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Do I Have Anything Interesting to Say?

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"Do I Have Anything Interesting to Say?"

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Kartik Athreya, a self-described “rank-and-file PhD economist operating within a central banking system” who by his own admission has “contributed no earth-shaking ideas to Economics and work fundamentally as a worker bee chipping away with known tools at portions of larger problems” has published an essay condemning writ large bloggers and op-ed writers who’ve tried to explicate macroeconomic policy controversies in the wake of the financial panic of 2007-2008. He names me by name as one of the sinners, and argues that “it is exceedingly unlikely that these authors [i.e., people like me] have anything interesting to say about economic policy.”

I think there’s a lot that’s wrong about Athreya’s essay, much of it explained by Scott Sumner, but most of all I think his argument hinges on two category errors, one about what I’m doing and one about what he’s doing.

First me. Do I have anything interesting to say about economics? Well, “interesting” is relevant to audience. I should hope that PhD economists working in central banking systems aren’t learning about economics from my blog! That’s what grad school, conferences, the circulation of academic papers, etc. is for. But perhaps you’re a citizen of a liberal democracy who speaks English and tries to keep abreast of political controversies. Well you’ve probably heard politicians talking a lot about jobs and the economy. You’ve probably noticed that voters keep telling pollsters that jobs and the economy matter to them. Jobs and the economy may matter to you! You may have seen that political scientists have found that presidential re-election is closely linked to economic performance, and thus deduced that the fate of a whole range of national policy issues hinges on economic growth. Well then I bet you are probably interested in the fact that a wide range of credible experts (with PhDs, even) believe the world’s central banks could be doing more to boost employment. Is Athreya interested in this? Well, I hope he would know it whether or not he reads my blog—he’s working at a central bank somewhere and probably knows a lot more about this than most people.

But now to Athreya. His essay seems to partake of the conceit that what economic policymakers do is just economics and that for political pundits to second-guess their decisions would be on a par with me trying to second-guess someone doing particle physics. Completely apart from the fact that the “science” of economics is a good deal less developed than what you see in real sciences, the fact is that economic policy is economics plus politics. For example, according to Ben Bernanke, the Fed could reduce unemployment by raising its inflation target but this would be a bad idea because it runs the risk of causing inflation expectations to become un-anchored. That’s a judgment that contains some “economics” content but it’s largely a political judgment. It’s part of his job to make those judgments, but it’s the job of citizens to question them.

At any rate, the next time anyone finds me claiming to have broken original ground in macroeconomic theory I hope someone will call the expertise police. But you don’t need a PhD in sociology to see how it might be the case that the Federal Reserve Board of Governors would be unduly attuned to the interests of college educated Americans to the exclusion of the working class, or that the European Central Bank might be unduly attuned to the needs of Germans to the exclusion of Spaniards and Italians.

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