Thursday, August 28, 2014

Economists: Lawyers? Shysters? Touts?

"Basically, a lot of economists use the tools of science to accomplish literary-- or lawyerly -- goals." -- Noah Smith, Economics Isn't Science or Literature
If that's the case, what's "the law"? What are the standards of evidence? I've been thinking a lot recently about the extensive reliance on "hearsay" in economics -- that is to say the flippant attitude of economists toward sources -- and about the preponderance of alibi stories (again with scant regard for proving the alibi). Unlike the legal profession, there is no formal professional code of ethics for economists. So, where do we draw the line between "lawyer" and "shyster"?
"...'shyster' lawyers -- a set of turkey-buzzards whose touch is pollution and whose breath is pestilence" -- "The Tombs," New York in Slices (1849)
"In England, although we have not the term 'shyster,' we have the animal thereby designated, and he is said to be particularly rife at the Old Bailey. A shyster is a tout, and touting may be practised either by a barrister, or by his clerk, or by his post or future clients… But in New York the shyster ventures upon proceedings from which the English tout would shrink. He makes his way into the prisons, and informs the prisoners committed for trial that he has great influence, and in some cases 'he goes so far as to say that he controls, aye, even owns the court and district attorney.'" -- The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art (1871)
"The complaint one makes against that anti-social jargon, which so easily passes for economic science, is that it is in ludicrous opposition to the common observation of facts. Political economy professes to be a science based on observation. But the bitter pedantry which often usurps that name usually assumes its facts, after it has rounded off dogmas to suit its clients. In practice this magazine of untruth escapes detection for two reasons. One is that the facts relating to labour are invariably seen through the spectacles of capital.... The second reason which obscures the truth about industry is, that the facts about capital are almost never honestly disclosed." -- Frederic Harrison, Fortnightly Review (1872)
Update: (Lest we forget):
"In addition to business and government, Mr. Ferguson aims his critique at academia, suggesting that the discipline of economics and more than a few prominent economists were corrupted by consulting fees, seats on boards of directors and membership in the masters of the universe club. 
"When he challenges some of these professors, in particular those who held positions of responsibility in the White House or in the Federal Reserve, they are reduced to stammering obfuscation — Markets are complicated! Who could have predicted? I don’t see any conflict of interest — and occasionally provoked to testiness."  -- A. O. Scott, New York Times review of "Inside Job" (2010).

1 comment:

blissex said...

«Economists: Lawyers? Shysters? Touts?»

Some economists I call "sell-side" economists. Just as there are "sell-side" stock analysts.

And there are also sell-side central bankers, politicians, national statisticians, ...

There are much fewer buy-side economists etc. because buyers are stupid and don't like paying for help.