Does the dismal science deserve federal funding?

Here is today’s WSJ Op-Ed by Gary Becker and James Heckman.  In general I am sympathetic to government funding for science, but I’d like to tack on a few points to these arguments in particular.

1. There is not a peep about supply elasticity.  A lot of economics research comes pretty cheaply and presumably without direct government subsidy.  Isn’t the implied conclusion to invest a lot in data gathering and RCTs/field experiments, but not so much in large swathes of economics?  Should we not start by listing all those branches of economics which should not be eligible for subsidy?

2. Is there possibly a higher external benefit to directing the attention of economists to teaching or community service rather than research?  Somehow this argument ends up underplayed when economists discuss subsidies.  Or how about subsidies for economics bloggers?  Presumably there is lots of good economics research which remains underpublicized and underutilized.  Isn’t that often the relevant choke point, not lack of new research ideas and findings?

3. Economics research is already highly subsidized through our tax code and legal treatment of non-profits.  An argument for subsidy is not the same as an argument for further subsidy.

4. I find it easy to believe the subsidies for economists would bring higher returns than the worst uses of federal funds.  But surely larger subsidies for economists are not the highest return projects before us.  Isn’t it worth listing which projects would be even better than subsidies for economists (or at least acknowledging that they exist)?  How about reporting “Subsidies for economists are better than farm subsidies, but not as good as medical R&D subsidies or 347 other uses of the funds”?  Presumably the goal is to bring about the best outcome possible, not just to advocate further subsidies for economists, right?  Right?  Right?  After all, that is what the economic method is all about.



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