The Humble Economist
Is Anything Wrong with Economics?

A Conspiracy?

By Jonathan B. Wight

The fact that economists lack humility, as indicated in my previous post, does not mean they are stupid. But to some outsiders, economists appear to be either stupid or engaged in a vast conspiracy. 

Take the unemployment report: Normal people pick up the newspaper and read that although the economy lost nearly 2.8 million jobs in January, Obama’s economists used a sleight-of-hand to write that off as a seasonal adjustment, and report instead that the economy gained a quarter-million jobs in that period. 

This is, of course, the reasonable result of adjusting the data to reflect past cycles (e.g., Christmas shopping, weather, and other predictable employment changes over the calendar year). 

But the average Tea Party types (among whom I count several friends) are suspicious of any monkeying with the raw numbers.  They are equally as suspicious of the Fed’s account of “core inflation” versus raw inflation.

What irks me about this debate is that government economists—despite all their faults—should be considered squeaky clean in terms of ethics.  I am not aware of any case in which an economist who is part of the federal civil service has deliberately misled the public about data in order to achieve some political or personal end.  This is not to say that economists all agree on how and why raw data should be adjusted to make sense of it for policy purposes.

Economists—for the most part—are pretty ethical.*

That’s not true of all people in the executive branch, like the infamous David Stockman, who as head of OMB deliberately made up numbers to promote Reagan’s agenda.  Up to that point in time, Stockman had taken courses in divinity, not economics. 

* For support of why I believe most economists are ethical, see “The Ethical Economist: Duty and Virtue in the Scientific Process, in The Handbook of Professional Economic Ethics, George DeMartino and Deirdre McCloskey, eds. (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2015).  The reason has less to do with enlightened self interest (even as this is a powerful force), and perhaps more to do with virtue.  


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