Did Paul Romer Just Call for a Witch Hunt?
By David Henderson
The alternative is to make honesty and humility prerequisites for membership in the community of economists. The easy part is to challenge the pretenders. The hard part is to say no when government officials look to economists for an answer to a normative question. Scientific authority never conveys moral authority. No economist has a privileged insight into questions of right and wrong, and none deserves a special say in fundamental decisions about how society should operate. Economists who argue otherwise and exert undue influence in public debates about right and wrong should be exposed for what they are: frauds.
This is the last paragraph of a long article by recent Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Romer. The article is “The Dismal Kingdom,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020.
Notice that he doesn’t say simply that economists who don’t share his belief in the role of economists are wrong. If he did, we could have that discussion. No. Romer goes further, claiming that people who disagree with him on this issue are frauds. Robin Hanson challenges Romer on this, I think quite effectively. Robin writes:
Look, people quite often express “moral” opinions that are combinations of simple moral intuitions together with intuitions about how social systems work. If they are mistaken about that second part, and if we can gain separate estimates on their moral intuitions, then economic analysis has the potential to produce superior combinations.
This is exactly what exactly what economists try to do when applying value of life estimates, and this can also be done regarding deregulation. The key point is that when people act on their moral intuitions, then we can use their actions to estimate their morals, and thus include their moral weights in our analysis.
Here’s how I would put it: when you think clearly about tradeoffs, you often do have more insight into normative issues than people who don’t think clearly about tradeoffs.
This is not the first time that Romer has called out people in the economics profession for views that differ from his own. He did it in the 2015 American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings with an article titled “Mathiness in the Theory of Economic Growth.” In that piece, Romer doesn’t call for drumming people out of the profession. But he does dismiss their ideas in an insulting way by claiming that one of them, Joan Robinson, “was engaged in academic politics.”
And what was her sin? “[S]he waged her campaign against capital and the aggregate production function.” Now, you don’t have to work hard to convince me that Joan Robinson’s almost Communistic political views were bad. If you doubt that, read my biography of her in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, particularly the part about her views on Mao Zedong’s China and Kim Il Sung’s North Korea. But that’s not what’s at issue here. What’s at issue, or, more accurately, what should be at issue, is whether Robinson had a legitimate point. But Romer doesn’t get to that. He avoids the issue by attributing, without any evidence, her different views to her academic politics.
And it turns out that Joan Robinson was right! Here’s what I wrote on that issue in her bio:
In 1954 Robinson’s article “The Production Function and the Theory of Capital” started what came to be called the Cambridge controversy. Robinson attacked the idea that capital can be measured and aggregated. This became the position in Cambridge, England. Across the Atlantic, Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow defended the by-then traditional neoclassical view that capital can be aggregated. Robinson won the battle. As historian Mark Blaug puts it, Samuelson made a “declaration of unconditional surrender.” Yet most economists still think that aggregating capital is useful and continue to do it anyway.
But you won’t get that impression from reading Romer’s piece.
Indeed, he ends the “Mathiness” piece with the following flourish:
Where would we be now if Robert Solow’s math had been swamped by Joan Robinson’s mathiness?
I’ll tell you where we would likely be: much further along in the the theory of growth.
Let’s go back to the first sentence I quoted from Romer’s piece in Foreign Affairs:
The alternative is to make honesty and humility prerequisites for membership in the community of economists.
I agree with the honesty part. That should be pretty much a prerequisite for membership in any community, not just the community of economists.
I’m not sure about humility. I’ll tell you someone else who doesn’t seem so sure of it: Paul Romer. Read his “Mathiness” piece and his Foreign Affairs piece and see if you think he shows a lot of humility.
Here, by the way, is my bio of Romer.