What do economists know? Tyler Cowen’s Essay Exam

Tyler Cowen came up with this idea at lunch (I was not there) a few days ago and shared it with me by email.

Imagine giving all professional economists (and other academics) an essay test. Determine their area of expertise, and then ask them to write a twenty-page essay on one of the most basic questions in that field. So it might be “Why did China do so well?” Or “what are the determinants of economic growth?” Or “What causes business cycles?”

In the email, he added

Then we really would see who understands anything at all.

I really, really wish this sort of exercise were carried out. My thoughts:

1. If I were to do this, the topic would be “Why is health care policy a challenge in the United States?” In fact, I plan on doing the exercise. I can take key points from my book (Crisis of Abundance) and add some refinements that have occurred to me in the dozen years since it was published. For another topic on which I feel knowledgeable, the causal mechanisms of the financial crisis, I think that my views are correct with p = .4. Better than just about anyone else, but I think that my analysis of health care is more reliable, closer to p = .8 of being right.

2. To me, the most interesting thing about such essays would be to examine how an economist justifies his or her claim to knowledge. My guess is that you would not see instances in which an economist relies on a particular theoretical model or empirical study. Instead, a variety of observations and basic theoretical insights will be combined to form the economist’s view of the topic. Something like the Hill Criteria, as opposed to this One Chart, or that Clever Model.

3. There are some topics which, no matter how much you know, you cannot pin down with confidence. What caused the Industrial Revolution to take place in England when it did? What caused the Great Depression to take the course that it did? What caused the sharp drop in employment that coincided with or followed the Financial Crisis to take the course that it did? Anyone who in their 20-page essay claims to know the answer to one of these questions with p > .3 is not to be trusted.

4. I am curious about how these essays would differ by age cohort. My guess is that a lot of economists under 40 would write essays on very narrow topics. My guess is that a lot of economists over 60 would write essays that I think are baloney sandwich, particularly if they concern macroeconomics.

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3 Responses to What do economists know? Tyler Cowen’s Essay Exam

  1. David says:

    I look forward to reading your essay about health care policy.

  2. Pete says:

    Who would grade them?

  3. collin says:

    If I was a Econ professor my favorite question

    Why is the modern contradiction that the richest societies can least afford to have children? Why is that?

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