Professor Gerard recently wrote about the views of Schumpeter and Stigler on Intellectuals. In the paper he cites, Stigler wonders why Intellectuals hate economics, and considers the possibility that our extremely technical field and extremely poor communication style might have something to do with it:
Less than a century ago a treatise on economics began with a sentence such as, “Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.” Today it will often begin: “This un- avoidably lengthy treatise is devoted to an examination of an economy in which the sec- ond derivatives of the utility function possess a finite number of discontinuities. To keep the problem manageable, I assume that each individual consumes only two goods, and dies after one Robertsonian week. Only elementary mathematical tools such as topology will be employed, incessantly.” (Stigler: The Intellectual and the Market Place)
A paper I looked at recently reminded me of another reason why many Intellectuals look askance at us economists: the long and solid tradition of “economic imperialism.” That is, the tendency of a number of economists to think that our economist’s toolbox can be (and should be!) used to explain just about anything that reasonably falls under the heading “social science.” The paper I referred to is Well-Being Over Time in Britain and the USA by David Blanchflower, and the abstract includes this:
Money buys happiness. People care also about relative income. Wellbeing is U-shaped in age. The paper estimates the dollar values of events like unemployment and divorce. They are large. A lasting marriage (compared to widow-hood as a ‘natural’ experiment), for example, is estimated to be worth $100,000 a year.
I agree that research on happiness is very much relevant to economics, but I can just see a psychologist or a sociologist or a humanist read that and not know whether to laugh or to cry. (And what’s up with talking like Tarzan?) Blanchflower looks at survey data (essentially asking people whether they are happy or not) over the past few decades and then runs a bunch of regressions. There is nothing wrong with that, except for a dozen issues that cast doubt on the conclusions and that have probably been the subjects of extensive research in psychology, sociology, history, and maybe even economics. Without passing judgment on Blanchflower (about whom I know nothing), I am pretty confident in saying that a number of papers in economists have been guilty of applying economic tools to broader problems without bothering to understand the broader literature (you know, what those “soft” social scientists write).