Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Star Star Star Star Star

By request, I now dispense Economonomics' official stance on Freakonomics, and nomics more generally.

Freakonomics has been somewhat of a polarizing issue, I suppose. Of course, it was quite a popular book, almost as popular as this blog will one day be. On the other hand, there were strong negative reactions like this Noam Scheiber article that got a lot of attention a few years ago:

To be honest, I'm not going to bother reading that again, but if I recall, the basic argument is that Freakonomics influenced a lot of economists to start focusing on cutesy studies instead of the real, important issues of the world.

I will get to that (indeed, if that's what you want, skip down to #4. In fact, I advise it!). First though, as a more general point of philosophy, I will militantly defend my right to care about what I want to care about, think about what I want to think about, study what I want to study...and of course that goes for everyone else as well, including Steve Levitt. I do not like it when people are attacked for pursuing what's interesting to them.

1. Should we be motivated by what's useful? Richard Feynman wasn't -- "Physics is like sex," he said, "sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it" -- and that's physics. And if you think that you happen to be particularly motivated by what's useful -- perhaps you work a job that clearly "makes a difference" -- it's worth asking yourself what fraction of that is really just you being motivated by factors that are themselves driven by usefulness. Money, what other people think about you...the usefulness of your job influences these and other factors, and to the extent that you are motivated by them instead of the underlying usefulness itself, you don't also get to credit your concern for usefulness.

2. [Omitted: Even if you were deeply motivated by usefulness itself, it still wouldn't follow that I should be motivated by usefulness. What, really, is so special about your preferences? blah blah nuanced moral relativism blah blah blah...several paragraphs belong here, but this is already too long. In any case, the logical structure is such that you would have to reject them all to end up disagreeing with me, so I'm happy to throw this one away. Count it as rejected if you like.]

3. Anyway, I'm not a big fan of holier-than-thou preferences. But even if I was really into usefulness, I don't think I can always recognize it when I see it, or even that it's necessarily good for the progress of a discipline to focus on usefulness. Mathematicians don't necessarily see where things are headed when they prove things that in retrospect turn out to be quite useful. And to the extent that we're totally okay with mathematicians going about their business -- good luck arguing that they haven't actually been pretty useful in hindsight, nor is it clear we could have guided their work in a way that would have ultimately produced more useful results -- it would be odd to judge, say, "economist" human beings by a totally different standard as to how they should be allowed to spend their time. Why demand overt usefulness of economists? Does good necessarily come of this? It isn't clear to me. In any case, economists are useful in expectation, and I don't try too hard to justify my or others' work with forecasts.

4. Therefore I study what I want, without much concern for how overtly useful it is...and I don't expect others to do otherwise. But even if I did think economists ought to be directly and obviously useful, I still wouldn't have a problem with Freakonomics. Did it divert some economists from one path to another less useful one, as Scheiber charges? Hmm. First of all, Freakonomics-type work is obviously not worthless. (Far from it, in my opinion, but let's just go with "not worthless" for today). At the same time, studying important features of the macroeconomy is inherently important, right? Hmm. Either my econo-sense is tingling or there's something wrong with the Thai food I ate earlier.
Sidebar: If you're wondering, Freakonomics didn't have much of an effect on me personally. I'm not much of an empirical guy anyway, and Steve Landsburg's The Armchair Economist had already hooked me on economics several years earlier, in high school. And while we're on the subject, in that book, Landsburg makes something like the following point: "You want to be a doctor, to help people, to make a difference in this world? Because you view doctors as inherently more useful than chefs? Well have you considered that maybe the world already has enough doctors? What? Of course there's such a thing as too many doctors! What if everyone was already a doctor...then wouldn't people prefer a chef?"
My point is, there is a special level of Econohell for those who confuse levels and margins. That's where you go if you decide to ignore Landsburg's warning and treat "economists who study big important things" like doctors, and "economists who study Freakonomics things" like chefs. In reality, these subjects probably all experience decreasing returns and it is not at all clear that more Freakonomics research at the expense of other topics is a bad thing at the margin.

5. But even if Freakonomics did divert too many economists to Freakonomics-type topics,
I still wouldn't have a problem with Freakonomics. Because it also got a lot more people interested in economics. That means both that more people are attracted into the economics profession and that more noneconomists are more econ-aware. And I have to say, if you are an economist, and if usefulness is what you care about, then take a step back and consider the possibility that a marginal increase in economists' econ-awareness may pale in comparison to an increase in popular econ-awareness right now. Economists are always learning lots of new things...but that is not particularly useful to humanity if the rest of humanity isn't listening. Given the list of things economists have known for over a hundred years, but which nobody else seems to take seriously (comparative advantage, anyone?)...our usefulness is so clearly constrained by our ability to transfer the information we have obtained to all those billions of people who could use it. For economics, that really matters, because the business of implementing sound economic policy often hinges critically on the populace giving their permission to do so. Politics! Therefore I doubt that Freakonomics, and for that matter all the blankonomics books riding the tidal wave in its wake, actually did harm to economics.

The verdict: I would never personally judge Freakonomics by its usefulness. But if I did, I would give it five stars. Have I made my case? You tell me.


  1. You have definitely made a solid case. I see nothing to disagree with, and you have made (I thought) many insightful points.

    Personally, I think Levitt's research on crack dealers is amazing, and I also like the research on the bagel guy and penalty kicks (which I don't think was in the book) and car seats. I think he's a great personality to represent the field.

    I picked my econ major before I knew about Freakonomics, but Freakonomics definitely made the discipline more interesting to me.

  2. Exogenous CombustionFebruary 11, 2011 at 10:53 PM

    I largely agree. I give two thumbs up for Freakonomics. However, I would, as an advocate for the devil, take issue with the following:

    "I will militantly defend my right to care about what I want to care about, think about what I want to think about, study what I want to study...and of course that goes for everyone else as well, including Steve Levitt. I do not like it when people are attacked for pursuing what's interesting to them."

    Nor do I, when what they do has no real externalities. But for better or worse, economics has plenty of communal resources. (Say, for example, a limited number of AER pages). Then what the profession values generally (and you value specifically, as long as you're a referee and are oking these papers, or submitting them) becomes a public issue.

    I hope my objection makes sense: while I agree with your broader point, whenever there are communal resources, everyone's once-private business becomes everyone else's public business. (This, incidentally, is why I don't like things like government health insurance. It makes your decision to smoke or drink or drive a small car my business, because now I'm on the hook monetarily. A great way to start a war of every man against every man). In this case, I think that comments about "how the profession should be" are more justified.

  3. EC:

    Sure. As you say, the beginning of the post does not itself imply that Scheiber shouldn't have written his piece; everyone is entitled to voice their own preferences on what they want to fill the pages of AER. That part of the argument is more "Do not judge me morally for doing what I want," attempting to move beyond whatever violently personal judgmental connotations that are the currency of academic bickering. If his goal differs from Levitt's goal, that's fine, but no drama is necessary to state that.

    The real content of the post comes from questioning the obviousness of "usefulness" as a goal, and then taking that goal as given, asking what policy would best accomplish it.