Why Are Some Economists Being So Awful Right Now? Part 1

by Neil H. Buchanan

Economists are not epidemiologists, but some economists are acting as if they know more about epidemiology than epidemiologists do.  What explains this misplaced arrogance -- an arrogance with deadly consequences?

Last June, the title of one of my columns asked, "Is Economics the Problem, Or Is It the Economists?"  There, I was responding to a complaint that I had heard over the years to the effect that I have unfairly disparaged decent people who happen to be economists but who are not guilty of using the efficiency trope in an intellectually dishonest way (which, to be clear, is the only way that the efficiency trope can be used).

I wrote: "Am I saying, in blunt terms, that economics sucks or that economists suck?  It could be both, actually, and too often economists truly are guilty of intellectual dishonesty.  Ultimately, however, it is the disembodied field itself that is the problem."  I then described the surprising ability of the incoherent notion of efficiency to reassert itself even when it can seem as though almost no one is defending it.

All of that was well and good, I suppose, and it was largely a matter of making it clear that my objection to economics as an academic field was not a general personal attack on economists as a group.  But it also most definitely was not an acquittal of every economist.

No one could have known last summer, of course, what was to come in 2020.  But it might be fair to say that a person who did know that the pandemic was coming would also have known that some -- some -- economists would figure out how to be distinctly horrible in responding to it.  But why?  Why are some economists being this way?

Before answering that question, we need to consider the threshold question: Who is an economist?  Is a person not an economist unless he (overwhelmingly he) holds a Ph.D. from an economics department?  That cannot be right.  Almost everyone thinks of NYU Law professor Richard Epstein as an economist, yet he holds no such degree.  (He does apparently hold an honorary doctorate in something from the University of Ghent.)

Indeed, many people who trawl the waters of the law-and-economics movement view themselves as economists, even though few hold the standard professional credential.  Because of that, I will content myself with saying that some scholars and policy types can fairly be called economists of this sort because they are committed to promoting the idea that "rigorous economic reasoning" is superior to what they think of as soft non-economic reasoning.

In any case, I should note that Paul Krugman, the most decorated economist of this or any other generation, had this to say about the phenomenon of economists attacking epidemiologists:  "Serious economists know what they don’t know — they recognize and respect experts from other disciplines."  The modifier "serious" is doing a lot of work there, but because Krugman was at that point attacking Donald Trump's top economist (trade crank Peter Navarro), the distinction between serious and unserious was appropriate and targeted.

Krugman then added: "A survey of economists found almost unanimous support for 'tolerating a very large contraction in economic activity until the spread of infections has dropped significantly.'"  It is the "almost" part of that statement that interests me.  That is, it is heartening that the vast majority of economists are not being dangerous lunatics about the pandemic, but it might also be important to understand why (and how) the small minority are being that way -- especially because that minority is given a lot of airplay.

Here on Dorf on Law, Professor Dorf has already commented (first on March 26 and then as part of a broader column a week ago) on the recent Epstein fail, in which Epstein claimed that the pandemic would take no more than 500 lives, later revised up to 5000, even without social distancing.  In the latter column, he noted Epstein's laughable (if the stakes were not so high) response to The New Yorker's Isaac Chotiner, which included Epstein's throwing down this pathetic gauntlet: "Would you like to compare your resume to mine?"  The next response (not included in Professor Dorf's column) captures something important.  Chotiner declines the invitation to compare resumes, and Epstein responds:
"Then good. Then maybe what you want to do is to say, 'Gee, I’m not quite sure that this is right. I’m going to check with somebody else.' But, you want to come at me hard, I am going to come back harder at you. And then if I can’t jam my fingers down your throat, then I am not worth it. But you have basically gone over the line. If you want to ask questions, ask questions. I put forward a model. But a little bit of respect."
The fragile intellectual ego here is on full display.  As I have noted in many places over the years, people who view themselves as economists defend their manliness by contrasting mere "sociological" musings from supposedly rigorous economics.  But Chotiner is not even a sociologist!  He is simply smart enough to see through the nonsense in Epstein's argument, and Epstein cannot stand it.  (Aside: "... if I can't jam my fingers down your throat, then I am not worth it."  WTF?)

A quick check of my writings on Dorf on Law would, I have no doubt, turn up dozens of examples of my disparaging the work of journalists, including claims that they do not know what they are talking about.  But that is not about mere credentialism.  Some journalists say informed things about topics that I know about, and some economists say foolish things on those topics.  It is when journalists say foolish things that I call them out for the foolishness, not for being journalists.

And as a mirror image of Chotiner's "I'm not even an economist, but somehow I figured this out," my writings often take this approach: "I'm pretty sure that journalists are supposed to do X, but this journalist is doing not-X, and even I can see through it."  It is not about the credential but the ideas.  Maybe "a little bit of respect" is called for, but not in the face of dangerous error.

What is especially odd about this is that Epstein is all about credentials but is willing to claim to know more than the people with relevant credentials.  And this is where another biggish name in the right-wing econosphere comes in.  George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen recently published this:
"I have a few rude questions that nobody else seems willing to ask, and I genuinely do not know the answers to these:

"a. As a class of scientists, how much are epidemiologists paid? Is good or bad news better for their salaries?

"b. How smart are they? What are their average GRE scores?

"c. Are they hired into thick, liquid academic and institutional markets? And how meritocratic are those markets?"
Having set himself the task of contradicting the overwhelming consensus in a scientific field, Epstein simply said, "I put forward a model," and he freaked out when someone said that his model generated nonsense.  Cowen, by contrast, decided to attack epidemiologists themselves.  Question (a) actually contains two ad hominem attacks: (1) If these guys aren't paid very well, how smart can they be? and (2) Maybe they have no intellectual integrity and are instead saying what will make them rich.

But it gets worse, because (b) and (c) essentially say (in the form of rhetorical questions): "Hey, maybe any dope can get a Ph.D. and a job in epidemiology."  That he uses GRE scores as a proxy for "smart" is hardly a surprise for someone displaying this kind of arrogance, but the suggestion that the "market" for epidemiologists might be too imperfect to generate meritocratic outcomes is hilarious in its own way.  Here is a habitual defender of free markets immediately jumping to: "Well, not all markets are perfect.  The top epidemiologists in the world might merely be the beneficiaries of market failure."

As I recently wrote, there is an overwhelming "nerd macho" culture among certain economists and econo-wannabes.  The Epstein and Cowen moves -- which amount to different versions of, "We're not just smart about what we're smart about, but our smarts are universally applicable and supersede others' supposed expertise" -- are actually not uncommon with this crowd.

At an earlier stop in my academic career, for example, I had a colleague (whom I will call X) who was good at mathematics and evidently considered himself a self-taught economist.  When a candidate for an opening as a tax professor arose, X disparaged the candidate's work, even though that work was neither about economics nor about X's actual fields of expertise.  Why?  Because X thought that he also knew more about tax law, which is "like economics."

Did it matter that the candidate in question had a file with glowing recommendations from many of the top people in tax law?  Not at all.  But what was most shocking was that X did not say something like this: "I know that this candidate looks strong on our usual metrics, but let me explain why I find her/his work problematic."  Instead, X stood up in a faculty meeting and actually said, "This case is a no-brainer, because her/his papers are obviously no good."

I should say that I affirmatively like the fact that law faculties have no formal departments and that we all vote on faculty hiring decisions, even outside of our fields.  But with great power comes great responsibility, most prominently showing at least a smidgen of modesty and a willingness to "stay in your lane."

But that is what the likes of Peter Navarro, Richard Epstein, Tyler Cowen, and others cannot abide.  They are smart, they tell us (and themselves), and that means that their views are deserving of more respect than others' -- even when they are veering into life-and-death matters about which they know essentially nothing.

Because there is more than a touch of contrarianism built into this "I'm smarter than all you so-called experts" attitude, we see efforts to respond to scientific consensus not by being merely skeptical (in the good sense) but by jerking their knees in disagreement.  Seatbelts save lives, you say?  Nuh-uh, because people will drive more recklesslyThe climate is changing?  Nope, I can do math, and the models are not 100% bulletproof.  Epidemiologists all agree on something that I don't like?  They probably had low PSAT scores in the 11th Grade.

The answer to the question posed by the title of this column -- "Why Are Some Economists Being So Awful Right Now?" -- is actually rather simple.  Those economists are always awful, but we are now more aware of it because the stakes are higher than ever.  The tragedy is that they are given platforms to pollute the public debate, feeding the disinformation machine that drives Trump's disastrous decisions.