The Profession and the Crisis
Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544-1013, USA
So we’re having an economic crisis. I say “having,” not “had,” because we have by no means recovered. Financial panic may have subsided, stocks may be up, but employment remains far below pre-crisis levels, and unemployment — especially long-term unemployment — remains disastrously high. And while you can make the case that the economy is slowly on the mend, slowly is the operative word. We have already been through two years of economic purgatory, and there’s no end in sight.
There is a real sense in which times like these are what economists are for, just as wars are what career military officers are for. OK, maybe I can let microeconomists off the hook. But macroeconomics is, above all, about understanding and preventing or at least mitigating economic downturns. This crisis was the time for the economics profession to justify its existence, for us academic scribblers to show what all our models and analysis are good for.
We have not, to put it mildly, delivered.
What do I mean by that? As I see it, there are three main complaints one can make about economists and their role in the current crisis. First is the complaint that economists fell down on the job by not seeing the crisis coming. Second is the complaint that economists failed even to see the possibility of this kind of crisis — and that by pointing out the possibility, they could have helped head the crisis off. Third is the complaint that they have either failed to offer useful advice on what to do after the crisis struck, or that they have offered such a cacophony of voices as to provide no useful guidance for policy.