If All the Economists Were Laid End to End, Would They Reach a Conclusion?

There is an old quip, attributed to George Bernard Shaw, that if all the economists were laid end to end, they’d never reach a conclusion.

My own experience has always been just the opposite. Most economists think very much alike.

If you want to feel like the smartest person in the room, often a good way to accomplish this is to be the only economist. Frequently, the one economist will say things that make a lot of sense that no one else would ever come up with.  When I am that one economist, I sometimes feel like a genius.  Until a second economist enters the room, that is.  Because when the second economist shows up, he or she often says all the smart things I was going to say, before I can say them.  It turns out, it is not the economist who is brilliant, but rather the training we get as economists which leads us to think differently from non-economists, that sometimes makes us seem smart. 

So was George Bernard Shaw right?  The data have something to say on this issue.  A panel of economic experts assembled by the Initiative on Global Markets at Chicago’s Booth School of Business weighs in from time to time on the issues of the day.  These are very prominent academic economics representing a wide ideological spectrum.

They are asked whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the position posed in the question.  They can also say they are uncertain or have no opinion.  For the purposes of my analysis, I will lump together “strongly agree” and “agree,” and do the same with “strongly disagree” and “disagree.”  I ignore anyone who says uncertain or has no opinion.

Well, it turns out that economists – at least these 40 economists – agree on just about everything thrown at them so far.  I had my crack research assistant Maria Ibanez go through every question they’ve ever been asked and compute how much agreement there is by question. Of the fourteen questions posed to them thus far, on nine of them every single economist shared the same opinion! Not a single dissenter in the bunch.  There has only been one question in which fewer than 80 percent of the economists are on the same side of the issue.  That was a question on education, where the group split roughly two-thirds/one-third when asked whether vouchers were a good idea.


Becca

Brilliant stuff! That's because Economics is the one branch of science that truly recognises and takes into account variances relating to human emotion and error.

ryan

Hope all of you economists' arms are ok- must be tough to twist your arms to pat yourself on the back that way.

VBinNV

If all the economists were getting laid (end-to-end or otherwise) they would likely reach more hastily drawn conclusions.

164

Of course it all depends on what questions you are asking. You are likely to se dissagreement on topics involving free market solutions vs government solutions. Also optimal income distribution, and approaches to alleviate poverty.

Eric M. Jones.

It is a key tenet of "Science" that agreement on a particular factoid doesn't really mean very much. Scientists don't get together to have a hand-raising vote to determine what reality looks like. Nor would scientists engage in a mass rejection of some new strange idea (e.g. maybe there were 0, 2, 3, or more Big Bangs). That's why many scientists are really not too interested in AGW whilst many non-scientist people are waving signs and shouting.

So finding out that many or most Economists agree on questions might be more an indication that new ideas and new blood is desperately needed. The current economic conditions would indicate exactly that.

You couldn't get a job teaching psychology in 1960 unless you thought Sigmund Freud was the penultimate genius. Now you can't get a job if you think he was.

DK

"You couldn’t get a job teaching psychology in 1960 unless you thought Sigmund Freud was the penultimate genius. Now you can’t get a job if you think he was."

The second-to-last genius?

Nosybear

So... Brilliant groupthink is still groupthink?

Mike

If the topic of conversation is about economics or related to economics, I expect the economist in the room to be the most intelligent.

If the topic of conversation is medicine, a lawsuit, religion, or rocket science, the economist in the room might be the least intelligent.

crquack

QED on this blog time and time again.

James

"...it is not the economist who is brilliant, but rather the training we get as economists which leads us to think differently from non-economists, that sometimes makes us seem smart."

Or perhaps it's that training which leads you to believe that the statements made by that other economist - who of course studied the same dogma at their divinity school... excuse me, of course I meant to write school of economics :-) are brilliant, even when they bear no connection to actual reality.

Cody Bailey

I'd love to see that data.

DanW

40 economists associated with chicago-school economics - not exactly a representative sample, so let's not be surprised that they agree on a lot. See this nice article from Paul Krugman on the quality of 'debate' within the chicago school:

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/02/hermetic-economic-cults-wonkish/

Shane L

If economists tend to agree perhaps it is media, looking for conflict and 'balance', who seek out economists with differing views? Hence the public end up with a wide diversity of opinions.

phillip Black

Put two economists in a room and you'll get 2 different opinions, unless one of those economists is Keynes in which case you'll get 3.

Eric

One of the things I enjoy about this blog is the variety of analyses brought out between the authors and commentators. I would say economists are pretty open to considering a lot of different viewpoints unless they are hardcore idealogues. I am obviously biased but have often felt that viewing things through the lens of Econ training has been a real advantage to me vs my friends in the "hard" sciences. Real world problems are messy, multifaceted, and complicated by individual human behavior. Economists should be able to bat .500 anyway.

Daniel

When physical scientists want to feel like the smartest person in the room, we go hang out with economists.

charles ellis

Since this is true, and since getting macro-economic policy seems so difficult (impossible), is it possible that the smartest guys in the room aren't smart enough?

Konrad Hill

Out of curiousity do you think economists are in disagreement because vouchers take funds away from already under-funded public schools? Or is disagreement caused by a perceived violation of 1st Amendment separation of church and state since most of the schools in the program are religious and funded by government?

Gabby Solano

It's interesting to me that Levitt would actually say the truth..that economists aren't necessarily geniuses..it's their schooling that gives the illusion that they are so intelligent...