There has been a lot of discussion of this recent article by Barry Eichengreen in The National Interest. In a nutshell, Eichengreen’s argument is we should not blame economic theory for the failure to anticipate and avoid the financial crisis. Theory had the tools—agency theory, asymmetric information, behavioral economics—to do the job. The problem was that some academic economists were seduced by extramural income opportunities to ignore these subfields, while the others followed along to avoid the costs of nonconformism. Fortunately, he concludes, economics is becoming more empirical, so embarrassing episodes like this will be less common in the future.
Some parts of this are unarguable. There were important theoretical developments during the past 20 years that can be drawn on to understand what went wrong. To a considerable extent, the economics profession has been suborned; it has bent itself, heliotropically, to the sources of its enrichment. Nevertheless, I would take issue with Eichengreen on two main points.
First, economic theory, taken as a whole, is culpable. The core problem is that each theoretical departure, whether it is a knotty agency problem or a behavioral kink, is inserted into an otherwise pristine general equilibrium framework. The only way you can get an article published in a mainstream economics journal (and therefore reproduce the conditions of your existence as an academic economist) is to present your departure piecemeal, showing that it exerts its effects even in an otherwise pristine universe. According to the standards that rule the profession, a GE model with one twist is theory’s version of the controlled experiment. This is why the picture Eichengreen paints for us, in which multiple unorthodox insights come together and interact synergistically, is never seen in a peer-reviewed economics journal. As a result, even though every organ of 1960's-era orthodoxy is mortally wounded, the entire body strides vigorously forward. That is a prime reason why, despite the labors of so many clever and right-thinking economic theorists, we are in this mess.
Second, the shift toward empiricism is not an unalloyed gain. Yes, much of this work is refreshingly open-minded, allowing the data to lead. An honest tally of the published literature, however, particularly in the top journals, will show that a majority of quantitative articles are concerned to calibrate existing theoretical models. Unless a model is so out of step or inflexible that it cannot be calibrated at all, it passes the empiricist’s “test”. Economics, as I have argued before here and elsewhere, has no culture of what in real sciences is known as a critical test, a confrontation with data that can be survived only if the hypothesis in question is highly likely to be correct. In other words, empirical work in economics, whatever sophisticated estimators it employs and stringent p-values it seeks, has little to do with the minimization of Type I error, properly understood. For this reason, bad theory (like the mind-numbing onslaught of DSGE models in macro) prosper even in the midst of the “empirical turn”. With enough tweaking, I can calibrate an equilibrium model of the US economy as of 2006, and again as of 2009. It won’t be exactly the same model, but it will use a standard set of baseline assumptions, so who cares?
The bottom line is that economics in both its theoretical and empirical modes is implicated in the current debacle. Making the funding of economists more transparent would help, and attention should be given to the institutional structures that favor conformism within the profession, but economics itself needs to be reformed.