Popular Economics

A casual dig by Ross Gittens the other day at academic economists got me thinking. Here’s what he said:

That leaves the battalion of academic economists, to whom we give the privilege of academic freedom in the hope they’ll make just this contribution to the community.

Trouble is, with a few honourable exceptions, they don’t bother following the debate. They contribute nothing because they live in ivory towers, amusing each other by playing with their mathematical models.

There are a couple of simple answers to this. One is that much of the strength of modern economics comes from those oft-derided “mathematical models”. But another response is that even for economists working on policy-related issues, sporadic incursions into the policy debate typically aren’t worth it. I’m not sure that the general public would benefit more if my colleagues spent more time reading the Treasurer’s speeches, and less time reading Econometrica.

That said, I do have some sympathy for the view that even when the public debate comes directly on to issues where they have expertise, economists are often reluctant to get into the game.

I also spent awhile wondering who Gittens’ “honourable exceptions” were.* There’s the bloggers’ favourite economist, John Quiggin. Peter Dawkins, Mark Wooden and Jeff Borland at Melbourne Uni also interact with the public quite a bit; as do my ANU colleagues Bob Gregory and Bruce Chapman. I don’t think any of the women in Australian economics have a particularly high public profile (though hopefully I’ve inadvertently forgotten someone). Other thoughts?

* I’m excluding here, as Gittens seemed to be doing, the various economists employed by banks and thinktanks (eg. John Edwards), as well as those at IR schools.

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10 Responses to Popular Economics

  1. matt_f says:

    Ann Harding is the one that immediately comes to mind, although I haven’t heard anything from her for a while.

    Am not sure whether or not you are putting her in the thinktank basket.

  2. It probably wouldnt hurt for all specialists to write to a popular audience so their profession is better understood and their knowledge more widely dispersed/disseminated.

  3. Andrew Leigh says:

    Yes, I was thinking of NATSEM as a thinktank, but if we go outside universities, Ann probably is the most high-profile female Aussie economist. FWIW, I’m pretty sure she’s the only female economist who testified before the Senate GST inquiry.

  4. Andrew Norton says:

    You could add Stephen King, Joshua Gans and John Freebairn to the list – all Melbourne or ex-Melbourne Uni, and you have modestly left yourself off the list. But apart from the U of M and ANU there is general silence.

    You are probably right that sporadic incursions into debate don’t make a huge difference, but sustained contributions can, and I think it is disappointing that economists don’t make a larger contribution to public debate or even to public issues. For example, there is very little available on the economics of higher education apart from Bruce Chapman’s work on its income distribution effects, a few other studies on returns on investment, and crude macro input-output models on its effect on the general economy, with no interest in micro issues.

  5. Sinclair Davidson says:

    After some red wine, Ross Gittens allegedly asked one of my collegues if he “knew Davidson” – an irovy tower academic who has no idea about how tax systems should work.

    The last time I did any serious maths was in the last exam I wrote requiring maths knowledge.

  6. Sinclair Davidson says:

    You read Econometrica?? Regularly, or specific articles? The obits don’t count.

  7. Andrew Leigh says:

    Sinclair, I think I said that my colleagues read Econometrica….. BTW, you were another obvious omission from my list. Apologies.

  8. Sinclair Davidson says:

    That’s quite alright, I wouldn’t hold myself in such august company.

  9. Andrew Leigh says:

    Nice – and sharply relevant.

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