Economists Love to Hate on One Another

The “cage match,” as Levitt put it, between the likes of John Cochrane and Eugene Fama against economists like Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman, continues apace.

A recent New Yorker piece by John Cassidy, “After the Blowup” (gated), asks what it means to be a “Chicago school” economist at this moment in history, and to what degree Chicago-school economics may be responsible for the financial crisis.

Richard Posner, unsurprisingly, is the hero of the article. But Fama, as Cassidy notes, was “genial” in his dismissal of Posner’s analysis; and Fama’s “equanimity was unshaken” even when discussing Krugman’s fierce criticisms. “My attitude is this,” he said. “If you are getting attacked by Krugman, you must be doing something right.”

Is there any other academic field in which standard decorum is valued so low?

Eileen Wyatt

The reason there are multiple mystery novels about murders at the Modern Language Association convention is that English Ph.D.-holders are comparably lacking in decorum. However, since postmodern literary criticism is not suspected of having caused the collapse of the global economy, the in-fighting doesn't make the news so often.

Suzanne Delzio

Patricia Limerick's piece in the NYTimes book review a few years ago about why academics tend toward arrogance and pugilism applies. Of course, the business arena has its own gladiators. I'm just glad to be over 40 and made happy by gardening, 2 little kids and two little dogs.


Every discipline has in-fighting. That's because people aren't debating to get to the truth. Rather, they're involved in 'debate theater', with the sole intention of winning the contest. They aren't involved in a serious search for truth.
That's what all capitalism is about, Hobbes' 'war of all against all', even in academic "truth seeking" disciplines.

David Jones

Ad hominem attacks are a sure sign of complete bogosity in a (self-described) profession. See such works as the Lexicography of Musical Invective.

In other words, economists are just mountebanks, poseurs, phonies. This confirms it.

John K

I don't think "academic" has anything to do with it. There are here basic ideological issues which get worked out through various theoretical and interpretative strategies--the math being mere math, after all, and all data requiring modeling. This doesn't make everything "equal" in a vulgar relativist sense. It means that there's no easy separation of theory and ideology, nor fact and value, in economics; it is a value-laden science relying on many bounding realities of human cognition and history. This can reduce to "gotcha" in a puerile way, but is better thought of as a dimension of economic theory which all have to deal with wisely-- meaning producers and consumers of theory alike. Caveat lector!

A guy

Krugman is a fraud. If you want a real economists that have predicted this collapse, and can forecast other coming economic Armageddons, listen to Peter Schiff and other Austrians.

Garrett Pendergast

An economist friend at a samll univerity in the midwest suggested that "The achedemic wars were so fierce because the fruits were so small".

Yes, Political Science.


Chad Bergeron

There are some pretty well known rivalries at the WWF's School of Hard Knocks. Admittedly not an accredited institution, but one of the few places where you'll see such deliberately crafted, published, and publicized rivalries. In both cases it serves to promote the names of the participants and to sell seats, either arena or lecture hall.


The real reason for infighting among economists is that economics is such an imprecise subject. It is just too complex, so any model that is made has flaws. Even in hind-sight, there isn't any consensus about what caused certain events. Therefore, since each economist presents their own economic model, they want to bash the other's economic model as flawed, even though theirs is likely flawed as well.


Economists like to think of their field as being based on scientific standards, but when it comes to the economy as a whole it is difficult to recreate situations and perform repeatable experiments with accurate verifiable results.

Economists can perform statistical analysis after the fact to find out how a shit in production or policy affected the economy, but without access to an alternate reality it is hard to recreate the same scenario with a control group.

This lack of hard, verifiable science creates a void of consensus in economics that does not occur in other real sciences. This void is filled with ideology, partisanship, and corporate profiteering. As fundamentalist religion divides people as does economic theology.


Actually, I think what we are seeing is good for economics.

Fama made some pretty elementary errors in talking about macroeconomics during the crisis - errors that a good undergraduate would not make (mistaking the the savings-investment identity for a law, for example) - and Krugman called him on those errors.

And what else could Krugman do? Should he just pretend that Fama hadn't embarrassed himself and look the other way??

I agree that Krugman can sometimes seem harsh in his comments, and it must sting to be caught in his sights, but I'll take an honest Paul Krugman over a host of lesser but possibly more polite public intellectuals any day.


Gene Fama mentioned in another related link that references how academic debate should occur:


During a May-day parade in Moscow in Stalin times the podium was packed with foreign dignataries.The parade of course consisted in showing the full power of the russian armed forces which was impresive enough,the only eye catching detail was that at the tail end of the gigantic parade was a full batalion of black suited man with white shirts,ties, a very bussines like attire and each one of them carryng an attache case.One othe visitors very surprised by the spectacle asked Stalin,Comrade ,what all that black dressed people are doing in the parade?,those Stalin answered all those fellows are economists and you my friend,you have no idea about all the damage these people can do.

Dr. Michael Jennings

As a "Chicago-school" economist educated at the University of Chicago I find this in-fighting and pettiness an affront to academic honesty and intellectual egalitarianism. Krugman, Cochrane, et al, have to realize that at the end of the day some people just like cucumbers better pickled.


Unfortunately for the big ego economists, and for the rest of us, the profession of economics is still in the middle ages/science fiction stage. This is not meant as an insult. It's just that there is too much unknowable data and science has not progressed as far as the academics think. These folks do us wrong by thinking their particular school of thought is correct and any opposing views deserve insults in various publications and blogs. The biggest impediment to progress these days is an unwillingness to admit their past may not be as glorious as they think. Hey guys, both sides still have a lot to learn!


After careful analysis of the matter, I am convinced it is simply the case of all these guys having a crush on each other. Kind of like dipping a girls pigtails in the ink.

ray bans on my face

David Jones and Doug-
Ad hominem attacks do not imply that a study is bogus; they imply information about a person's character and what information they have obtained. I can see a non-economist, perhaps a political scientist being unable to make such a distinction. Try this: Spend some time in an engineering firm and you'll hear engineers argue about how a structure should be built, even though they have all received the same education. The same thing applies here.

For all those that call out the weaknesses and imperfections of economics, keep in mind that economists are taught to realize and acknowledge the weaknesses in the work they present. You're not pointing out anything new. Economists have known about economics' weaknesses for as long as the study has been around. Need an example in writing? Try reading an economic working paper sometime.

I have noticed that the majority of comments on the Freakonomics website (an economics website!) come from people that display little or no knowledge of economics. Huh, weird. I guess we could all just dismiss the study of economics, and go back to the way things used to be without it, leaving society looking like a communist state.


Ben C

The meat grinder of graduate economics training toughens skins and promotes the believe that rigor and brutal honesty are necessary for scientific achievement. Unlike the physical sciences, we do not have the luxury of definitive experiments to resolve our disputes. Now civilized, I have kept a latent distain for professionalism, and polite silence, under my suit and tie. I recognize that the outward disharmony distracts the untrained public, like children watching their parents argue over money. We still love each other.


As an academic librarian I can say decorum is lacking in disciplines across academia. Professors see the university system as revolving around them and, thus, anything they say or want should be be acquiesced to. Demand that the library should babysit their kids? Produce a resource that the library has not had in years, and is freely available online? Teach thirty of your students research skills without notice? Many professors simply do not understand "no", so it is no surprise they cannot debate amicably.