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Being Honest about Ideological Influence in Economics

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 10:39
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Simon Wren-Lewis:

Being honest about ideological influence in economics: Noah Smith has an article that talks about Paul Romer’s recent critique of macroeconomics. … He says the fundamental problem with macroeconomics is lack of data, which is why disputes seem to take so long to resolve. That is not in my view the whole story.

If we look at the rise of Real Business Cycle (RBC) research a few decades ago, that was only made possible because economists chose to ignore evidence about the nature of unemployment in recessions. There is overwhelming evidence that in a recession employment declines because workers are fired rather than choosing not to work, and that the resulting increase in unemployment is involuntary (those fired would have rather retained their job at their previous wage). Both facts are incompatible with the RBC model.

In the RBC model there is no problem with recessions, and no role for policy to attempt to prevent them or bring them to an end. The business cycle fluctuations in employment they generate are entirely voluntary. RBC researchers wanted to build models of business cycles that had nothing to do with sticky prices. Yet here again the evidence was quite clear…

Why would researchers try to build models of business cycles where these cycles required no policy intervention, and ignore key evidence in doing so? The obvious explanation is ideological. I cannot prove it was ideological, but it is difficult to understand why – in an area which as Noah says suffers from a lack of data – you would choose to develop theories that ignore some of the evidence you have. The fact that, as I argue here, this bias may have expressed itself in the insistence on following a particular methodology at the expense of others does not negate the importance of that bias. …

I suspect there is a reluctance among the majority of economists to admit that some among them may not be following the scientific method but may instead be making choices on ideological grounds. This is the essence of Romer’s critique, first in his own area of growth economics and then for business cycle analysis. Denying or marginalizing the problem simply invites critics to apply to the whole profession a criticism that only applies to a minority.

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