I’m following up Henry Farrell’s post on the superiority or otherwise of economists, and Krugman’s piece, also bouncing off Fourcade et al, with a few observations of my own, that don’t amount to anything systematic. My perspective is a bit unusual, at least for the profession as it exists today. I didn’t go to graduate school, and I started out in an Australian civil service job in the low-status[^1] field of agricultural economics.
So, I have long experience as an outsider to the US-dominated global profession. But, largely due to one big piece of good luck early on (as well as the obligatory hard work and general ability), I’ve done pretty well and am now, in most respects, an insider, at least in the Australian context.
I’ve also followed an approach, strongly deprecated in US academia, of writing lots of papers on many different topics. has exposed me to a lot of different subfields of economics, each with their own status hierarchy and criteria for what counts as good work.
My conclusion from this experience is that the obvious problems of academic macroeconomics aren’t unique to that field (in fact, as Krugman points out, the sharp divisions within the field make it unusually open in some ways). In many parts of economics, the status rankings and evaluation criteria are driven much more by internal and aesthetic factors than by empirical validity or policy relevance.
There’s a big arbitrary element to all this. If the seminal (sic) paper by the recognised smartest guy (sic) in the field formulated the core problem in a particular way, his (sic) grad students will learn and propagate that way of doing things, and will vigorously resist any alternative approach, even a purely technical reformulation. They have, after all, a lot invested in the idea that they have learned something valuable that no one else really understands.
If you want to see the mentality at first hand, and have a strong stomach, take a dive into the cesspool that is Economics Job Market Rumors. I should mention that my distaste for EJMR is fully reciprocated. The idea that an understanding of economics combined with attention to actual events is more useful than mastery of a highly specialised bag of tricks is totally antithetical to the ethos of the site (unsurprisingly, they hate Krugman even more than they hate me). In a less extreme form, that’s true of the econ profession in general, as the Fourcade et al piece shows.
[^1]: At least in the international profession, dominated by US norms and values. Until recently in Australia, a large proportion of policy-oriented economists got their start in this field, and policy work, in turn has a status it lacks in the US.