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July 02, 2007


Economist-type Jared Bernstein wonders why his colleagues so often get it wrong. The answer, in short, is who you callin' rational, kemosabe?

Update: Speaking of the possibly irrational nature of voters, maybe we should pay less attention to the models and more to the saliva swabs.

July 2, 2007 | Permalink


Wow, your standard for becoming a credentialed economist are pretty low. The guy has a PhD in Social Welfare, whatever the hell that is, and has never held an academic position in an economics department.

The extent of his experience as an "economist" is that he works at a think tank with the word economics in it.

Posted by: Jar Jar Binks | Jul 2, 2007 4:55:55 PM

I don't play over at TPM Cafe, so I'll just note here that economists aren't just reductionists in the sense that Bernstein mentions. There's another factor at work here.

Complex situations involving altruism, advertising and other not-immediately-monetary impulses can be modeled using neo-classical assumptions, but it turns what was a neat little curve fitting session into a bunch of 4 dimensional equations to solve. A lot of the time, economists aren't interested in doing the work to factor in even the major influences of the real world.

And, of course, their academic journal peer review never punishes them for failing to...

Posted by: Meh | Jul 2, 2007 5:01:20 PM

The extent of his experience as an "economist" is that he works at a think tank with the word economics in it.

Welcome to the world of Washington, DC-area standards for being an "expert."

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 2, 2007 5:09:59 PM

Fair point! I'd been under a different impression. Post edited.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 2, 2007 5:12:17 PM

The Credentials debate aside, Bernstein gets it pretty right. The weight given Economist in public policy debates far outstrips what their actual track record would support. But, then our 'very serious' foreign policy 'experts' are even worse, and have yet to see any lessening of influence. But then again, they probably have had the right job titles and faculty positions, so I am sure they're just having an off decade.

Posted by: AJ | Jul 2, 2007 5:26:37 PM

Economists look like all-seeing geniuses compared to our foreign policy "experts", who often have never been to and usually don't even speak the language of the countries they are opining about.

I actually think the five bullet points Bernstein makes would be pretty uncontroversial among economists, although some of the stuff in his concluding paragraph takes it a bit far.

Posted by: mq | Jul 3, 2007 1:06:22 PM

To claim that Bernstein is not an economist is unfair bordering on disrespectful. To say that the only people who are allowed to call themselves economists are folks with Ph.D.s in economics is way too narrow. By that standard, then, Alan Greenspan is not an economist, because he never finished his dissertation in that subject. Or, to descend to a much lower level, Alan Reynolds could not be considered one either (he doesn't even have a master's degree in the subject).

Look, no ever said Arthur Schlesinger was not a historian, even though he lacked a Ph.D. in the subject. Doris Kearns Goodwin doesn't have a Ph.D. in history, either (her Ph.D. is in government), but I don't know anyone who's accused her of not being a historian.

An economist is simply someone who does economics, and by that definition Jared Bernstein more than qualifies. He does fine work, and there's no question that what he does -- analysis and synthesis of economic data, particularly labor market data -- is economics. In the 90s, he was deputy chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. There is no way you rise to a position like that without having a strong grounding in economics, both academically and in terms of research done outside of academia.

I don't know the details of what Bernstein did in grad school, but I assume he took courses in the econ department and had economists on his dissertation committee. In interdisciplinary programs like social welfare or public policy, this is quite common.

Look, I understand why people who don't like his politics will want to discredit him by taking potshots at his credentials. But to say he's not an economist demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what an economist is.

Posted by: Kathy G. | Jul 3, 2007 1:07:44 PM

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