Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Economics and Astrology?

One thing I find interesting about the blog world is the way people talk about the field of economics. This is a recent blog by Amitai Etzioni:
There has never been another science quite like economics, other than maybe astrology. In no other science could one get away with the kinds of statements that economists make on a dialy basis. For instance, following the announcement of the new tax cut, economists said it would lead to increased stock prices, in turn, making people feel richer, which would then prompt them to buy more goods, thus, giving a boost to the economy. This is all based on "common sense," but they haven't shown us a shred of evidence. Nothing along the lines of "the last four times taxes were cut (by an average of ___), stock prices rose by ___, and purchasing increased by ___. In effect, the data on the so-called "wealth effect" is very mixed. Sometimes people feel flush, sometimes they don't.
THE SAME HOLDS TRUE FOR NUMEROUS OTHER STATEMENTS BY ECONOMISTS. Even a simple statement such as "when prices go up, people buy less" is not based on hard evidence. Indeed, if people see signs of coming inflation in price increases, they will buy more. Moreover, there are some goods, i.e. "luxury goods," such as premium vodka that people buy more of as they become more costly. A serious and honest science would take it from here: Under what conditions the hypothesis holds, and under what conditions it does not. But, that requires empirical research rather than pontificating and mathematical masturbation.
Now, Etzioni is a serious advocate of a serious political position - although one I disagree with. What I find fascinating is that he is willing to dismiss economists and economics using arguments that not even he would take seriously.

I agree that the “quote” he gave about tax cuts probably isn't right, but so what? In an issue as partisan as this, I imagine that every conceivable reason for and against tax cuts has been made by someone. Picking one, probably politically driven, statement as a measure of economics as a discipline is just not being serious. As to the rest of his comments: (a) There is a lot of empirical work about demand, (b) of course intertemporal decisions are taken into account, and (c) the phenomena of luxury goods is understood (although hardly a major topic). This is all stuff people know about.

My point is not about getting a specific argument wrong – if that were it I suppose I could write him and provide an economist’s take on the issue. What makes this interesting for me is that I think it illustrates a certain blog phenomena: blogs are the written equivalent of casual conversation. And in casual conversations, what you truly think slips out when you are not paying attention. A number of people seem to have no idea what economics actually says yet are quite comfortable in dismissing it anyway. While they would never say these things “in print”, we get a glimpse into their thought processes when they blog.

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