“Practicing economics as a truly human science”

VSWhat policy makers often seek is less often radically new ideas, and more practical information on how to do better at what they intend to do anyway. It’s in my inaugural lesson of 2009 [Esther Duflo était alors titulaire de la chaire Savoirs contre pauvreté] that I was introducing for the first time a metaphor that I found very useful (so much so that I made it the title of an important lecture I gave before the American Economic Association in 2017) from the economist as a plumber.

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I then wrote: “So it is useful to think of economists not as pure scientists, but as skilled technicians, engineers, or even plumbers. In a number of areas, economists have expertise and models that can serve as a guide for proposing responses to specific problems or for theoretically analyzing and evaluating the solutions proposed by actors in the field. »

But it turns out that economic policy issues often involve a lot of plumbing: big ideas, structural reforms, perhaps appeal more to politicians, and also many of their advisers (including economists ), but when it comes to implementing policy on the ground, the questions and practical details multiply, and it is these details that can make the difference between success and failure. Broad guidelines are often given by a clear ideological or political framework (sometimes provided by the type of economists who are more “scientists” than plumbers). Procedures, broadly, by engineers or bureaucrats. But the details are too often overlooked, first because the tendency to overlook every detail (even the potentially important ones) is deeply human, and second because economists and politicians are especially prone to these oversights.

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The training of economists enjoins them in general, precisely, to ignore the details. The art of modeling is to simplify reality to discover the internal logic of essential assumptions. The light is directed to illuminate general principles, not details that might be very specific to a particular situation. These details are distractions. To concentrate better on the general principles, the economist-scientist will neglect these annoying details, which are likely to be precisely what will make the difference between a success and a failure. This explains why the level of confidence in economists is at an all time low.

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