Sunday, May 18, 2014

What I do as an economist

The other point made in Noah's post (mentioned in my previous post) is that a lot of economics today is no longer a "policy science". He talks about auction theory and random utility discrete choice models as examples of this shift. I also hear this from people, and I agree with Noah that it's not a very accurate depiction of what economists spend their time doing. We are not always thinking about policy implications and applications of our work.

It's truer of economists in my area (Washington) than other areas for obvious reasons, but even here I think it's a misnomer. Only some of my work currently has any relation to policy, for example.

Right now, in writing this post, I'm putting off some contract work I'm doing for the National Academy of Engineering on the engineering technologist workforce. None of this work discusses policy, it's just a workforce study. Policymakers certainly pay attention to the NAE's output, but the NAE itself of course is not a governmental organization and there's no legislative or policy issue being considered for this project.

I'm also revising a paper to resubmit to the Journal of Family and Economic Issues that looks at time use behavior in the Great Recession. It has no policy content.

I just finished revising and resubmitting an article to the Review of Industrial Organization on title insurance. It discusses some regulation of the industry as background, but there's not a lot of policy content other than that.

I just finished writing for class and will continue to revise during the summer for my dissertation a paper on occupational sorting by STEM majors. There is no policy content to that work at all.

I'm also going to pick up my GME version of propensity score matching paper this summer to present again at the SEA meeting this fall. There is no policy content to that work at all - it's just a small contribution to the development of an econometric technique.

Nothing on my plate right now has anything to do with politics. Because I'm an economist. Political scientists and political philosophers are the ones that sit around and think about "the state" all day, not me. That's the division of labor. Economists touch on it of course, as we should. But that's not the constant preoccupation of modern economists.

I will circle back to more policy related work of course. I'll be doing more workforce development evaluations. But even this is still "engineering" of a sort, and not "providing a rationale for the power of the State" (remember - I don't know ahead of time if it's going to work and often what they're doing DOESN'T work) that the commenter I mentioned in the last post thought was so pervasive.


  1. It's interesting. I became interested in economics *because* of policy issues (like the causes of and possible ways to ameliorate poverty; reading Michael Harrington's The Other America was a seminal experience for me). So to some extent much of my research agenda has been shaped by the policy questions in which I was interested [Do local tax incentives (zoning restrictions, etc.) have a significant impact of local economic development? And other things.] On the other hand, it's impossible to approach the policy issues unless the economics is done properly--that is, with regard for what is (to the best of our ability to determine it) a correct depiction of the way the world works. So I see more of a role for policy issues, while at the same time I think it's absolutely necessary to approach the *analysis* as if the policy issues were not particularly central.

  2. Daniel, its been a while since I commented here. When I came across the reference below, I was reminded of a exchange we had, and thought I'd point it out to you (just in case you didn't see it)


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