Is Freakonomics Ruining Economics?

Writing in the April 02 issue of the New Republic, Noam Scheiber
argues Yes.  The article is no screed – it’s
well informed about economics and the state of the profession.  Unfortunately, it’s gated but do try find a copy somewhere.  This bit gives some of the flavor.

Several years after his paper on schooling, Angrist noticed
that the Armed Forces Qualifying Test had been misgraded for a few
years in the late ’70s. This had opened the doors to thousands of
subpar applicants and allowed Angrist to compare the lucky
underachievers with the people rejected once the glitch got corrected,
thereby isolating the impact of military service on wages. The
practical effect was to send the grad students scrambling to find other
instances in which life-altering decisions had been handed down
incorrectly. In 2000, a Harvard professor named Caroline Hoxby
discovered that streams had often formed boundaries to
nineteenth-century school districts, so that cities with more streams
historically had more school districts, even if some districts had
later merged. The discovery allowed Hoxby to show that competition
between districts improved schools. It also prompted the Harvard
students to wrack their brains for more ways in which arbitrary
boundaries had placed similar people in different circumstances.

Every few weeks, when a student would stumble onto some new
test-grading error or fatefully drawn boundary–what economists call
"instruments"–word of the discovery would rocket through the
department. The discoverer would become instantly, if momentarily,
famous, like the holder of a winning card at a Bingo hall, and
inspiring the same mix of reverence and jealousy. A typical
conversation around the snack machine at the National Bureau of
Economic Research, where many Harvard students had cubicles, went
something like: Hey, did you hear that so-and-so found this crazy
example of excess tax refunds in western Manitoba in the early ’60s? At
which point the other would reply, Uh, no, wow, that’s, uh, great, and
then scamper back to his desk to brainstorm for some similar quirk of
public policy. At an age when most people brood that life is too random
and arbitrary, these people’s biggest complaint was that it wasn’t
random and arbitrary enough.

In retrospect, I have come to see this as the moment I realized
economics had a cleverness problem. How was it that these students, who
had arrived at the country’s premier economics department intending to
solve the world’s most intractable problems–poverty, inequality,
unemployment–had ended up facing off in what sometimes felt like an
academic parlor game?

I think Scheiber is off in a few ways.  First, he conflates methods and
questions.  It’s true that clean identification is often found with
quirky experiments but a quirky experiment does not necessarily imply a
quirky question.  Hoxby’s work on education, mentioned above, is asking
a big question about the effect of competition on schools.  Levitt’s work
on crime uses quirks in police assignment as do those of his "pale imitators" (like those
guys that used terror alert levels
to estimate the effectiveness of police on the street.  Ha, ha!) but we
spend well over 100 billion dollars a year combating crime so it’s
pretty damn important to know how well police, prisons and punishment
work.  Scheiber criticizes Emily Oster’s work but his criticism has
nothing to do with his thesis, Oster’s work on AIDS, missing women and
so forth is on big questions. It’s possible to be clever and to think
big.

The second problem is to think that if only people did less Freakonomics they
would do more big think economics.  If only it were so.  The truth is
that even today most of economics is a wasteland of boring papers on
profoundly uninteresting questions.  The choice is not Levitt v.
Heckman it’s Levitt and Heckman (and many others like Buchanan who neither Levitt nor Heckman might appreciate) versus a huge number of non-entities (many
highly paid and famous) who answer trivial questions poorly and do it
without even the courtesy of offering some entertainment on the
side.

Addendum: Tyler has the first comment.