Saturday, January 5, 2013
Micro Up, Macro Down?
I have just read two posts, one by Justin Fox, the other by Paul Krugman, that make exactly the same point: microeconomics is doing just fine, but macro is riven by ideological disputes and insufficient use of evidence to resolve them. Can this be true?
I certainly won’t argue with the take on macro. Macro models draw on implicit social theory (what motivates individuals, how much deference we should give to their choices, how “social”, which is to say, interactive society actually is, etc.), and most empirical work is filtered through such models, so that testing merges with calibration. It’s as bad as Fox and Krugman say it is.
But I’m basically a microeconomist, and I think economics is as ideologically driven and counterfactual in many of the topics I care about as it is in macro. Apparently there is no evidence for this position: micro folks, as can be seen on display here in San Diego, are all in agreement, discussing each others’ papers in a friendly, collaborative way like monkeys grooming their neighbors’ furry backsides. What does that imply about outliers like me?
In a nutshell, here is what I think is going on, based on my personal experience. In the areas I work in, I find a lot of common ground with people trained in other social sciences, like psychology, political science and anthropology, and even more with those who have an applied policy background like education, labor relations and public health. I am virtually unable to communicate on the same subjects with other economists, and I haven’t tried publishing in a “real” economics journal in decades. (This is not an exaggeration.)
In other words, my view is that the crucial dividing lines in micro are drawn between economists and other kinds of researchers and not within the economics profession. In macro, by contrast, the lines separate some economists from others.
I have avoided giving any specifics about what makes me such an apostate, since that would require a lot more writing, and I’m already late to an 8 am session I want to attend. Let’s just say I find most economists' assessments of optimal this and preferred that to be based on implausible and repeatedly disconfirmed assumptions, and I think the substantive ends of policy should be taken instead from those who study ends substantively, like the aforementioned psychologists, public health specialists, environmental scientists, etc. If you make that leap, you will have to cut the cord to a large part of economic theory, but you will fit in well enough with the hordes of people who don’t populate economics conventions.