The problem with economists

Felix Salmon fesses up on how he (and most all journalists) read economic papers:

We generally have no ability or inclination to try to understand the details of the formulae and regression analyses, so we confine ourselves to reading the stuff in English, and work on the general assumption that the mathematics is reasonably solid. The problem of course is that we really have no basis for making that general assumption: we make it not because we think it's particularly justified or justifiable, but because we don't have any choice.

Or as Justin Fox puts it:

Economists had managed a remarkable balancing act between making the guts of their work totally incomprehensible -- and thus forbiddingly impressive -- to the outside world while continuing to offer reasonably straightforward conclusions. The basic form of an academic economics paper is a couple of comprehensible paragraphs at the beginning and a couple of comprehensible paragraphs at the end, with a bunch of really-hard-to-follow math or statistical analysis in the middle.

Fox, who had been attending a conference, received another suggestion from an economist in the audience:

Most economic work was aimed at prediction, and the world is always hungry for predictions. He added that most macroeconomic predictions are worthless (he was a microeconomist), but that doesn't seem to have damped the demand for them.

Let me just add that economic predictions are especially in demand if they offer some dramatic or provocative conclusions - as in, say, the world is about to collapse. Most forecasts tend to be nuanced, mainly because the economy is still teetering between recession and recovery - and unlike other aspects of the 24/7 world, there's no way to get a real-time rundown on what's going on every single second. Sometimes it takes weeks, months or even years to figure it all out. By which time no one much cares.

More by Mark Lacter:
American-US Air settlement with DOJ includes small tweak at LAX
Socal housing market going nowhere fast
Amazon keeps pushing for faster L.A. delivery
Another rugged quarter for Tribune Co. papers
How does Stanford compete with the big boys?
Those awful infographics that promise to explain and only distort
Best to low-ball today's employment report
Further fallout from airport shootings
Crazy opening for Twitter*
Should Twitter be valued at $18 billion?
Recent stories:
Letter from Down Under: Welcome to the Homogenocene
One last Florida photo
Signs of Saturday: No refund
'I Am Woman,' hear them roar
Bobcat crossing

New at LA Observed
On the Media Page
Go to Media

On the Politics Page
Go to Politics
Arts and culture

Sign up for daily email from LA Observed

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
The multi-talented Mark Lacter
LA Observed on Twitter and Facebook