Last Friday, I participated in a dinner conversation at the World Economic Forum in Davos on whether economics itself is in need of a bailout. The consensus view, which included perspectives from several far more distinguished economists than myself, was that as a predictive social science, economics has not failed. That is, people do generally make decisions based on cost-benefit trade-offs and incentives, and thinking about human decision making in this way is a very effective means of understanding what people do in companies, markets and the economy as a whole.
The natural question, then, is why the world out there has such a dismal view of the so-called dismal science? My answer was that we, as economists, have been terrible ambassadors of the profession in two critical ways. First, we have not properly conveyed the limits to economic predictions. An economy is a very complex system with highly imperfect information and many moving parts. Perhaps more importantly, we also haven’t properly communicated — to students and to the public at large — that economics is about more than the straw man of perfectly efficient markets. Any sensible economist — from Berkeley to Chicago — understands this perfectly well.
What are the implications for policy, and for economics as a profession? First, we have to be a lot better at “selling” our ideas to the public. Rather than leaving it to journalists to parody economic theory, we need to get our voices heard in the public debate. Second, we could do with a dose of humility. If the popular perception is that economics should be an all-knowing, precise tool for fine-tuning the economy, it may be because a lot of economists have drunk a little too much of the economics-as-crystal-ball Kool-Aid themselves.
Photo credit: World Economic Forum