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Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Monday, June 16, 2008

On the Ideological Character of the Discipline of Economics

An interesting discussion here; an excerpt:

Here is what economist Edward Glaeser had to say in a recent paper about researcher incentives and empirical methods:

Economists are quick to assume opportunistic behavior in almost every walk of life other than our own. Our empirical methods are based on assumptions of human behavior that would not pass muster in any of our models. The solution to this problem is not to expect a mass renunciation of data mining, selective data cleaning or opportunistic methodology selection, but rather to follow Leamer’s lead in designing and using techniques that anticipate the behavior of optimizing researchers.

Indeed, Krueger and Card have written a paper that provides strong evidence that “specification searching and publication bias” have led to an overrepresentation of studies that find that the minimum wage has a statistically significant disemployment effect. The ideological character of much of the economics profession in the United States suggests that there are rewards for producing scholarship that confirms the idea that the minimum wage causes unemployment, and punishment for scholarship that finds otherwise.

David Card, a highly regarded economist at Berkeley (among other honors, he won the John Bates Clark Prize, a prestigious award given every two years to the most outstanding economist under 40), has produced many of the best studies taking issue with the old conventional wisdom about the minimum wage. But he stopped studying this subject, to a large degree because the reception his research got was so hostile in some quarters of the economics profession. He said:

I’ve subsequently stayed away from the minimum wage literature for a number of reasons. First, it cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole.

“Traitors to the cause of economics as a whole”! Those are strong words, especially coming from someone who seems, on the basis of interviews at least, to be a fairly mild-mannered, non-drama-queen kind of guy. And if someone who’s a tenured full professor and one of the leading lights in his field took so much heat that he abandoned this line of research, what do you think the chances are that aspiring Ph.D.s and ambitious young assistant professors are going to touch this issue with a ten-foot pole?

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