Monday, February 23, 2009

Should economists debate each other?

Via Mankiw, the following article: Dismal scientists: how the crash is reshaping economics got some attention in particular the following passage:
Recently a group of economists affiliated with the Cato Institute ran an ad in the New York Times opposing Obama's stimulus plan. As chair of my department I tried to arrange a public debate between one of the signatories and a proponent of fiscal stimulus -- thinking that would be a timely and lively session. But the signatory, a fully accredited university macroeconomist, declined the opportunity for public defense of his position on the grounds that "all I know on this issue I got from Greg Mankiw's blog -- I really am not equipped to debate this with anyone."

Mankiw's response was:
My interpretation is more benign: The chairman of the department asks a professor to do something, the professor is busy and doesn't really want to do it, so he blows off the chairman with a tongue-in-cheek quip.

On a related note: I know a lot of academics who don't like debate formats. They find it too confrontational and incompatible with reasoned discussion. A prominent economics professor I know, who once faced off against Larry Summers in a debate, told me he would never put himself in that position again. But that decision has not stopped him from being a productive contributor to discussions of public policy.

I found Mankiw's response a little odd. In fact the economists that I have known at grad school are fierce debaters or at least confrontational. Some seminars were incredibly nerve wracking and at times I felt sorry for the presenter.

Moreover, this Bloomberg story on the Chicago school the legacy of Milton Friedman notes:
Friedman, who stood 5 feet 3 inches (160 centimeters), was a fierce debater, McCloskey recalls.
“He always asks, persistently, ‘How do you know?’” McCloskey, now 66, wrote in the Eastern Economic Review in 2003. “It’s a terrifying question, because most of the time we can’t say.”

Like Mankiw however, I do think the professor in question had no interest in debating because he probably preferred running regressions or building models. Alternatively, he had no interest in defending his position in a debate because he really did not believe in what he was saying. Both statements are not contradictory.

Note: The Greg Clark article in the Atlantic was not as interesting as the comments and the Bloomberg sotry was a nice retrospective on the ideas of the Chicago school and how the current crisis is overturning its principles and ideals.

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