On the Subjective Sense of Authority and Entitlement

A paper by Fourcade et al. tell all about us, sneaky economists:

In this essay, we investigate the dominant position of economics within the network of the social sciences in the United States. We begin by documenting the relative insularity of economics, using bibliometric data. Next we analyze the tight management of the field from the top down, which gives economics its characteristic hierarchical structure. Economists also distinguish themselves from other social scientists through their much better material situation (many teach in business schools, have external consulting activities), their more individualist worldviews, and in the confidence they have in their discipline’s ability to fix the world’s problems. Taken together, these traits constitute what we call the superiority of economists, where economists’ objective supremacy is intimately linked with their subjective sense of authority and entitlement. While this superiority has certainly fueled economists’ practical involvement and their considerable influence over the economy, it has also exposed them more to conflicts of interests, political critique, even derision.

Blogging economists commented it furiously. I think it’s mostly because the paper takes the right tone to touch an economist’s nerve. It mentions some problems in the profession, but the conclusion is radically irrelevant to any social problems social sciences—including economists—are trying to solve. This does bug economists.

The paper takes virtues for sins. Like this:

The opposite [to being axiomatic] would be arguing by example. You’re not allowed to do that. … There is a word for it. People say “that’s anecdotal.” That’s the end of you if people have said you’re anecdotal … [Another thing is] what modern people say … the modern thing is: “it’s not identified.” God, when your causality is not identified, that’s the end of you.

Actually, anecdotes are popular in economics. However, economics differentiates between case-based proof (which is almost never a proof) and case-based example (which demonstrates what you’ve proved with statistics). Second, yes, identification is a great thing—it shows what strings to pull to achieve socially beneficial results. The paper should have mentioned how many people suffer due to policies invented with anecdote-based reasoning that lacks causal connections.

It’s difficult to discuss the rest of the paper. The best way to get after economists is to show evidences stronger than economists do. And for this, you have to look elsewhere.