of idiot-savant, capable of appreciating and adding to the mathematical contributions of other idiot-savants, but not necessarily possessed of any interest in or ability to comprehend the world to which an economist ought to pay attention.
That is why I take most economists (Kling is an exception) with two grains of salt. One is for their dependence on mathematical techniques (including statistics). The second is for their belief that rationality is all about wealth maximization.