Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Economist picks future economics stars

TheEconomist makes its once-a-decade predictions of future big stars in economics. I had heard of all of them - you can't imagine how much I hear about Marc Melitz here at Michigan, where he got his Ph.D. - except for Xavier Gabaix. I agree with those who thought Ester Duflo already too famous to deserve note in such a column. There is no uncertainty in that "prediction".

The list includes only one macroeconomist and no labor economists (and no micro theorists either). I am not sure who I would pick as a future star in labor; the field seems to be in a stretch of high quality, within-paradigm research of an incrementalist sort. This kind of research gets done by good but not star quality researchers.

The Economist does an excellent job of analogizing the link between structural economics and the raw reduced form results produced by experiments and other reduced form analyses:

The randomistas, as Ms Duflo and her comrades are called, liken their studies to the clinical trials that prove the efficacy of new drugs. But the ultimate ambition of economics is for something more akin to anatomy. Researchers hope to dissect the underlying physiology of an economic problem, revealing how the leg bone is connected to the thigh bone. With a full anatomy of behaviour—what economists call a structural model—they can determine if a policy or project will work even before it has been attempted.

I read that as a gentle poke at the randomistas and a nod to the view, implicit in my papers with Shannon Seitz and Jeremy Lise on the Canadian SSP program and in the excellent paper (since published in the AER) on the Mexican PROGRESA program by Petra Todd and Ken Wolpin, that experiments and structural models are complements, not substitutes.

I also like the Economist's (likely controversial) definition of what constitutes economics:

What, then, unites these eight young stars and the discipline they may come to dominate? Economists still share a taste for the Greek alphabet: they like to provide formal, algebraic accounts of the behaviour they explain. And they pride themselves on the sophistication of their investigative methods. They are usually better at teasing confessions out of data than their rivals in other social sciences. What defines economics? Economics is what economists do—the best of them, anyway.

I think this bit indirectly highlights the fact that recent economic imperialism, unlike the efforts led by Becker and others, rides on the superior applied econometric skills of economists rather than on their theory. This is particularly true for the large inroads that economists have made into education research.