The eminent economists Paul Krugman and Greg Mankiw are busily occupied in comparing the size of their reproductive organs (hat tip: James Joyner). Their time might better be spent in predicting within, say, 1% how today’s “Black Friday” sales will compare with last year’s.

They won’t do it, of course, and if they tried they probably both be wrong. Economics remains a science of human behavior and like all of the behavioral sciences, it remains primarily descriptive rather than predictive. If the the physical sciences were in the same state as the behavioral sciences the moon shot 40 years would have missed the moon entirely and in any given batch a chemist would be as likely to get mayonnaise as nitroglycerin.

I’m not condemning economics or economists just trying to be realistic in my expectations. It’s complicated. I think that economics is a fine tool for understanding what’s gone wrong our economy these days. I don’t think it’s nearly so good at figuring out what to do next.

In Dr. Krugman’s defense my guess is he’s comparing Secretaries of the Treasury rather than economic advisors more broadly. The question then becomes whether Lloyd Bentsen, Robert Rubin, and Larry Summers were better Secretaries of the Treasury than Paul O’Neill, John Snow, and Henry Paulson. I’d be willing to hear arguments both ways.

I’m sure everybody would be happy to say that Alexander Hamilton was a great Secretary of the Treasury. More recently I wonder who Dr. Krugman would say was a great SoT? My guess is that he’d say Robert Rubin. I can’t help but point out that after serving as Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton Robert Rubin was on the board of directors of Citigroup. So much for adulthood. I don’t believe that Robert Rubin or Bill Clinton for that matter was any more responsible for the boom of the late 1990’s than the cock’s crowing is for causing the sun to rise. You’ll never persuade the rooster of that, of course.

Is there any real evidence that economists and bankers make better Secretaries of the Treasury than politicians?

3 comments… add one
  • . . . as likely to get mayonnaise as nitroglycerin.

    That’s very funny. And it explains the tragedy of the turkey sandwich that blew up my kitchen.

  • James Raider Link

    We have created monsters in the form of omnipotent economists. They are not what they seem.

    Perhaps society has simply overplayed them. It would be much more productive to listen to entrepreneurs.

  • Brett Link

    I suppose the obvious defense would be that they don’t make the minor stupid mistakes, like “Comparative Advantage? What’s that?” That allows them to make the big stupid mistakes.

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