What is wrong with Economics

Raghuram Rajan has an interesting piece on what went wrong with the economics profession in the years that led up to the global crisis. His big issues: specialization, the difficulty of forecasting, and the disengagement of much of the profession from the real world.

I think these, in turn, are directly related to the incentives of academic publishing. It’s a recurring theme in agency theory: When the principal rewards the agent for performance in a certain direction, an excessive focus upon that comes about, and performance in other directions gets contaminated. When universities created an incentive structure linked purely to peer-reviewed journal pubs, economists focused on performing for each other, instead of performing for the world.

So in our diagnosis of the crisis, just as we criticise the HR policies of banks, we should also criticise the HR policies of universities.

While I’m quite aware of the narrowing of the mind that comes about from the Western-style process of focusing on pubs and tenure, it is not easy to find an alternative HR framework. George Stigler had a fascinating little article on this (which I was unable to find: do you know it?).

In India, in particular, the economics profession suffers from the twin maladies of low pressure and the historical baggage of development/socialist economics. On average, if an Indian economics department was given strong incentives to publish more, it would be an improvement. Performing for economists is better than not performing. At the same time, on the scale of mankind, it does seem that economists need to do more in terms of performing for the world.

Why does the publishing+tenure process work well in science and engineering? I have an opinion of one element that is in play there. In science and engineering, bringing in resources through research contracts is essential for doing research because research requires expensive equipment, staff, etc. There is, then, a joint production of academic publications alongside performing for the world (which allocates research funding). Hence, when the principal asked for academic publications, this did not generate a closing of the mind. In contrast, most research in economics in the top departments worldwide does not require bringing in external funding. So that source of pressure for performing for the world is absent.

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