Anti-Public Intellectuals, or Public Anti-Intellectuals?

Over at The Atlantic, Richard Posner writes:

I am concerned with the fact that academic economists, when they become either public officials or public intellectuals (like Krugman), leave behind their academic scruples.

In a later paragraph, he expands on his theme:

This raises the question of the ethical responsibility of academic economists, such as [CEA Chair Christina] Romer (and Krugman, and Lawrence Summers, and many others), who write for the media or join the government, either to adhere to academic standards in their nonacademic work or to make clear to the public that they are on holiday from those standards and that what they say in their public-intellectual or governmental careers should not be thought identical to their academic views.

And then, with an astonishing lack of awareness of the irony involved, Judge Posner — who is also a highly-regarded scholar at Chicago Law School — spends the rest of his article opining on the economic effects of the stimulus.

Yes, this is the same Judge Posner who has never, as far as I can tell, received any training in macroeconomics. Having recently re-read much of the modern literature on fiscal policy, I found myself underlining several of his claims that either reflect an incomplete understanding of the issue or are simply at odds with the current views of mainstream macro. Yet they are stated as simple truths, with no hint of qualification. And he cites not a single number nor builds a serious theoretical argument in support of any of his conclusions.

In fact, it’s a fun game to read his whole piece (available here) and assess just how far Posner falls short. Post your favorites to the comments.

Update: At Economist’s View, Mark Thoma begins by listing the obvious shortcomings; Brad DeLong finds at least seven major problems; and over at EconBrowswer, Menzie Chinn piles on, finding six-and-a-half major shortcomings. And for eagle-eyed readers, there are still more problems waiting to be highlighted; let’s call it an intellectual “Where’s Waldo?”

Finally, an aside: This isn’t about which side of the debate Posner is on; on the substantive issue of whether fiscal stimulus is worthwhile, I actually agree with Posner. No, it’s about the very issue Posner raises: how to engage in serious economic debate.


Brad Delong has an epic take down of Posner's article here :


Wow, a NYT blogger is shocked, *SHOCKED* at Judge Posner taking economists like *GASP* NYT columnist Paul Krugman to task. Yeah.

And, as might be expected, said blogger fails to evaluate Posner's claim but does point out many areas where Posner isn't "up to snuff." Of course, blogger doesn't take the time to explain how stupid Posner is by showing us. No. Instead, he asserts it, moves in, in like form.

I definitely think Posner has a long way to go, but to be sure, not nearly as far as Krugman and Romer who -- incidentally -- have indeed strayed a long way from the farm. The point is that Romer uses ABSOLUTELY archaic Keynesian models for her stimulus projections and Krugman has forgotten even the most basic and unchallenged of microeconomics findings.


He's a law professor, not an empirical researcher. He teaches within his own "school of thought" and does not profess an empirical truth. Economists in political jobs are very different. I would think most people could make that distinction.

Eric M. Jones

"... an incomplete understanding of the issue or are simply at odds with the current views of mainstream macro(economics)".

And so he is wrong how? It seems that the current view of macroeconomists is wildly wrong. So you are saying that he has no "understanding" of current theories which are totally wrong? Good for him.

I don't say that he is right, nor that any spin on the wheel is likely to be better than "current theory", but to criticize him for not being one of the gang who brought us to economic ruin is clearly disingenuous.

He is obviously a smart guy, maybe a substantial part of his argument is worth examining.

Am I missing something?


The best thing is the Irony in THIS article. He has no idea how wrong he is about being precisely inaccurate? I'm not sure I care about "training in macroeconomics." It's elitist and, especially now, there are rather diverse ways of acquiring knowledge. Anyway, no matter what school someone went to for astrology, I'm still not going to let them guide my spaceship to the moon. (sure, I'm being a bit dramatic)

Attack the theory, attack the points, and skewer them if that's what you feel like doing, but what you've cited here is actually rather interesting. What does happen to any human when they leave the nest of academia and jump into the political frying pan? I think there's something to that.


Everyone knows the economists supporting your views are honest and upright and the ones opposing your views are deceitful and dishonest. It's an objective fact. ;-)

Glenn in Boston

What is most distressing is that no one seems to think the average American can distinguish between the many opinions offered by these people (academic or judge). I believe they can, but then, of course, that makes this whole discussion, well, academic. No irony here.


"Formal training in Macroeconomics" has failed us.

As a matter of fact, just the notion that "Macro economics" should some how be treated differently than micro economics is a rather new concept, mostly stemming in Keynesanism.

Keynes was just a man, that proposed a theory. His theory was that governments, through stimulus and government spending, can solve an economic crisis. The Austrian school of economics on the other hand, rejected his theory, and considered government intervention, specifically inflationary policies, as the main causes of the Boom-Bust cycle.
Periods of inflation created perceived booms, and periods of lesser inflation caused busts.
Take away the boom, and you have no bust.

Mainstream economics has almost unilaterally accepted Keynes, and rejected the concepts of the free market.
Well, we've had 2 crisis' in the past decade, both caused by inflationary policies of the Keynesian central banks.

I find it rather shocking that none of the Keynesians were able to predict the upcoming crisis, while the Austrians were shouting at the top of their lungs.



"I find it rather shocking that none of the Keynesians were able to predict the upcoming crisis, while the Austrians were shouting at the top of their lungs."



Justin - you say,

"I found myself underlining several of his claims that either reflect an incomplete understanding of the issue or are simply at odds with the current views of mainstream macro."

Can you please provide examples and elaborations?


Charles, I believe the scientist you would want to guide your spaceship to the moon would be someone that studied Astronomy (or some branch of Physics or Engineering), not Astrology. You would want an Astrologer to tell you if it is a good day to ask your boss for a promotion, not guide you through the cosmos. Giving an Astrologer this task would leave you "lost in space," which is why academic credentials are important. Credentials are not elitist; they are evidence of approved training in a particular academic or professional discipline, regardless of whether or not you care about them.


How can so many people miss Posner's point? He simply said that Krugman and Romer reached one conclusion when they did academic research and an opposite conclusion when they avocated for a certain public policy.

Whether Posner's economic analysis is brilliant or stupid is competely irrelevant.

the Gooch

I'm no economist; I deal in actual sciences.
I see no reason the stimulus should work unless the laws of microeconomics are as different from the laws of macroeconomics as the laws of quantum mechanics are from classical mechanics.


He seems to debate Gary Becker pretty well on a whole host of issues.

If he can take him on, why can't he take on Romer or Summers or anyone else for that matter?


Apart from the macroeconomics issues:

1. He writes about other public intellectuals without discussing or in any way describing his personal perspective. It's as though he's appointed himself as the objective observer when he isn't one and can't be one.
2. Because he doesn't disclose and discuss his biases, his comments about a Paul Krugman, for example, aren't meaningful. In what way has Krugman not disclosed his bias? In what has he not noted his slant? So you have a person who hides his own biases then complaining about others. That would be funny if this weren't a major judicial figure.


"Yes, this is the same Judge Posner who has never, as far as I can tell, received any training in macroeconomics."

Since you've sent us on a Where's Waldo error-finding chase, let me point out two errors in your single sentence. First, you assume that Posner has never received economics training. Although your assumption is possibly true, it seems unwarranted, given that he has been surrounded by some of the brightest economics minds for 40 years.

Second, you imply that a degree in economics is necessary to understand, critique, or make meaningful contributions to the field. Just ask Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, Frank Ramsey, or Daniel Kahneman if this is true.

I'm also amused that you expected the readers of this blog to sympathize with your Posner-bashing. The blog's co-founder, like Posner, is a self-proclaimed price-theory adherent.


Though Judge Posner may not have "formal macroeconomic training", he has undoubtedly earned the respect of some very credentialed economists. With apologies to you, Mr Wolfers, that respect is worth far more than a degree in the field.
In any case, critique his position, not his credentials. That's how you "engage in serious economic debate."


Wow, commenters seem to be grossly missing the point: Mr. Posner is mischaracterizing other people's (e.g. Mrs. Romer's) points of view. Disagreeing with current macroeconomic theory and having opposing view points is fine, but if you're going to debate someone, you shouldn't say that they said something which, in fact, they did not...


"Yes, this is the same Judge Posner who has never, as far as I can tell, received any training in macroeconomics."

Without commenting on Posner's article specifically, I don't know that a lack of macroeconomics training is necessarily a drawback. Those who are trained in it seem to rely on faulty models that simplify the complexities found in the real world to the point of being useless.



Wow....right over your head.



Did you really just blame economists for this recession. That's laughable.

And its obvious that your missing 8 years in economics but are fine with criticizing those who have it.