Posted by: Dirk | May 6, 2013

After Reinhart-Rogoff and Ferguson: time for the Economist’s Oath?

After the Reinhart/Rogoff scandal where the authors of an empirical study blocked other economists from using the data set until the damage done from the austerity policies that were at least partly based on the results of this study it is Niall Ferguson who makes a case for reform of economics. The BBC reports:

In unscripted remarks during a question and answer session, the high-profile historian and writer said Mr Keynes was indifferent to the long run because he had no children, and that he had no children because he was gay.

But in a statement posted on his website, he said it was obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations. The historian also insisted he was not homophobic.

[..] In 1926, Mr Keynes married Lydia Lopokova, a Russian ballerina, and Prof Ferguson also said he had forgotten that she had miscarried.

In the light of these incidents, I recall a book by George F. DeMartino named “The Economist’s Oath“. This is it (p. 3):

I do solemnly swear:

That I will be loyal to the Profession of Economics and just and generous to its members. That I will practice the art of economics in uprightness and honor.

That into whatever community I shall enter, it shall be for the good of the community to the utmost of my power, holding myself aloof from wrong, from corruption, from the tempting of others to vice.

That I will recognize and keep always in view that the community I serve is never a means for my ends, but always an end unto itself. It, and not I, is the rightful architect of its future …

If reading these lines prompts you to laugh sarcastically, hold on a minute. I know many economists who are definitely not happy with the discipline. They think that they have to play by the rules until they get tenure, and then can do whatever pleases. I don’t think so. Those colleagues that followed this strategy never made it back to the good side. Once you are in circles where loyalty counts more than economic science, there is hardly a way out. Not many economists have used the crisis to come clean and move back into the realm of science. It is still widely believed that as long as economists claim that, for instance, austerity policies create growth, then all problems will go away.

The state of economics is bad. I think it is decades of intellectual corruption that brought macroeconomics to the state of today. Nobody saw the crisis coming, many if not most deny the crisis, and if there is any problem: government is the cause. That is unworthy of a scientific discipline. If regulatory capture has led to special interests dominating academia, then the rules should be changed so that society gets the economists it deserves. In the existing system it is almost impossible for independent minds to come through. If your PhD advisor cannot put your articles into good journals, then you will never become a professor, even if with hindsight you were right.

Science must allow critical questions, pluralist views and economists which use at least 50% of their time to read instead of doing paperwork, getting publications published on which funding and salary depend, or whatnot. Medicine has the Hippocratic Oath because of what doctors can do to individual. Perhaps we do not an economists oath because of what economists can do to society?


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