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Heterodoxy Redux

May 30th, 2007 · No Comments

I think Ezra hits an important point vis a vis Chris Hayes’ piece on neoclassical and “heterodox” economists: In academic journals and whatnot, mainstream economists are perfectly willing to incorporate good ideas from “heterodox” researchers. When they’re writing op-eds and policy papers, they hew to a simpler “trade is good” line. One of Ezra’s commenters sums it up this way:

[T]here is this idea that “the public” can’t be trusted with a subtle argument and therefore the old “classical” verities, which are often counter-intuitive, need to be emphasized even though [economists] understand their limitations.”

This sounds vaguely sinister and elitist, but I think this is something that pretty universally happens when scholars try to popularize academic work. No 800-word opinion squib is going to substitute for several years of intensive training in a subject; nuance is inevitably going to get lost. If the general public already understood the basic case for trade, it might make perfect sense to spin out pop pieces drawing attention to the caveats and downsides. But if they don’t, and if the net effects of trade are still hugely positive, then it’s easy to see why this might be regarded as, at best, misleading. It’s nice to know about the health benefits of moderate wine consumption, but it’s probably not a great idea to focus intensively on this before an audience of habitual binge drinkers. To the extent that the sort of anger and animosity from neoclassical economists Hayes reports on is real, I’m guessing it has very little to do with an unwillingness to consider how neuroeconomics might add helpful nuance to economic models, and a great deal to do with a sense that people with leftish political sympathies are trying to make hay out of all the caveats while downplaying the general truth to which they’re caveats. Tyler Cowen and many others have more discussion at the TPM Cafe Book Club.

Tags: Economics