Here’s a thoughtful antidote to “boo economists!” by Barry Eichengreen at The National Interest. Perhaps the most forceful point is this:
What got us into this mess, in other words, were not the limits of scholarly imagination. It was not the failure or inability of economists to model conflicts of interest, incentives to take excessive risk and information problems that can give rise to bubbles, panics and crises. It was not that economists failed to recognize the role of social and psychological factors in decision making or that they lacked the tools needed to draw out the implications. In fact, these observations and others had been imaginatively elaborated by contributors to the literatures on agency theory, information economics and behavioral finance. Rather, the problem was a partial and blinkered reading of that literature. The consumers of economic theory, not surprisingly, tended to pick and choose those elements of that rich literature that best supported their self-serving actions. Equally reprehensibly, the producers of that theory, benefiting in ways both pecuniary and psychic, showed disturbingly little tendency to object. It is in this light that we must understand how it was that the vast majority of the economics profession remained so blissfully silent and indeed unaware of the risk of financial disaster.
Eichengreen notes that business schools, for example, are part of the production line of financial labor and ideas and so have no inventive to rock the boat; however, he also directs a lot of fire at academic economists for being part of the stitch-up. I accept that the author surely knows better than me the “pecuniary and psychic” benefits to academics from the use of their work, but a counter-hypothesis would be ignorance rather than malice, a sin of omission, not commission. How many in economics departments know what’s going on in industry – or even business schools? Is it enough to claim a quorum of the profession?
There’s probably analog to the hard sciences here. Newspaper science (cf. Bad Science, for example) is to natural science research as financial industry models are to economics research, or something like that. Imagine a house full of economists (reality show idea?) – every so often one wanders out to hand some obscure technical document to someone from the outside world, and something inevitably gets lost in translation.