Economists missed the brewing crisis. Now many are asking: How can we do better?
By Drake Bennett, Boston Globe
December 21, 2008
THE DEEPENING ECONOMIC downturn has been hard on a lot of people, but it has been hard in a particular way for economists. For most of us, pain and apprehension have been mixed with a sense of grim amazement at the complexity of what has unfolded: the dense, invisible lattice connecting house prices to insurance companies to job losses to car sales, the inscrutability of the financial instruments that helped to spread the poison, the sense that the ratings agencies and regulatory bodies were overmatched by events, the wild gyrations of the stock market in the past few months. It's hard enough to understand what's happening, and it seems absurd to think we could have seen it coming beforehand. The vast majority of us, after all, are not experts.
But academic economists are. And with very few exceptions, they did not predict the crisis, either. Some warned of a housing bubble, but almost none foresaw the resulting cataclysm. An entire field of experts dedicated to studying the behavior of markets failed to anticipate what may prove to be the biggest economic collapse of our lifetime. And, now that we're in the middle of it, many frankly admit that they're not sure how to prevent things from getting worse.
As a result, there's a sense among some economists that, as they try to figure out how to fix the economy, they are also trying to fix their own profession. The discussion has played out in blog posts and opinion pieces, in congressional testimony and at conferences and in working papers. A field that has increasingly been defined, at least in the public eye, by quirky studies explaining the economics of our everyday lives - most famously in the best-selling book "Freakonomics" - has turned decisively, in the last couple months, to more traditional economic turf. And at economics powerhouses like Harvard, MIT, and the University of Chicago, faculty lunch discussions that once might have centered on theoretical questions and the finer points of Bayesian analysis are now given over to dissecting bailout plans. Long-held ideas - about the stability of the business cycle, the resilience of markets, and the power of monetary policy - are being challenged.
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