Project Syndicate: What Good Are Economists?
"... One reason may be the perception that many economists were smugly promoting the “efficient markets hypothesis” – a view that seemed to rule out a collapse in asset prices. Believing that markets always know best, they dismissed warnings by a few mere mortals (including me) about overpricing of equities and housing. After both markets crashed spectacularly, the profession’s credibility took a direct hit.
But this criticism is unfair. We do not blame physicians for failing to predict all of our illnesses. Our maladies are largely random, and even if our doctors cannot tell us which ones we will have in the next year, or eliminate all of our suffering when we have them, we are happy for the help that they can provide. Likewise, most economists devote their efforts to issues far removed from establishing a consensus outlook for the stock market or the unemployment rate. And we should be grateful that they do.
In his new book Trillion Dollar Economists, Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution argues that the economics profession has “created trillions of dollars of income and wealth for the United States and the rest of the world.” That sounds like a nice contribution for a relatively small profession, especially if we do some simple arithmetic. There are, for example, only 20,000 members of the American Economic Association (of which I am President-Elect); if they have created, say, $2 trillion of income and wealth, that is about $100 million per economist.
A cynic might ask, “If economists are so smart, why aren’t they the richest people around?” The answer is simple: Most economic ideas are public goods that cannot be patented or otherwise owned by their inventors. Just because most economists are not rich does not mean that they have not made many people richer. ..."