A casual dig by Ross Gittens the other day at academic economists got me thinking. Hereâ€™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 â€œmathematical modelsâ€. But another response is that even for economists working on policy-related issues, sporadic incursions into the policy debate typically arenâ€™t worth it. Iâ€™m not sure that the general public would benefit more if my colleagues spent more time reading the Treasurerâ€™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 Gittensâ€™ â€œhonourable exceptionsâ€ were.* Thereâ€™s the bloggersâ€™ 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 donâ€™t think any of the women in Australian economics have a particularly high public profile (though hopefully Iâ€™ve inadvertently forgotten someone). Other thoughts?
* Iâ€™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.