As I was driving home from work today, I was listening to Marketplace on public radio. In the middle of a story, reported by Nancy Marshall Genzer, about opponents of health care reform, there was an interesting comment that bears on the nature of economics as a scientific discipline. From the transcript of the story:
The Chamber of Commerce is taking a bulldozer to the [health care reform] bill. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported the Chamber is hiring an economist to study the legislation. The goal: more ammunition to sink the bill.
Ewe Reinhardt teaches economics at Princeton. He says, if the Chamber does its study, it will probably get the result it wants.
EWE REINHARDT: You can always get an economist with a PhD from a reputable university to give a scientific report that makes your case. So, yes, there will be such a study.
It’s that comment from Dr. Reinhardt that got my attention. What precisely is he claiming about economics?
Is it that well-trained economists cannot be expected to be able to come to agreement about the economic facts about any given policy? (Why wouldn’t we expect that well-trained economists would be able to ascertain a relatively stable set of facts?)
Or that well-trained economists may be able to come to agreement about the economic facts relevant to a given policy, but that they cannot be expected to come to any kind of agreement about what outcomes these facts should lead them to predict should the policy be implemented? (What makes economic predictions so wildly difficult? More than that, what would make different economists predict such wildly divergent things from an agreed upon set of economic facts?)
Or is it that just because someone has a PhD in economics from a reputable university, there’s no reason to think he or she is going to generate a scientific report that other economists will find credible?
Dr. Reinhardt describes what an economist might generate in this situation as a scientific report; I’m trying to connect the dots here to figure out just what kind of science economics is presumed to be.