Hating Economists

A few years ago at an interdisciplinary conference I met an English professor and, in a spunky mood, asked "So why do you guys hate us economists?"  I fully expected to hear "Oh we don’t hate you, though we do think you mistaken about …"  But in fact he said "You know why."  I have since received similar reactions from other academics, sometimes in their words but more often in their eyes – their dislike for economics goes way beyond the disrespect implied by a differing opinion.  Many quite openly despise economics and economists. 

So why aren’t such expressions considered hate speech?  Remember, Wikipedia says hate speech is:

Speech intended to degrade, intimidate, or incite violence or prejudicial action against a person or group of people based on their race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, language ability, moral or political views, socioeconomic class, occupation or appearance (such as height, weight, and hair color), mental capacity and any other distinction-liability. [emphasis added]

Certainly in this case, and perhaps in most cases, I’d rather the conversation continue, even when hateful, than to just shut everyone up.  I would love to sit down with smart economics haters and talk it out.

Added: When someone complains about being subject to "hate speech", the usual response is not to explain to them why people could have come to hate them.  So why the different treatment when an economist complains? 

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  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    So why aren’t such expressions considered hate speech?

    Because ‘hate speech’ has little to do with the definition provided; it’s essentially a weapon that socially-powerful groups that are considered to be ‘oppressed’ can wield against others.

    Its meaning has been almost completely corrupted, in the same way that ‘racism’ is being corrupted.

  • http://mulderreport.blogspot.com Cameron

    Economist do tend to have opinions and research in areas that other fields tend to feel are there own.

    This might be called the “freakenomics” factor of Economics reaching into everything in life.

    Also Economist run the world. So, It is a bit like hating Free Masons.

  • http://drchip.wordpress.com/ retired urologist

    Economists reduce the world to numbers, an entity without emotion. One cannot argue successfully against numbers, except by using other numbers, a skill most non-economists do not possess. Hence, we may have an economist’s analysis of the value of glamorous species widely differing from that of the environmentalists, whose emotion-based opinions are crushed by the economists’ ninja math skills. Disagreement=disrespect, in such a case.

    Economists delve into the “value” of almost every aspect of life. Considering that even the very rationalist methods of economists reflect self-serving biases (and this post’s author has said:”Elite academics, including economists, seem to me to display a huge status-quo bias”), perhaps the academics mentioned (and others) would be assuaged by a comprehensive study entitled “The Value of Economists”, much like the Rand experiment. Perhaps it’s already available, and I simply could not find it on Google.

  • http://www.dloye.com/myblog/bBlog-0.7.4.tar/blog/ dloye

    My opinion is only an opinion, and lines up with retired urologist. When you want to know what’s really happening in a lot of areas of life, you “follow the money.” Economists have the skills to just that, which makes them particularly threatening. Bullshit biases that we want to maintain are under threat by hard numerical data. Think I’ll just glower and disrespect, rather than actually engage and perhaps see biases that I prefer not to recognize. Economists are a threatening breed. They have tools to excavate toward truth. Do we want to see it?

  • thephantomofgreenspan

    they don’t hate economists, they despise them simply because don’t bring anything to the game and quite frankly the intelligence level is quite low on average. real life is not like economic models. at all. you constructed a closed form world where you can apply math to solve problems with zero forecasting power in the real world. and last but not least, the blatant lies. case in point http://www.econbrowser.com/archives/2008/09/shadowstats_deb.html. so to BLS economists hamburger for steak is substitution, but frozen yogurt for ice cream is not. go figure.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    To me the key cause for hatred of economists is that economists tend to focus on how we’re self-interested. I think we probably evolved as social animals to want to downplay our self-interested qualities and frame things in selfless terms, and economists tend to focus on the self-interested element more than your average person (I would guess).

    I imagine a similar revulsion to evolutionary psychological explanations exist, because those explanations similarly focus on genes acting ‘selfishly’. I’d guess it’s deeply threatening to us as social animals to be seen as ‘selfish’ because it might mean we’re in danger of being abandoned by our allies.

    Our hatred is a response much like anger. We react to a danger by feeling angry, which can cause us to fight the danger and increase our chances of survival. Economists arguments about selfishness trigger our feeling of threat and anger, and we attack them, in a similar way to how we’d respond with an attack on someone who just took a swing at us.

    So, to not trigger that response, maybe you’d want to approach the self-interest issue delicately, I think.

  • http://economiclogic.blogspot.com Economic Logician

    There are two reasons people hate economists: their jargon is sometimes unsettling, and they tend encroach into other fields, what I call Economics imperialism.

  • burger flipper

    “I’d rather the conversation continue, even when hateful, than to just shut everyone up.”

    Once the hackles are raised, what is the likelihood making headway? And if you fail to become exercised yourself, your equanimity will likely be taken as a sign of infuriating passive-aggression )signaling that you do not take the other party seriously.)

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    I had no idea that hatred of economists in general was so widespread. Can you give examples other than a single personal anecdote? Personally, I really hate some economics, and I make a hobby of mocking libertarians and related simpletons, but I wouldn’t call it hate. It’s a hate the sin, not the sinner sort of thing. I suppose I could work up some hate for economists who are willing to consort with evil politicians to get their policies implemented, like Milton Friedman.

    On the other hand, I have detected real hate going in the other direction — from technical people and economists towards cultural theorists, postmodernists, and ethnic studies departments. In these cases, the hate seems to arise from a combination of (often valid) intellectual critique coupled with resentment at the presumably undeserved high cultural status given to these pursuits.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I don’t see economists as particularly hated. Most people are fascinated by them. I don’t think economists are powerful enough to be hated for having power (like lawyers and politicans are), and I don’t think they’re deviantly politically incorrect enough or reductionist enough to be hated on that basis either (where’s the hatred of stand up comics for the former or applied mathematicians for the latter). I think the general mood towards economics is apathy, and towards economists is boredom. Which is too bad, because in my opinion the field is fascinating and important, and economists have a lot to offer to other fields of thought.

  • Alan Yeung

    Among rational thinkers, I don’t think there’s a particular “hate” for economists. There is a strong disdain, however, given that beyond simple applications of the basic concepts in micro and macroeconomics, the field has almost zero predictive capacity. This makes it fundamentally unscientific, fundamentally unreliable, and unappealing to rational thinkers.

    Despite this, economists insist on pushing their ideas as if they were fact (almost always ignoring the fundamental axioms behind their theories and plodding ahead applying them regardless of whether those axioms are satisfied) and inserting themselves into other fields where they cause as much damage as help.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/pan1982/ Pierre-André Noël

    I agree about the field-trespassing, everything-is-money and selfishness comments above, but I think that misinformation might also be part of the problem.

    As in any domain, those with the most extreme/strange/stupid views are the most visible. Some weeks ago, I viewed economics as pure profit maximization with no considerations for anything else. Production/consumption should increase at a steady or increasing rate, forever. Such a statement is clearly impossible for any rational mind and since economics rules our current world, we appear to be in very poor hands. This is revolting.

    I think that many people would be surprised by the following statistics (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economist):
    “A study in the Southern Economic Journal found that “71 percent of American economists believe the distribution of income in the US should be more equal, and 81 percent feel that the redistribution of income is a legitimate role for government.” In terms of political orientation 63% identified as progressive and less than 20% as conservative/libertarian with registered Democrats outnumbering registered Republicans 2.5:1.”

    I am currently reading through the archives of Overcoming Bias and although I was not always agreeing with them, I found most of the comments from Robin reasonable and insightful.

  • Josh

    Has anybody considered that they hate economists because they hate capitalism?

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    If you’d “love to sit down with smart economics haters and talk it out” I’m sure that can be arranged. Whether you do so will indicate where that love comes in your priorities.

    As with fundamentalists, and even racists, I don’t have a low opinion of all economists. But I do think the profession attracts people with certain biases, and helps them to maintain and extend those biases.

    The broadest characterization I can give of one such bias is a preference for tractability over realism. For example in the 1960s my father explained to me that economists didn’t know how to handle increasing returns to scale in their models, so they denied that increasing returns to scale were possible or significant. While that’s not strictly correct (historically) it is pretty accurate as an example of economist bias.

    This and related biases result in theoretically inclined economists supporting positions that are mathematically “cute” but empirically dubious at best.

    Another major bias in economics might be called “measurement bias” — economists focus on the things that are easy to measure reliably (and relatively cheaply). Money flows are relatively easy to measure, quality of life not so much.

    Another example that ties these together is the rejection of intersubjective utility comparison. Too bad that it is hard to find ways to model that, and that data on actual human preferences is messy. Deal with it.

    None of these would generate hate by themselves. They could be considered internal methodological issues in an evolving discipline, like the debates about cladistics in biology. The major factor which makes these biases dangerous and sometimes sources of hatred is that economist’s biases feed into political positions more than any other discipline. Anecdotal evidence indicates this is intentional in many cases — for example the story a year or so ago about Stieglitz (I think) being condemned by more “ideologically correct” economists for publicly questioning “free trade” policy.

    So when economists “didn’t believe” in increasing returns to scale, they contributed to social policy based on presumptions that the market success of large corporations was due to efficiency, not positive feedback from size. When “free market” economists helped to restructure the economy of Russia, they contributed to the premature deaths of probably millions of people. Etc.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    I think it is a tendency of people whose formative influences came predominantly from the humanities, and less from physics or mathematics, to view the world in a sort of naive fairy tale manner. In this fairy tale, we could “all get along, if only X”, “there’s enough food for everyone, if only we distributed it right”, “people just need proper nurturing”, and so on and so forth.

    These views, generally held by people who believe themselves altruistic, totally ignore the evolutionary fact of life that most people are not altruistic, as well as the fact that thinking you are altruistic doesn’t mean you are.

    We cannot generally have a fairy tale system that these people would like to have, unless we change the nature of the human being.

    What economists do is, they ignore the fairy tale; they break it to pieces; they use numbers to support policy proposals which humanities people perceive as harsh; most things that a rational and sensible economist would say about the world, violates the humanities people’s desire to live in a fairy tale.

    That’s why they hate.

    In my opinion, such a situation is almost completely the result of ignorance and delusion on the behalf of the haters.

    That fairy tale views exist predominantly among those in the arts and humanities, is something I draw from my personal experience. However, it can also be surmised from results of research such as this:

    Political Correctness by Discipline
    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/07/25/pc

  • michael vassar

    My guess is that most people, even most academics in the humanities, despise them as businesspeople, perhaps confusing them with accountants. This isn’t surprising. Businesspeople consider themselves to be experts in economics and the major business papers, such as the Wall Street Journal, frequently make the mercantilist assumptions that Adam Smith overthrew. Understanding of even the rudiments of the field, no, even of what the field studies, is extremely uncommon. To be fair, this is true of many other fields as well. Physics? It’s about how aligning with positive quantum energy fields can make you lucky!

  • Sunny Day

    I doubt the capitalism link because (academically) those in management and advertising aren’t considered in the same (disdainful) vein as economics, and these fields are associated with capitalistic behavior as well. Rather could the impression of economists be largely based upon the personalities of individuals in the field? In medicine, Surgeons are often disliked because they’re brusque, know-it-all’s. This is often engendered by the intense and often harsh training (which co-incidentally, also garners respect among non-surgeons). Economists are strongly analytic and (from personal experience) rather unforgiving of the lack of mathematical training on the part of non-economists. Couple this with a tendency to think that economics can explain everything as well as a general anti-social (i.e. must keep working/studying and have no life) trend and you’re bound to run into a few extreme individuals who create an unforgiving impression for non-economists. After all, certain fields drawn certain temperaments- why couldn’t this create the ‘don’t like economists’ trend?

  • http://fourthcheckraise.blogspot.com Ilkka Kokkarinen

    “When someone complains about being subject to “hate speech”, the usual response is not to explain to them why people could have come to hate them. So why the different treatment when an economist complains?”

    You know why.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Jed: those who disagree with economists and can provide arguments for their position, cannot hate economists without hating themselves. By engaging in an economic argument, one automatically takes on the role of an economist. If a minority economist disagrees with the majority of economists, he doesn’t hate economics.

    Those who really hate, dislike, are disgusted by economists – those people are also disgusted by economics, and don’t engage in economic discourse at all. Their counter-arguments to economic arguments do not attempt to show faults in the economic argument. Instead, their counter-arguments are generally an assortment of fallacies, ranging from appeals to pity to ad hominem and whatnot.

    Those who really hate economics as such, hate it because it relies on logic and numbers, and they don’t think that logic and numbers should be applied to people. They think that fairy tale thinking is what should be used.

  • http://drchip.wordpress.com/ retired urologist

    this first-hand-observation might give at least a clue.

  • Tom

    Those student comments were amusingly like outtakes from Molesworth, by the way.

  • John David Galt

    Wikipedia’s definition of hate speech (and that of most laws on the subject) are lumping two different things together.

    It should be OK, even if considered impolite, to mock, insult, denigrate, degrade, or disrespect people or things you disagree with. That’s freedom of debate.

    It should not be OK to do any of the things that are left if we strike the word “degrade” from Wikipedia’s definition. That’s bullying.

    The two concepts have become conflated in recent years because of hate-speech laws, which are really attempts to punish (and thus deter) bullying-by-means-of-speech but can’t really hit their target directly, because the US Bill of Rights (as currently interpreted) doesn’t allow courts to make reasonable inferences about whether a speaker intended to scare people.

    That needs to be fixed. I don’t know if it will take a constitutional amendment to do it. But as long as the law has this limitation, it is impossible to effectively stop Ku-Klux-Klan-style terrorism without also stopping speech that ought to be allowed.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    Some followup:

    Actually the word “hate” is the wrong one for my position. Perhaps there are people or professions I hate, but economists aren’t among them — and I suspect this holds true for most or all interesting “haters” of economics.

    The right term for me and I suspect most others is “disrespect”. I have low respect for the economics profession because I think it has supported bad internal norms. I have similar disrespect for (e.g.) behavior psychology during most of its hegemony over academic psychology — initially it made some useful contributions, but fairly quickly switched to unproductive defense of bad philosophy.

    But enough bashing. What would a respectable economics profession look like? At this point I can only answer by example. Economics should aspire to be like epidemiology. In many respects they are similar: they study complex social phenomena, they offer strong public policy recommendations, sometimes their policies are a matter of life and death for millions, they need to deal with governments and other large scale institutions, they use formal modeling as a key part of their work. But epidemiologists are respected because they are relatively humble, they care above all about the effects of their work on human lives, they typically subordinate theory to empirical testing, and so forth.

    I see no reason the economics profession could not take epidemiology as a model, reform themselves and become respectable.

    Aside: Denis Bider’s and to some extent Michael Vassar’s replies to my comment (among others) use fairly standard defenses of economics. I find their comments especially interesting because they consist of a series of unsubstantiated claims about what other people believe, and oddly enough those other people believe things that are obviously false and furthermore not worthy of respect. I suggest they provide empirical data.

    Also specifically in reply to Denis Bider’s comment that “counter-arguments to economic arguments do not attempt to show faults in the economic argument”: Many do, of course. But the most important arguments refer to real world consequences, such as the excess death rate in Russia after privatization, the current melt-down of the US financial system after deregulation, etc.

    If the economic profession wishes to be worthy of respect (like epidemiology, for example) it needs to seriously engage with major consequences like these, and consider questions such as “In what ways did we contribute to these bad outcomes?” “Could we have helped to prevent them?” “What aspects of our professional norms affect how we participate in such decisions?” Etc. I have not seen such discussions, if any have occurred I’d very much like references to them. I’m interested in what Bider and other defenders of economics say about the professional responsibility of economists in such cases.

  • http://www.clinttorres.com/ Clinton Torres

    Money and personal finance are taboo for society at large right now. Perhaps some perceived hatred is actually discomfort being expressed. I like dlove‘s and Mike Kenny‘s approach above, because I can imagine threatening and discomforting ideas causing a mixed-up expression of hatred.

    Many comments in this discussion express the exact derision and prejudice that Robin is addressing:
    4 comments focus on “territorial” complaints, without a single concrete example or analysis.
    4 are “because you’re dumb/unethical” comments, some are even direct unprovoked attacks.

    Of the sensitive and stressful issues we all deal with, money is often intimately tied to the issue at hand, and through guilt by association, perhaps we see economists telling us we should be doing better.

  • http://brian-jaress.livejournal.com/ Brian Jaress

    Despite the name, “I hate you” is not considered hate speech. I think the idea is that the speaker is trying to rally others against the target, encouraging them to share the hatred and act on it.

    I don’t hate economists, but I’ve noticed that economists seem especially susceptible to the cocktail party fallacy: “Everything is X. I know X. Therefore, I know everything.”

    The economists who actually manage our economy don’t seem to think that way, but it’s not uncommon among economists who talk to ordinary people. There was a wave of pop economics books a little while ago, and I picked up a couple — I thought the arrogance would burn my fingers off.

    I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here. My brother and sister have both studied economics without falling into that trap, and I remember liking a book that came before the wave called “Naked Economics.” But if I meet someone who “knows economics,” odds are they think themselves qualified to lecture me on anything and everything.

    All this is completely anecdotal, of course.

    Still, I think the field has built its own stereotype. People used to think of economists as dull, now they think of them as know-it-alls. I guess that’s more hateful to other academics.

  • Ping

    Brian (and others): I recently read Naked Economics. What do you find wrong or lacking about the book? Do you have any recommendations for reading material (online or in print) that deals with its shortcomings or offers a better perspective, in your opinion?

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Jed: I am not quoting evidence (besides the political correctness study article, which I linked to) because I am part of the evidence. I am talking from my personal experience. You want me to provide records of my personal experience?

    I mean my views to be taken as a data point, not as proof of something.

    If you want to conduct a study to shed light on what I wrote, please, be my guest.

    I am so annoyed by people who respond to opinions from personal experience (here explicitly qualified as such!) with accusations of “unsubstantiated claims”. Such accusations do not even show critical thinking. All they shows is a basic misunderstanding, and hostility in principle, to the view that is being expressed.

    With regard to economists and their responsibility, e.g. for what you describe as excess deaths in Russia in the 1990s: certainly if there was someone who was solicited for advice, and their advice was faulty, and it caused a catastrophe, they should feel responsible. But to the extent that a catastrophe is caused by politicians’ misapplication of economic principles, how is that the economists’ fault? Russia in the 1990s was being led by an inept, drunken president with manic depression. They opened up their markets without setting up solid institutions or rule of law. It is, in fact, largely due to the Russian evidence that we know now how important it is that free markets are combined with rule of law.

    The collapse of the Soviet Union was a first time event in the history of the world. The field of economics itself experienced significant shifts as a result of lessons learned from that collapse. Consider that back in 1989, Sowell was still praising the Soviet Union for how efficient and effective a system he thought it was!

    The field of economics is hampered in that representative experiments are difficult or impossible to conduct, and people have to rely on “natural” experiments to draw conclusions. Consider how good the predictions of medical science would be, if people were not able to experiment on animals.

    Give economists a “laboratory” consisting of few countries to conduct experiments with, and care not for the outcome like you don’t care for the outcome of lab animals. Only then will you be able to draw direct comparisons between economics and epidemiology.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    Thanks for the reply, Denis.

    In your current comment you say “I am talking from my personal experience. …. I am so annoyed by people who respond to opinions from personal experience (here explicitly qualified as such!) with accusations of ‘unsubstantiated claims’.”

    However in your reply addressed to me you said

    Those who really hate, dislike, are disgusted by economists – those people are also disgusted by economics, and don’t engage in economic discourse at all. Their counter-arguments to economic arguments do not attempt to show faults in the economic argument. Instead, their counter-arguments are generally an assortment of fallacies, ranging from appeals to pity to ad hominem and whatnot.

    This is clearly a generalization over some large (though unspecified) population. If you meant “Those I’ve talked to who really hate…” that would be an important qualification to add.

    If we are comparing personal experience, I know a lot of sensible, intelligent, successful people who have well reasoned, mature doubts about economists, individually and as a profession, and who make calm, rational arguments for their position. So I guess we just know different groups of people. Personally I find the ones I talk to a more interesting group to associate with than the ones you describe.

    You say “if there was someone who was solicited for advice, and their advice was faulty, and it caused a catastrophe, they should feel responsible.” The advice given by US economists to the Russian government is largely a matter of record, so we don’t have to speculate. That advice did not emphasize the development of institutions, rule of law, etc. If it was followed carefully, catastrophe would indeed result. (Of course the actual implementation had other problems as well.)

    My point, however, is not just about those specific economists, but about the profession as a whole. Will the economics profession take responsibility for the consequences of this theories and recommendations?

    You also say “It is, in fact, largely due to the Russian evidence that we know now how important it is that free markets are combined with rule of law.” I’m not sure whether this is true, but if it is, it is a remarkable indictment of the economics profession in itself. You are implying that either economists never felt the contribution of the rule of law was worth studying before, or were unable to determine before that it made a significant difference. I think that makes my point about as well as any argument I could hope for.

    Finally, regarding your points about natural experiments vs. laboratory experiments: This is another reason epidemiology is a good example for economics to aspire to. Epidemiologists have to rely almost entirely on natural experiments. Of course they can import useful information from other fields like medicine, but typically that doesn’t address the transmission of diseases, dynamics of epidemics, effectiveness of different interventions, etc. which need to be studied in real cases.

    Similarly, economics can import results from game theory, cognitive science, finance, etc. etc. Also, luckily for economists, a lot of data they can use is already collected for other reasons. However they also need to directly study the enormous number of natural experiments underway all the time in real economies — and of course some economists do that. Those economists I respect.

    For example, different countries have a wide range of different regimes for regulation of economic activity, property rights, etc. that could be studied to understand the role of social institutions in economic processes. This range was available for study prior to the melt-down of the Soviet Union. If economists chose not to spend their time looking at these natural experiments, that is probably a significant fact about their own professional norms. If the resulting ignorance contributed to millions of excess deaths in Russia, that’s a significant fact about the effects of those norms in the real world.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    When I asked a similar question yesterday with pedophiles as an example, I didn’t get lots of comments explaining why folks do or don’t hate pedophiles. But today I ask why hating economists isn’t hate speech and mostly I get comments about why people hate economics.

  • http://drchip.wordpress.com/ retired urologist

    RH:

    Perhaps you should switch to pedophilia.

  • Douglas Knight

    Many of the proposed reasons for hatred of economists are close to the reason michael vassar proposed for hatred of homosexuals (“It’s open disagreement about what is and isn’t immoral that cannot be tolerated at all.”) I don’t think that this is the key with pedophilia, though.

  • Jay

    A few years ago at an interdisciplinary conference I met an English professor and, in a spunky mood, asked “So why do you guys hate us economists?” I fully expected to hear “Oh we don’t hate you, though we do think you mistaken about …” But in fact he said “You know why.”

    I would point to inconvenient truths that economists constantly remind us of. People face trade-offs. Resources are scarce. Etc. I would bet a lot of money if you randomly polled non economists and asked them if health care is rationed in France at least 75% of them would say “no”. Economists are the doomsdayers that tell us that we can not sit around all day and consume, without ever producing for others.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/troped/ troped

    I don’t hate economists but it comes close to something like that when so many of them irrationally use the field of economics to defend prescriptive and outdated philosophies. Most economists are severely crippled by their (disproved) beliefs about human behavior. The fact that capitalism remains the primary type of economy that is studied by economists, that capitalism is not regarded for its different “species,” and that economists have done next to nothing to discuss the freedom of software movements and open source, just shows how irrelevant they can be; and yet still be obnoxious enough to say things like “the market is the most efficient solution.” Economists started with bad assumptions and created models thinly disguised from the physics they borrowed from and most have never looked back. It’s the least bright among economists who take these models to absurd conclusions that are simply bad for people, and it is worse that they are given credence as scientists to make policy recommendations.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    @Jed Harris — nicely put. The analogy with epidemiology is interesting, but not perfect. Economics almost always involves favoring some interest group over another, with the result that the field is riven by ideologies that are either out in the open or obscured under a very thin veneer of objectivity. Epidemiology doesn’t have that problem; nobody is on the side of smallpox.

    @troped — I mostly agree, but there are some economists who study open source (Yoachi Benkler and Yoachi Benkler and Steve Weber are two I know about. Certainly if I were an economist I’d be all over open source and related phenomena — how many times in history do you get a chance to be one of the first to study an entirely new mode of production?

    Whoops, on looking further it seems like Benkler is a legal scholar and Weber is in political science. But I’d put the linked books under economics, so maybe it is the case that interesting economics has to come from outside of economics departments.

  • fieldingbandolier

    I don’t hate economists. I have found them very frustrating at times, however, in much the same way I’ve found other hardline empiricists (ie Behaviorists) frustrating; In my experience, they tend to disregard outside perspectives by using their focus on empirical observation as some sort of rational trump card.

    It’s difficult to have a meaningful or fruitful discussion with someone who automatically assumes they know better than you do.

  • Doug S.

    Give economists a “laboratory” consisting of few countries to conduct experiments with, and care not for the outcome like you don’t care for the outcome of lab animals. Only then will you be able to draw direct comparisons between economics and epidemiology.

    These exist. They’re called MMORPGs. Set up a game, and you can do whatever the heck you want with its economy without messing up people’s lives too badly.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    Kudos to mtraven for noticing that Benkler and Weber (and in fact pretty much all the significant theorists of peer production) are not professional economists.

    I’ve been giving examples of negative effects of bad economic theory. Conversely, peer production (open source, Wikipedia, YouTube, blogs, etc. etc.) is a major positive economic phenomenon that professional economists choose not to incorporate into their theories.

    Just to pick Linux as an example, we have an extremely complex piece of software constructed by thousands of workers without exchange relationships, contractual relationships or other enforceable relationships governing their work.

    Much of economic theory is based on the assumption that such enforceable relationships are required to coordinate complex activities, and furthermore that economic incentives are needed to motivate coordination.

    So in some sense every successful peer production effort is a counter-example to current economic theory. Some of these efforts are replacing proprietary products that have generated many billions of dollars a year in cash flow. A respectable profession would be highly motivated to investigate, understand, and respond to challenges so directly related to its core concerns. Economics prefers to ignore them.

    I’m discouraged by mtraven’s other point, that respectable economics is impossible because powerful groups benefit so much from economic theory crafted to support their interests. If mtraven is right, economics is basically selling PR tricked out with fancy mathematics. I hope this this isn’t true but I have to admit it is plausible.

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    economists have done next to nothing to discuss the freedom of software movements and open source

    Have you looked for dicussions by economists on it?
    Over the years I’ve run across at least five without particularly looking.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Doug – with regard to MMORPGs as economics experiments: yes… but it’s too easy to quit. And it captures only a fraction of people’s time. And the people are self-selected. And risk-taking is out of proportion because the ramifications of “dying” are minor.

    People behave differently in life.

  • michael vassar

    Jed: I think it odd that you took my comment to be a response to yours at all. It’s honestly my impression from extensive experience with business people and ‘educated laypeople’ but obviously not at all from the sort of business people who work in finance or investment. I’m actually shocked that this isn’t obvious to everyone. Come one. Who here has a decent episodic memory but can’t remember not knowing what economics was? Wasn’t there a time when you thought something like accounting? The collection of economic statistics for the government for instance.

    As for open source etc, what fraction of the economy do you people think such things are?

    I honestly have many complaints about the economics profession, but rather than epidemiology, my paradigm for improvement would be medicine or physics, where there are fairly clean separations between theoretical and applied disciplines. The ability to create new theories seems to me to be a hedgehog’s skill, while the ability to apply them is a skill for foxes. The field needs people like Robin to grow, needs people like Tyler Cowen to actually be useful, and would be much healthier if the same person didn’t have to fill both roles.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Jed:

    Well… I, too, would like economics to be a more highly developed subject than it is. Contrast, for example, the (still!) ongoing disagreement between, say, Keynesian economics (“let’s stimulate the economy by giving people money to spend”) and supply-side economics (“let’s stimulate the economy by creating an environment where people will want to invest”).

    These two schools give opposing recipes. One would tax the rich in order to give to the masses in order to stimulate demand. The other would provide solid institutions for the rich to rely on, so that they can invest their money, creating more supply, which is supposed to drive down prices, which is supposed to increase purchasing power.

    We still have serious, professional economists who can credibly claim to belong to either one camp or the other. And yet, the policy advice from both camps is contradictory!

    Compare this to physics. If we had disagreements in physics as fundamental as we do in economics, it would be equivalent to one group of physicists claiming that a locomotive’s wheels should turn forward for the train to go ahead, while another group claims that the wheels should turn backwards instead.

    Epidemiologists have it easy in that their natural experiments, at least, are easy to interpret: either a person falls ill, or they do not; either an ill person dies, or they do not.

    In economics, things are much more dubious even to measure. In epidemiology, you count the number of ill or dead people, and it’s pretty unambiguous where you stand. In economics, what do you measure? If you say “well obviously, GDP”, there’s people who have disagreements with that. And some of their arguments may be right.

    All of this goes to say – it’s not that economists are inferior to epidemiologists in skill, it’s more so that economics is a more advanced and more difficult a subject.

    The fact that we are still very much at the beginnings of our economic understanding; that there is still major disagreement about the fundamentals of what works, and what does not; I think this speaks more about the difficulty of the subject, than it does about the quality of the people involved.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    Robin comments: “When I asked a similar question yesterday with pedophiles as an example, I didn’t get lots of comments explaining why folks do or don’t hate pedophiles. But today I ask why hating economists isn’t hate speech and mostly I get comments about why people hate economics.”

    In practice isn’t hate speech prosecution aimed at pretty harsh cases of speech coupled with violence, or particularly terrorizing or harassing language? If in some cases hate speech prosecution is brought against someone for kind of weak language, I’m guessing it’s because the person who was attacked is a member of a group that has political power and/or has a strong case or a strong narrative that expresses that they’ve been treated like crap in the past (women, blacks, Jews, gays). So ignoring these groups could create some irritation for politicians and judges.

    It seems like there’s no politically negative consequences to ignoring economists gripes, and it seems to listen to them would open up a whole can of worms that seems a headache for…everyone. If the language of the wikipedia article is right, who couldn’t sue for being a victim of hate crimes, you know? So I guess I’m arguing judges and politicians are basically consequentialists and self-interested.

  • anonymous

    Jed,

    Linus is paid.
    Alan is paid.
    Jeremy is paid.
    etc, etc.

    All the leading lights of Linux are paid cash money. They are not living in their parents basement (which if they were, would still mean they are paid…)

    So, just what is your argument?

  • http://www.meteuphoric.blogspot.com Katja Grace

    Don’t have time to read all comments, so sorry if overlapping. My opinions are based on reading and on observation of and discussion with my university student friends, who generally quite dislike economics/consider it the epitome of evil. I study economics.

    Why people hate economists:
    1. People hate ‘sacred’ values to be compromised (note that people like rights based ethics and find utilitarianism repulsive). In economics everything has a value and value is fungible. People need to think some things should never be traded off so they can experience loyalty, which is the best way to signal loyalty, which is a good way to get other things.

    2. People misunderstand abstractions. Modeling the relevant part of a system (such as value) prompts outrage that you are missing other characteristics of the system (the beauty of human experience etc), because the complainant hasn’t thought about the purpose of the model, or how the system works, they just know it’s too complicated to think about, so for you to do claim you can based on a simpler model is infuriating.

    3. People like vagueness. They subconsciously realise that if they understand things it will make everything less mysterious and therefore less sacred. They don’t mind understanding cultural studies because it’s vague enough that understanding doesn’t threaten to destroy any real mental non-clarity.

    4. I used to hate economists. It was because everyone I knew did. From memory there were heaps of reasons, but mostly things like ‘their models are too simplified, so they don’t work, which destroys the environment and lets people die because they’re not in their models’. Do you ever seriously question whether the world is round? (I was pretty fascinated actually – I put so much effort into working out what was wrong with economics that I now study economics, rather fondly).

    5. People’s conceptions of concepts are not necessarily nuanced. ‘Economics’ doesn’t conjure anything structured for those who don’t know much about it – it’s just a blur connected with ‘capitalism’ (which has plenty of bad associations itself for many), ‘business’, ‘work’, ‘self interest’ and worst, ‘maths’. All of these are associated with ‘good’ or ‘bad’. For most people ‘bad’ overwhelmingly.

    6. People misunderstand that the ‘self interest’ people act in aid of could as easily be altruism (if the baker bakes to pay for his mother’s surgery the candlestick maker can still eat and the analysis is no different). People hate the idea that they are all selfish.

    7. People think economics says that money is all-important. This is connected to 5. They don’t like the idea.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    @ Michael Vassar: Apologies, Michael, on rereading I had no warrant to consider your comment a reply to me.

    Regarding my episodic memory, my father was a regional economist (degree from U. Chicago) so I’m not a good test case.

    Regarding epidemiology, your point is interesting, but I don’t know if it is correct, and I’m not sure how to find out. System sciences like epidemiology and ecology have experimental and theoretical sides too… and I don’t think the distinction between theory and application in medicine is any clearer. So basically I don’t think this changes the picture significantly.

    @ Denis Bider and Anonymous, I don’t have time to reply right now, but will give it a shot in the morning.

  • mjgeddes

    Perhaps because some economists try to reduce everything to market exchanges? (ie Libertarianism). When in fact there are two other general types of human relations which have nothing to do with market exchanges (Communitarianism – community/group-based and Authoritarianism – status based)

    The two biggest markets in the world are cocaine and oil.

    The market judges everything solely in *functional* terms (ie the external uses of things). According to the ‘market-exchange’ view of the world there is no difference in value between an unconscious robot cleaning a toilet and a human doing the same job.

  • Lavrans Mathiesen

    A thought- isn’t it a bit simpler than all that? People don’t like economists because economists are the business world’s very own weather forecasters.
    1. It’s pretty clear that they do something,
    2. what they do is usable and helpful in the short term,
    3. they do a good job of explaining the past,
    4. what they do isn’t well understood.

    Perhaps some of the unease is because they don’t manage to provide the promise within the title: the economist can’t know the workings of an economy well enough to give reliable advice on it into infinity any more than a weather forecaster can tell you when it’s going to rain next month.

  • http://brian-jaress.livejournal.com/ Brian Jaress

    @Ping

    “Brian (and others): I recently read Naked Economics. What do you find wrong or lacking about the book?”

    Not much. That’s why I said I liked it.

    Just to be clear, it was a couple of other books published later that I found too arrogant. I remember them as being compilations of case studies, presented to show off the author’s ability to analyze them, but I couldn’t stand to read them through. One might have been the famous Freakonomics.

    My point is that, while the author of Naked Economics seems like a nice guy, authors of more well-known books come off as jerks. I don’t know if anything they wrote was incorrect or incomplete. I doubt that’s relevant to the academic hate.

  • http://www.majid.info/ Fazal Majid

    I think “hate” is excessive. Economists are viewed with contempt as a group, just as lawyers are viewed with contempt as a group. A small number of ambulance-chasers or corporate lawyers defending sleazebag practices give the entire profession a bad name, the equally mercenary economists who work in lobbying groups or think tanks do the same for economists. They just tend to be more visible than most.

  • Jayson Virissimo

    “The economists who actually manage our economy don’t seem to think that way” -Brian Jaress

    The fact that you believe economists manage our economy gives me reason to doubt your other beliefs on the subject.

    “Among rational thinkers, I don’t think there’s a particular “hate” for economists. There is a strong disdain, however, given that beyond simple applications of the basic concepts in micro and macroeconomics, the field has almost zero predictive capacity. This makes it fundamentally unscientific, fundamentally unreliable, and unappealing to rational thinkers.” -Alan Yeung

    I often here people say that economists can’t predict what the market will do and so they are bad scientists. I wonder if you would apply the same reasoning to physicists? Do we make fun of physicists for not knowing if it is going if there is going to be an Earthquake next year or when the next tornado is going to strike? If physicists study matter and energy, shouldn’t they be able to predict what the world will do like we expect economists to predict what the market will do? Isn’t predicting what particles will do even more simple than predicting what humans will do?

  • http://google.com/ Daniel Reeves

    There are plenty of reasons why people “hate” economists, in my opinion.

    1) Economists model the world with numbers, something that non-mathematicians and non-economists feel is emotionally insensitive. This one is probably the biggest reason. Normal people don’t understand the effectiveness of a mathematical model in showing how others behave. This is mostly because people don’t understand math

    2) Dissenters dislike that most economists agree on a few issues. This one is probably held by progressives (free trade) and anti-tax populists (the gas tax).

    3) Economists may be seen as “out of touch” or even “greedy.” This one is held by people who don’t understand association biases or simply don’t know what economists do in the first place, which may be more frequent than one might expect (I had to explain to my mom that economics requires lots of math). Those in the latter category probably lump economics with business and marketing.

    4) The lingo creates a barrier of entry. For example, my dad claimed that a 5% drop in consumption and a 20% drop in price of oil meant that there was a speculative bubble. So I had to try to explain elasticity to him, except that was pretty hard without simply using the term. In the field, jargon is a handy shortcut. When talking to people who don’t know better, it isn’t.

  • http://drchip.wordpress.com/ retired urologist

    @Daniel Reeves: The lingo creates a barrier of entry.

    Indeed. One irritated commenter, apparently quite familiar with economics, put down a lesser-informed writer by saying: “By the way, do you have any numbers on the g-loading of spelling? The g-loading of spelling on the right hand tail? Please do share.. Doctors do this all the time. It’s the equivalent of speaking a foreign language, and then blaming the listener for failing to understand.

  • http://www.robert.scarth.net Robert Scarth

    mjgeddes – “Perhaps because some economists try to reduce everything to market exchanges?…there are two other general types of human relations which have nothing to do with market exchanges (Communitarianism – community/group-based and Authoritarianism – status based)”

    I don’t really understand your view of what markets are, and I find your comments confusing because they contradict what I understand by markets. For me, a market is a collection of institutions and customs within which individuals (and coalitions of individuals) voluntarily co-operate, exchanging goods and services. For me there are basically two types of human relations – voluntary and coerced. Market relations comprise the whole of voluntary relations. I am aware that this is broader than is usually understood, but I’m not able to define markets more narrowly without drawing an arbitrary line. For example there is much more continuity between prostitution and other forms of consensual sex than we might perhaps like to think. For me “Authoritarianism” is someone using violence and threats of violence to coerce others to conform to their ideal of human behaviour; a communitarian is an authoritarian who really does believe that they’re doing it in your best interests – I can’t see any other difference. There is a legitimate role for coercion in human relations – murderers and rapists do exist and it is right that violence and coercion be used against such people. However generally, the use of coercion should be as minimal as possible.

    “The market judges everything solely in *functional* terms (ie the external uses of things).”

    I have absolutely no idea what this is supposed to mean. The market cannot judge anything in any way as it is not a conscious, purposeful agent – it has no judgements or opinions.

    “According to the ‘market-exchange’ view of the world there is no difference in value between an unconscious robot cleaning a toilet and a human doing the same job.”

    I’ve no idea how you come to this view. If you suppose that all the person getting their toilet cleaned cares about is how clean their toilet is, and the human and the robot clean the toilet to exactly the same standard then there is no difference in the value of the job done by the human and the robot. So what? What reason do you have to suppose that a human and a robot provide exactly the same cleaning service, or that the person getting the toilet cleaned cares only about how clean their toilet is? Your comment is just facile.

    I don’t mean to pick on you mjgeddes, but your views do seem (in my experience) to be representative of much anti-market/anti-economics thinking. They are based on a misunderstanding of what markets are and what economics studies.

    Economics is not value neutral. It is based on an individualist and rationalist world-view. But then so is Physics. That the laws of physics are the same for all observers would have been considered absurd by Xerxes the Great – that’s why he had the sea whipped and fettered after a storm destroyed his bridge over the Hellespont. Xerxes’ modern equivalents want markets whipped and put in fetters when storms blow up and ruin their plans – they are just as foolish and wrong-headed as Xerxes was; the individualist and rationalist world-view is the correct one.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Economists are viewed with contempt as a group, just as lawyers are viewed with contempt as a group. A small number of ambulance-chasers or corporate lawyers defending sleazebag practices give the entire profession a bad name, the equally mercenary economists who work in lobbying groups or think tanks do the same for economists.

    I think there’s more to it than that. Lawyers are necessary to accomplish all sorts of things in our society, not because lawyers are inevitably required, but because our society has been set up so that they are required.

    All lawyers, whether reasonable or not, perpetuate and reinforce the systems that make the existence of so many lawyers necessary. They are hated partly because they are accurately perceived as parasites on society as a whole; they exist because they are needed, but they are needed only because they exist.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Scarth: the individualist and rationalist world-view is the correct one.
    Oh good, glad that is settled.

    This is the sort of statement that brings up my hatred: not exactly of economists, but of simple-minded libertarianism. It’s a set of ideas that has the power to make intelligent people (I see Scarth has a Ph.D. in mathematics) capable of making deeply stupid statements like the above and the even more risible: Market relations comprise the whole of voluntary relations. when we just were discussing open source and peer production, which is voluntary but non-market-based under any meaningful interpretation of the term. Hate! But again, of the belief system and not the believers, who seem like victims of a pernicious memeplex.

  • John

    The question has come up as a topic worthy of scientific study, in a 1993 paper by Frank, Gilovich, and Regan, “Does Studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation?”. The results suggest that people who study economics tend to be more selfish and less honest:

    http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/economics_frank/frank.html

  • http://profile.typepad.com/troped banapana

    @Richard Hollerith

    Yes, Richard, I have found those conversations, and to be fair, I will re-phrase:

    “economists have done next to nothing to utilize the freedom of software movement and open source projects as possible new evidence that might change underlying economic theories.”

    Of the conversations about open source software that I’ve found, most economists do one of two things. They take the position of anonymous above and point that, well, most of the *important* projects have paid members or work just like regular businesses–the code being “free” is just a business model. Or, they point out that really all these programmers are new businesses operating in markets that have a low to no threshold of entry.

    What is *really* happening is that a fundamental economic assumption is being brought into question. “Economics is the study of the distribution of scarce resources.” You will find that sentence in any basic economics textbook. Only the resources that we are talking about in the information age: ideas, art, attention; are not resources that are at all scarce. If anything, they are resources growing at enormous rates. What does economics have to say about the distribution of non-scarce resources? I defy you to find me one economist yet willing to take on that hypothesis: that some resources are (relatively) non-scarce and that a distribution system for those resources *might* be fundamentally different from traditional capital models. I don’t have an opinion one way or the other yet, but I haven’t seen anyone else asking the question either. I could be wrong, and if I am, by all means let me know who’s doing the research; I would love to follow their work.

  • mjgeddes

    Hi Robert,

    Your reply is basically standard Libertarian ideology; I used to be one myself, so I understand it quite well.

    >Market relations comprise the whole of voluntary relations.

    Um…the whole of voluntary relations? I don’t think so. To give just a few counter-examples; family-ties, friendships and sexual relationships are not based entirely on contractual exchanges, not even implicit ones.

    >For me “Authoritarianism” is someone using violence and threats of violence to coerce others to conform to their ideal of human behaviour;

    No, Authoritarianism just means that some relationships are based on relative status, rather than contractual exchanges. Examples; a solider directing his unit against the enemy, a policeman stopping a burgler, a fireman yelling orders to his team. I think you can agree in some cases, authoritarianism is justified.

    >”The market judges everything solely in *functional* terms (ie the external uses of things).”

    >I have absolutely no idea what this is supposed to mean. The market cannot judge anything in any way as it is not a conscious, purposeful agent – it has no judgements or opinions.

    Let me rephrase: A person who tries to define the whole of human relationships in terms of contractual exchanges can only assign value to something on the basis of its external behaviour or use. Contractual exchanges can’t recognize intrinsic worth. This shows the big limitation of the market.

  • josh

    Robin, Can you at least tell us why that person said they hated economists? I’m curious.

  • http://keifuswrites.blogspot.com Keifus

    “Economists model the world with numbers, something that non-mathematicians and non-economists feel is emotionally insensitive. This one is probably the biggest reason. Normal people don’t understand the effectiveness of a mathematical model in showing how others behave. This is mostly because people don’t understand math.”

    And yet, I don’t sense a lot of love from the physical sciences directed toward economics. Or rather, I’ve occasionally encountered strong opinions directed, in student days, against economists from those quarters, some derision that economics is a soft science, despite the fact that they use math. The numbers aren’t so easy to measure, and their physical signficance and relationships are not always clear to everyone (outside the field) or justified. The theories are difficult to falsify. Bad science is easier to refute than bad economics, and economics (good or bad) is often used to make or justify policy. Economic theory has been the basis for political systems in fact, and those lasted longer than the Jacobins.

    Personally, I think macroeconomics is by nature closer to engineering than science. That is, it’s a business of lumping individual behavior into state variables and running through the differential equations to evaluate credible scenarios. I never read as much I intend to, or as much as would help me, but it’s certainly the seed of my interest.

    K (haven’t lurked, but couldn’t resist a comment–small world, FB.)

  • Chad

    Maybe it has something to do with this study?

  • benevenuto

    People are learning to dismiss economists because they have no predictive powers. There are some useful aspects of economics (e.g., microeconomics) but that’s old news. People are interested in what you can do for them _today_.

    Economists are poorer than weathermen at prediction. They cost us a lot of money if we listen to them. How many economists predicted the credit crisis? The LTCM collapse? The 1987 collapse? The savings & loan crisis?

    The answer is, of course, “None or very few, and never with consensus.” Economics has no predictive power and likely never will. But these people still come out of universities, put on suits and ties, call a press conference and try to tell us what the economy will do.

    Perhaps Shakespeare was off a bit: Dick the Butcher should have said “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the economists.”

    Thanks to Nassim Nicholas Taleb for explaining this in his excellent book “The Black Swan”.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    The answer is, of course, “Most and nearly all, but with timing questions.” It was obvious that the housing market was an unsustainable bubble, driven by loans that depended on the bubble’s being sustainable. The only surprise was that it lasted as long as it did before collapsing. The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.

    If the majority of any developed country learns the basics of microeconomics, come back and make that post again. If you can get ten countries to enact no mercantilist policies for ten years, come back and make that post again. Heck, read The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan, take his list where the public is both ignorant and biased on 32/33 economic issues, fix one, then come back and make that post again.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Heh: “Economists were created to make weather forecasters look good.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/may/07/rupert-murdoch-charging-websites