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Why Economics Is On the Wrong Track

Deirdre McCloskey writes in www.deirdremccloskey.org:

If you will forgive me, I will be very simple here. The point I am making is simple, and does not need to be dressed up in fancy clothing. I want to state the point in a way that it cannot be evaded. I do this not to embarrass my colleagues in economics, whom I love. I do it because the science needs an answer. If I am right in my criticism of economics—I pray that I am not right—then much of what economists do is a waste of time.

What’s sinful about economics is not what the average anthropologist or historian or journalist thinks. From the outside the dismal science seems obviously sinful, if irritatingly influential. But the obvious sins are not all that terrible; or, if terrible, they are committed anyway by everybody else. It is actually two particular, non-obvious, and unusual sins, two secret ones, that cripple the scientific enterprise—in economics and in a few other fields nowadays (like psychology and political science and medical science and population biology).

Yet a sympathetic critic who says these things and wishes that her own beloved economics would grow up and start focusing all its energies on doing proper science (the way physics or geology or anthropology or history or certain parts of literary criticism do it) finds herself sadly misunderstood. The commonplace and venial sins block scrutiny of the bizarre and mortal ones. Pity the poor sympathetic critic, construed regularly to be making this or that Idiot’s Critique: “Oh, I see. You’re one of those airy humanists who just can’t stand to think of numbers or mathematics” or “Oh, I see. When you say economics is ‘rhetorical’ you want economists to write more warmly.”

I tell you it’s maddening. The sympathetic critic, herself an economist, even a Chicago-School economist, slowly during twenty years of groping came to recognize the ubiquity of the Two Secret Sins of Economics (in the end they are one, deriving from pride, as all sins do). She has developed helpful suggestions for redeeming economics from sin. And yet no one—not the anthropologist or English professor or others from the outside certainly, but least of all the economist or medical scientist—grasps her point, or acts on it.

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Categories: Economics
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