Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Reporter anthropologizes about economists 

I like reading about economists, but unfortunately that often means I have to view them filtered through the eyes of reporters. So this article is driving me nuts. It describes two DC policy economists, both pretty smart guys, one more liberal than the other and working at policy shops that fit their place on the spectrum. Which leads the reporter to write dreck like this:
Economists are as plentiful in Washington as gators in the Everglades. This is the great swamp of statistics, the place where raw data is assembled, processed and analyzed for the purpose of creating rational economic policies. Statistics become ammunition in partisan wars. Each side accuses the other of using old, deceptive or irrelevant numbers. It would be easy for a citizen to decide that no one is telling the truth, that it's all just a game. But at the core, there's a legitimate debate about the interplay between the government and the private sector.

No, that's not really it at all, most of the time. We all look for better data, of course, for the survey nobody else has that has asked just the right questions of just the right people. But the nature of economic observation is such that two people can see the same data and arrive at different conclusions. We don't get pure data -- it's always grabbed "in the wild" and encrusted with a thousand influences the likes of which we do not know and only imperfectly control for. And that's far more often the argument than this "legitimate debate" nonsense.
...today's economists have to keep an eye on the rest of the world. Indeed, to a remarkable degree the morning's conversation keeps veering into questions about foreign economies. The economies of nations are now inextricably linked. As jobs are outsourced to places like India and China, American workers often are thrown into unemployment.
Has the writer ever bothered to read The Wealth of Nations? It wasn't all about England, you silly twit.
Indeed there's a good reason economics is called the dismal science: No one is really sure of anything. Most of the statistical measurements of the economy were devised in an earlier, simpler era, pre-globalization, when you really could get a pretty good sense of the country by looking at, say, durable goods orders.
By the time GDP (actually, GNP, but I won't bore you with that) was established in the 1940s -- and with it all the measurements the writer now inveighs against -- we were already globalized. Bretton Woods was already three years old, and the IMF and World Bank it created had taken form.

I'm not sure of anything except that you are a dismal writer.

There is also a telling lesson, that maybe does show us the difference between the liberal economist speaking here to the conservative economist:
"You have a real faith that the truth will out," he says to Hassett. "I'm not as optimistic as you are."

Not optimistic in the power of truth -- is that what defines a leftist? I hope not.