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Noah Smith

How Econ Got Crime and Punishment Wrong

The flaw was assuming that criminals act rationally.
The result of a spur of the moment.

The result of a spur of the moment.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

A number of observers, me included, have commented on the big shift happening in the economics field. Theory is giving way to data. Economists who focus on statistics and empirics are soaring to the top of the field, while old-style mathematical philosophers are becoming less prominent. But does this really matter? Were all those theorems and proofs really doing any harm? 

Perhaps they were. In a magisterial blog post at Marginal Revolution, George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok recounts a battle he had with Gary Becker. Becker, who received a Nobel Prize in 1992, was perhaps the most famous economic theorist of his generation. He took the basic tools of economic theory available at the time and applied them to social problems like workplace discrimination and marriage