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Am I ruining economics or not?

I blogged a few weeks back about a piece in The New Republic last month that claimed I was ruining economics. At that time, there wasn’t a full version of the article online to link to, so there did not seem to be much point in saying much about the piece. Now, you can read the full article here.

If you’ve read the article, I’m curious as to how you would answer the following questions:

1) Where did the author of the story get his economics PhD?

2) How many years was he enrolled in the economics graduate program at Harvard?

3) How many times have he and I been in the same room in our lives?

It might surprise you to know that the answers to those questions are: he has no PhD, he never attended the economics graduate program at Harvard (the closest he ever got was dating someone in the program), and he and I have never been in the same room in our lives. If you read the article before trying to answer those questions, I am almost certain you will have gotten one or more of them wrong. In order to give himself some credibility (which he sorely lacks) on the issues in the article, he does everything short of outright lying about his connections to the profession.

It seems to me that Scheiber is tied up in knots to the point that he no longer knows what he believes. He seems to instinctively like clever research, but feels such guilt about it that he is compelled to denounce it. The incredibly important point that he misses is that often being clever is the way one cracks an important problem. He can denigrate the questions I have made progress on tackling, but it seems to me that understanding how crime responds to punishment, why crime fell in the 1990s, why Blacks are lagging Whites so badly educationally and economically, whether firms profit maximize, whether campaign spending affects election outcomes, and whether elected officials follow the will of the electorate are pretty reasonable topics for an economist to study. Sure, my approach to each of these was different than what everyone else was doing, but the questions I have asked have (usually) had both serious policy questions and economic issues at their heart, and I delivered some answers when others were not.

Similarly, he attacks Emily Oster completely unfairly and gets all the facts wrong. Maybe it would have helped him get things straight if he had the decency and journalistic rigor to actually talk to Emily about her research. A handful of years ago Scheiber wrote an equally misinformed piece in The New Republic (which I can’t find online to link to) which was titled or sub-titled something like “Why this recession will be so much worse.” Unfortunately for Scheiber, the recession being discussed was not only an unusually quick and painless one, but also, at the time he wrote the piece the recession had already officially ended according to the NBER panel in charge of demarcating such things!

And he is equally behind the times when branding me as a clever economist. While I am proud of my clever past, it is mighty hard to write clever papers. The way my life has evolved, my comparative advantage these days is getting my hands on data that no one else can get, and convincing the folks who make decisions to carry out interesting and informative field experiments. So while I wish I could promise a pipeline of really clever papers, I am afraid that is not likely to be my focus in the near future. Like Scheiber’s predictions about the recession, he’s already missed the boat.

Enough about what I think. What do other economists think? Greg Mankiw weighs in on the topic. Mankiw’s basic stance seems to be that I am trying to ruin economics, but other economists are too smart to let that happen. (One thing Mankiw and I definitely do agree on is that Scheiber is not good at accurately describing people’s physical characteristics. He said Mankiw had a big nose (when mine is much bigger), and said I had a concave chest — which is first of all not true, and second of all, since he has never seen me in person and certainly not with my shirt off, something he could not possibly be informed about. The Marginal Revolution guys are a little more charitable. A stong defender is Karl Smith.

But the single best comment I heard about The New Republic piece came from the spouse of an economist friend of mine who read the piece and whose only comment was “Steve Levitt seems to be the only one who is having any fun!”

Amen to that.