Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan’s forthcoming piece on the ‘superiority of economists’ is a lovely, albeit quietly snarky, take on the hidden structures of the economics profession. It provides good evidence that e.g. economics hiring practices, rather than being market driven are more like an intensely hierarchical kinship structure, that the profession is ridden with irrational rituals, and that key economic journals are apparently rather clubbier than one might have expected in a free and competitive market (the University of Chicago’s
Quarterly Journal of Economics Journal of Political Economy gives nearly 10% of its pages to University of Chicago affiliated scholars; perhaps its editors believe that this situation of apparent collusion will be naturally corrected by market forces over time). What appears to economists as an intense meritocracy (as Paul Krugman acknowledges in a nice self-reflective piece) is plausibly also, or alternately, a social construct built on self-perpetuating power relations.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of economists are reading the piece (we’re all monkeys, fascinated with our reflections in the mirror). Equally unsurprisingly, many of them (including some very smart ones) don’t really get Fourcade et al’s argument, which is a Bourdieuian one about how a field, and relations of authority and power within and around that field get constructed. As Fourcade has noted in previous work, economists’ dominance has led other fields either to construct themselves in opposition to economics (economic sociology) or in supplication to it (some versions of rational choice political science). Economists have been able to ignore these rivals or to assimilate their tributes, as seems most convenient. As the new paper notes, the story of economists’ domination is told by citation patterns (the satisfaction that other social scientists can take from economists having done unto them as they have done unto others, is unfortunately of limited consolation). Yet if you’re an economist, this is invisible. Your dominance appears to be the product of natural superiority.
E.g., this post by Noah Smith (who I like lots, but who is being very, very, economisty here). This bit – “A lot of academic disciplines look down on other disciplines—that’s part of the fun of academia” misses the point spectacularly in a very Raj-official-in-India kind of way. And while it’s true that many sociologists have a complex about economics, the tacit imperialism is compounded by this claim:
As for economists’ “influence over the economy,” I am going to take a wild guess and say that it isn’t because of their arrogance or hierarchical insularity or “sense of authority and entitlement.” It’s probably because…drumroll…economics is the discipline that studies the economy. If politicians want to know how to reduce cancer rates, they should go to a biologist. If they want to know how to shoot missiles at Vladimir Putin, they should go to a physicist. If they want to know how to boost productivity at U.S. companies, or increase employment, or auction off broadcast spectrum rights, whom should they ask for advice? A sociologist?
Heaven forfend! After all, it’s not as if there’s a large grouping in sociology devoted specifically to the study of the economy or anything. And if there were such a peculiar tribe of sociologists, economists would surely know all about them!
More broadly, Noah argues that the reason that academic economists make more money is econ 101 – they have skills which are objectively more valuable in the outside marketplace, and hence exit options.
why do economists have the option to go work in consulting and finance? The answer is simple: They have the technical skills to do so. I’m not talking about fancy math. No one hires you to do real analysis—that’s just something economists learn as an IQ test, then never use. If financial companies need someone to do serious math, they will hire a mathematician or a physicist. As for the general equilibrium models that macroeconomists call “math,” well…no one uses those for anything except publishing macroeconomics papers. The technical skill I am talking about is statistics. Economists learn a lot of statistics—much more than anyone else except for applied mathematicians and statisticians. There is a whole branch of economics, known as econometrics, dedicated to statistics. Most of the empirical work that economists do is applied statistics. Statistics is hugely valuable in the real world.
But as Arindrajit Dube points out, statisticians get paid less than economists. Perhaps it’s different when you look at statistics professors versus economics professors, but I doubt it – this data at least indicates that mathematics and statistics professors, on average, earn less money than social scientists, on average. I would guess (and am open to contradiction if wrong) that statisticians’ salaries in the academy are indeed more like sociologists than like economists (and while I’m on the topic, I dunno whether Noah ever cracks open sociology journals, but if he does, he’ll find plenty of statistical work, including work from people whose mathematical chops are unquestionable)
While I’ve no doubt that that external markets do play a role, I don’t think that it’s nearly as much of a role as Noah suggests. Instead, I suspect that much of the assumed authority of economists (just like the authority, in certain policy roles, of international relations scholars like myself), is socially constructed. Expertise is not just a matter of raw talent, whether mathematical or otherwise. It’s a matter of legitimation – of being anointed with the proper sacraments associated with publicly acknowledged expertise in a particular topic. And that is, unquestionably the product of a certain kind of politics, a kind of politics that sociologists have a lot of experience in studying.
One especially unfortunate aspect of economics is that its penchant for just-so stories can reinforce its imperialist blindnesses. If you’ve been trained systematically to look for examples of market efficiency winning out, you’ll likely be inclined to treat your own, and your discipline’s success as examples of market efficiency in action. George Mason University law school’s Moneybollocks mythology provides one cautionary tale as to how this can lead one to systematically overlook the role of politics in determining who wins and who loses.
The underlying point of the Fourcade et al. article is that politics and power play a far larger role in determining both the success of economics and the success of economics than economists are prepared to admit in public. Or, more succinctly, sociology provides a much better account of economics’ success than economics itself does. Obviously, that’s a claim that’s going to be uncongenial to economists, as well as one that many economists will have difficulty in absorbing (they usually aren’t trained to think in that way). If they were better versed in sociology, and also somewhat paranoid, they might want to treat the piece as a meta-Bourdieuian Trojan horse, that inherently elevates sociology at the expense of economics (although these imaginary well-read paranoid economists would still somehow have to deal with Fourcade’s previous work, which has tacitly rebuked economic sociology for its obsession with disproving economics). But the point would still remain – that the internal structures of economics, as well as its external influence, are very far indeed from a free market.
Update: Cosma Shalizi sends links to salary figures for statisticians and economists in the academy. As he notes, “from a quick comparison, academic economists make substantially more, at every level of rank and every level of university, than do academic statisticians.”