Kevin Williamson | Paul Krugman’s Pretense of Economic Knowledge

Kevin Williamson, National Review:

There are some very hot disagreements in the sciences, such as the dispute over the question of measurement in quantum mechanics; however that gets sorted out, it seems likely that conscience will play at most a minor role in it.

The intellectual vices of economics and other social science are well-known: correlation-causality errors, confirmation bias, etc. Without giving in to the pretense of knowledge, we could do with a little less conscience and a bit more cold-eyed analysis — assuming that such a thing is in fact possible. Economists have never in all their endeavors managed to deliver a truly useful and broadly applicable model to policymakers, which is to say a model that is prospective, connecting policy changes to real-world outcomes in a predictable, accurate, and reliable manner. Given the complexity at work, that probably is an impossible task, and the record of economists for making predictions is not good; Krugman’s record is arguably worse than average, despite his straight-faced insistence: “I (and those of like mind) have been right about everything.” Right about everything would be a very high standard for a marine biologist or an astronomer — but for an economist?

Policymakers should probably resign themselves to the reality that even the best economists are not able to give them very much useful advice, that they are still hostage to Paul Valéry’s conundrum: “Everything simple is false. Everything complex is unusable.” The pretense of knowledge, and the empiricist posture that characterizes so much of the current policy debate, is at root a refusal to deal with the real complexity of modern life, a prideful inability to admit that modest things such as the rule of law and discipline in public finances may be the best that we can do. Every time we are forced to endure a State of the Union address, the president thrillingly declares that he will use his powers to remake economic realities or to simply will new industries into existence. And he can usually find a dozen economists in good standing to assure us that this time, things will go according to plan.

Why didn’t it go according to plan last time? Often, the answer is, “Because the president’s advisers listened to economists from the wrong school,” i.e. “heresy.”


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