Economists Abandoning Theory for Empirical Work Already Being Done by Non-Economists
Economists don't appear very interested in economics nowadays.
Indeed, they mostly seem interested in muscling in on other disciplines.
Consider, for example, this profile on Harvard economist Raj Chetty published in May by Vox. The article acts as is Chetty has done something revolutionary in the social sciences by processing large amounts of data to examine human behavior.
For example, the Vox author breathlessly notes that in Chetty's class:
There’s little discussion of supply and demand curves, of producer or consumer surplus, or other elementary concepts introduced in classes like Ec 10. There is no textbook, only a set of empirical papers.
He [Chetty] used huge amounts of IRS tax data to map inequality of opportunity in the US down to the neighborhood, and to show that black boys in particular enjoy less upward mobility than white boys.
But here's the thing: people have been doing this sort of thing for years. They're called sociologists.
Similarly, we're supposed to be impressed that the new "empirical economists" are using data to examine the psychological roots of human behavior. They call it "behavioral economics," but they haven't developed anything new. They're just doing the work of psychologists, and then calling it "economics."
And then there's the field called "developmental economics." which is just trying to recreate the work that's been done for years by political scientists.
I should note that I don't so much have a problem with overlap in these disciplines. In fact, that's a good thing. What is silly is that every time the economists decided to start doing sociology or psychology, they then tell themselves (and others) that they're doing something "revolutionary."
That, of course, is the whole tone of the Vox piece. Isn't it amazing that people are examining data to look at income!"
No, it's really not.
In fact, some of the most heated debates over household income occur among sociologists, not economists.
Take for example, the debate over Juliet Schor's book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure from 1992. For years, scholars debated whether or not she was right, and whether or not people really are working more than they used to. (She was probably wrong.)
Nonetheless, we can see that the debate over work was largely driven by sociologists in recent decades.
Similarly, for data on trends in family size and living arrangement — something with huge implications for standards of living — we find much of the work being done by Steven Ruggles, a history professor and scholar of "population studies."
And then, of course, there are the criminologists. This topic has important implications for economics, given the supposed connection between crime and income, and the effects crime has on one's standard of living. But the empirical work in this area is rarely done by economists. It's done by political scientists and historians.
This isn't to say that economists are never involved in this sort of thing. Claudia Goldin, for example, has looked at issues surrounding family incomes for decades.
But economic history is all these alleged new "empirical economists" are doing. Looking at the upward mobility of black boys, as Chetty is doing, is just economic history. There's nothing wrong with doing economic history. It's a perfectly legit field. But doing that sort of work doesn't make Chetty special. (And the sheer size of the data-sets doesn't make him special either. All these social science fields have been moving more and more in the direction of large-scale data mining.)
But there's also nothing new about it, and nothing that warrants a gushing piece about the new page economics is supposedly turning by doing what sociologists have already been doing for decades.
In fact, the more economists go all-in on trying to copy the work done by other fields, the more they ignore what's actually important about economics, which is theoretical economics devoted to understanding core issues like business cycles, entrepreneurship, and value. By ignoring these issues, economists only make themselves more irrelevant. Were economists to devote themselves to better understanding and spreading good economic theory, they'd be in a position to interpret and and analyze the empirical work done by others. After all, empirical work is only as good as the theory used to understand it.
But it doesn't look like economists are much interested in that sort of thing. They just want to hop on the empirical bandwagon. Meanwhile, economists seem to think they discovered all this sort of thing the day before yesterday. This is just the sort of obliviousness we should expect from academic departments, and it helps demonstrate much of what's increasingly wrong with economists in the first place.