What are US economists going to do in Trump era?

The world of US economists post Trump can be summed in two words – reality check.

Justin Fox has a nice piece summarising the key thoughts and sessions at the annual American Economic Association meeting:

I’m going to leave aside for today the question of whether ignoring credentialed experts is a good idea (it is something I’ve written about before and surely will again). What was most fascinating to watch over the weekend was how these experts are reacting to the prospect of being ignored.

Economists’ influence has been on the rise in Washington for decades, with economics Ph.D.s more or less taking over the Federal Reserve System and playing increasingly important roles everywhere from the Federal Communications Commission to the Treasury Department to the White House. This has been a bipartisan phenomenon: Economics professors, like just about every kind of professors, do tend to vote Democratic, but their leanings are much less pronounced than those of other social science disciplines, and many of the field’s most revered and influential practitioners have been outspoken conservatives.

Under Trump, this rise of the economists seems to have halted. Navarro teaches at a respectable school, has a doctorate from an elite one (Harvard University), and spent the early part of his career writing articles for academic journals on topics such as charitable giving and energy regulation. But he’s going to Washington on the strength of popular writings (and a documentary film) on trade with China that are way out of the academic mainstream. Meanwhile, Trump’s choice for CEA chairman — a job usually held by a distinguished professor that has only once before gone to someone without a doctorate (Alan Greenspan, who got his Ph.D. not long after his stint in the Gerald Ford White House) — is a guy with only a bachelor’s degree who, while he has held jobs with “economist” in the title in the past, has spent most of the past decade and a half as a television host.

So what are academic economists going to do?

There are a few suggestions like wait for Trump era to get over, learn to communicate better and so on.

In the end he reports about a session on privilege of American economists:

But the most instructive session along these lines may have been the one on “merit and privilege in economics,” in which several economists and historians — Andrej Svorencik of the University of Mannheim was the apparent ringleader — documented the dominance of a few economics departments. Of the 537 people who have held American Economic Association office since 1950, for example, 51.1 percent got their doctorates at the University of Chicago, Columbia, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (with Columbia fading after 1981, and MIT graduates becoming the most common). One-third of the members of the Council of Economic Advisers have had doctorates from MIT. And so on.

Elite-level economics isn’t a closed club. Top Ph.D. programs take in students from all over, and MIT rose from nowhere (it awarded its first economics Ph.D. in 1944) to No. 1 in a few decades. But it has become a quite exclusive club, with clear prerequisites (you’ve got to be good at math) and codes of behavior.

A few decades ago the field was still divided among “multiple traditions and multiple methodologies,” lamented Middlebury College’s David Colander. Now, “everyone uses the same methodology.”

Economics, in other words, has become — at least compared with other social sciences — a smoothly functioning technocracy. In a world that seems to be revolting against the technocrats, that might not be the best thing to be.


It has been a while and time for the circle to reverse now.



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