Tyler Cowen says some interesting things in an article Why Economics is Failing US on Bloomberg. I don’t think his comments are limited to the economics domain.
Economics is one of the better-funded and more scientific social sciences, but in some critical ways it is failing us. The main problem, as I see it, is standards: They are either too high or too low. In both cases, the result is less daring and creativity.
Consider academic research. In the 1980s, the ideal journal submission was widely thought to be 17 pages, maybe 30 pages for a top journal. The result was a lot of new ideas, albeit with a lower quality of execution. Nowadays it is more common for submissions to top economics journals to be 90 pages, with appendices, robustness checks, multiple methods, numerous co-authors and every possible criticism addressed along the way.
There is little doubt that the current method yields more reliable results. But at what cost? The economists who have changed the world, such as Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, typically had brilliant ideas with highly imperfect execution. It is now harder for this kind of originality to gain traction. Technique stands supreme and must be mastered at an early age, with some undergraduates pursuing “pre-docs” to get into a top graduate school.
Sam Shuster, before I departed to Strasbourg, warned me in a similar vein, with reference to the Art of War by Sun Tzu:
Even the mystique of wisdom turns out to be technique. But if today must be learning technique, don’t leave the tomorrow of discovery too long.
I would say I heard the message but didn’t listen carefully enough. As befits an economist, Cowen warns us that there is no free lunch.