"Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." - Hebrews 11:1Empirical economics is taking over the profession. It's very hard to make it in the field these days without doing a hefty amount of empirical work. Lots of job market papers are still theory papers (cough! signaling! cough!), but the number of economists who can make it as pure theorists is shrinking to a rarefied, brilliant sliver.I see that as a very good thing. That's what natural science looks like - a small number of theory papers, supported by a very large base of applied theory and empirical work. It's the sign of a mature field. I also think it's going to be very important in helping the economics profession recapture some of the public respect that it's lost over the last decade.
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- Hebrews 11:1
Empirical economics is taking over the profession. It's very hard to make it in the field these days without doing a hefty amount of empirical work. Lots of job market papers are still theory papers (cough! signaling! cough!), but the number of economists who can make it as pure theorists is shrinking to a rarefied, brilliant sliver.
I see that as a very good thing. That's what natural science looks like - a small number of theory papers, supported by a very large base of applied theory and empirical work. It's the sign of a mature field. I also think it's going to be very important in helping the economics profession recapture some of the public respect that it's lost over the last decade. When people start to see economists as fact-driven scientists grounded in observable reality, rather than mathematical philosophers dispensing Olympian received wisdom, the profession will lose much of its accumulated stigma. And almost every young economist I talk to thinks the same - everyone's excited about new data sources. The kids these days seem to want to know facts about the world, instead of just "organizing their thinking" with models. The future looks bright.
But not everyone is on board. A few older folks, who grew up during econ's Age of Theory, are not so happy about the change. One of these is Russ Roberts, host of the excellent podcast EconTalk. In a recent blog post, Russ explains at length why he thinks the new empirical economics is overrated:
A lot of professional economists...will tell you how many jobs will be lost because of an increase in the minimum wage or that an increase in the minimum wage will create jobs. They will tell you how many jobs have been lost because of increased trade with China and the amount that wages fell for workers with a particular level of education because of that trade...
[T]here is no simple way to resolve differences in analysis done by professional economists...[T]there is no way of knowing reliably if the consensus reflects the truth...Most economics claims are really not verifiable or replicable...
I am arguing that the math and science of economic predictions and assessments are nothing like the math and science of space travel. Economics provides the illusion of science, the veneer of mathematical certainty...He even goes further, and says that empirical economics isn't even really economics at all:
[M]ost of the people I am talking about are not economists. They are really applied statisticians. Economics is primarily a way of organizing one’s thinking in considering incentives and costs and the interactions between individuals that we call a market but is really emergent behavior with feedback loops.Adam Ozimek has a patient and reasonable response to Russ, noting that even when empirical economics doesn't settle questions definitively or provide reliable point estimates, it narrows the scope of debate and rules out obvious wrong answers. That's certainly true. But I want to go further than Adam. The alternative to empiricism in economics is not agnostic humility, but intuitionism - the idea that we can know about the world by thinking about how it works, and that exposure to evidence will only pollute the truths that we divine from our own minds. And that's something I think economists need to avoid.
Consider the minimum wage issue. Suppose that a city like Seattle is considering hiking the minimum wage. How can we - economists, policymakers, and the general public - predict what the effect of the hike will be?
One approach would be to use theory. Basic Econ 101 labor supply-and-demand theory tells us that the effect will depend on the elasticities of labor supply and demand, which have to be estimated empirically. An economic geography theory might predict that the effect will be overcome by the strength of agglomeration effects, and therefore small. A search theory might predict that search frictions will preclude any sort of large short-term effect in labor markets.
How about stylized facts? Russ says that stylized facts are the only things that economists can really "know":
It is useful to know that 40% of the American work force was in agriculture in 1900 and now the number is 2%. It is useful to understand that that transition (which was most faster in the first half of the 20th century than the last half) did not lead to mass unemployment and starvation. There are indeed roughly 5 million fewer manufacturing jobs today than in 2000.OK. So what do the stylized facts tell us about the minimum wage? Well, they tell us that places that raise the minimum wage don't tend to lose jobs. Look throughout American history. You won't find any cases where there was a big minimum wage hike and the unemployment rate soared. If we rely on stylized facts rather than careful controls and natural experiments, we'd conclude, as minimum wage proponents do, that the minimum wage isn't dangerous.
We economists should be more humble and honest about the reliability and precision of statistical analysis.
[L]et's call [Russ' attitude] Hayekian humility. This is the hardest one for so many economists to admit, as we all like to play central planner.
[A]n economist when considering a policy of banning autonomous vehicles...would think about...how such a ban will effect the incentives to discover future innovation that might also people out of work. We would think about how putting more power in Washington would encourage lobbying for protection...These ideas are not rocket science. But they come easily to economists and not so easily to non-economists. Thinking like an economist is very useful.
Is Rothwell correct? I have no idea. Here is what I do know. There is likely to no way of knowing which view is correct with anything close to reliability or certainty.