In a way this is a rather trivial post, about language and attitudes as much as anything, that follows from some of the reaction to this post and related debates. One big difference between most (not all) mainstream economists compared to their heterodox or other social science colleagues is insularity. Political scientists will talk to sociologists who in turn talk to international relations people as a matter of routine. Economists by and large talk to each other. This is not because their subject matter is narrow - economists are notorious for applying their tools way beyond economics.
Most of the time I think that is fine, but sometimes it is not. How do we deal with the times that are not? I want you - as either an economist or social scientist or interested spectator - to think about a visit to your doctor. Why? Because economists should really think of themselves like doctors. (I know some want to think of themselves as physicists, but what can we do.) They are trying to understand highly complex and erratic systems based on a small number of principles, where most of the time they have very little idea of what is going on. But they have data, and some of the time they can make a lot of difference to people’s lives.
Now supposing your doctor prescribes you a course of treatment. It involves drugs that you have read a little about, and you have some concerns. If you were a social scientist would you say to your GP something like the following:
“I’m a little worried about this. I feel that you may not have adequately addressed the ontological and epistemological issues that are raised here. What exactly is ‘treatment’, and when is it necessary? Have you thought about the complex social and economic interrelationships that lay behind your prescription? Is the nature of what you call ‘illness’ really independent of the nexus of interactions that could be loosely called the medical profession?”
I kind of hope you wouldn’t, because I do not think you would get very far if you did. You might be much better off asking something like the following.
“I’m a little worried about this. Have you thought about whether this treatment is appropriate to my particular circumstances (HT Ben Goldacre), or are you reacting to pressure from the drug company or someone else? Has that company published all its trial data, or only the trials that were successful, and how was success defined in this case. Is this really going to make me better, or just increase someone’s profits?”
It is a simple and obvious (I did say trivial) point - you will get much further if you talk specifics in a language your doctor will understand, rather than in generalities and terminology they will not. Economists want (or need) to know why their approach is missing key issues or linkages which compromise their analysis, just as the doctor needs to know why they might be recommending the wrong treatment. You would not insist that your doctor needed to have studied economics before they can be a good doctor.
But if you were an economist, would you think it legitimate for your GP to respond like this.
“How inappropriate of you to ask me these questions. I’m a doctor, and I know from my years of knowledge and experience what is the right treatment for you. As you cannot know what I know, then you should not get involved in these issues. Some of the things you mention are really none of my business, and I do not see why I should worry about them.”
Now as an economist you know that such a response from your doctor would be both arrogant and naive. The doctor should ask about the quality and objectivity of the information they receive, and know full well that drug companies exist to make money. But might your response to a social scientist be as arrogant and naive?
Let me take a real world economic problem: the response to the financial crisis. Some have suggested that banks have become too large and need to be broken up, or that the activities of high street banking need to be separated from the activities of the casino. Your economic analysis tells you that networks of many small entities can be as subject to crises as networks involving a few large banks. You are also able to devise a system of Chinese walls that mean that the activities of the casino can be separated from those of the high street even within the same company, and your political masters seem to prefer this approach. You recognise that different assets differ in their liquidity, and so you devise complex weighting algorithms for computing capital ratios. Your suggestions form the basis of negotiations between officials and bankers, and a set of rules and regulations are agreed.
Over the next few years you watch in dismay as your complex system begins to unravel. The CEOs of the large banks seem to constantly have the ear of politicians, who in turn gradually compromise your elaborate controls to render them less and less effective. Those in charge of administering the rules find it much more lucrative to work for the banks, and so regulators gradually lose expertise and resolve.
And you realise that right from the start you made the wrong choice. You decided to focus on what you knew, which was how to design systems that worked well as long as those systems remained unchanged, but which were not robust to intervention by self-interested parties. In short, they were too open to rent-seeking. You realise that actually the best thing to have done was to break up the banks so that their political power was forever diminished. And you recall a conversation with your social science colleague when this all started, who might have been trying to tell you this if only you had understood the words he was using.