So, What Is Economics Good For?

Justin Wolfers is a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan. Wolfers is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a senior scientist for the Gallup Organization.
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An English professor and a philosopher have made a bit of a splash with a recent New York Times opinion articleasking, "What is Economics Good For?" Their central claim is "the fact that the discipline of economics hasn't helped us improve our predictive abilities suggests it is still far from being a science."

For now, forget about their rather odd definition of a science, which is that it must be a field whose predictive abilities are improving. Rather, focus on the central claim, which is that economics hasn't helped us improve our predictive abilities.

Notice that this is an empirical claim. Empirical claims are usually based on facts. We present them, and we argue about what they mean. (Or at least that's how we economists prefer to proceed.) Yet the anti-economics screed includes no actual facts.

So I asked Professor Alex Rosenberg, the philosopher, for some evidence for his claim.

Here's his emailed response:

"Nothing seems more evident to me than the lack of a sustained increase in predictive success--either range or precision, in macro and micro. The burden of proof in this case is entirely on the shoulders of those who claim otherwise ... and I have been following this issue closely since I wrote my thesis on the subject 40 years ago."

So there it is. An empirical claim. Backed by -- wait for it -- zero empirical evidence. Oh, there's a claim of authority (a 40-year old dissertation by a non-economist), but no evidence, no data on macro- or micro-economic predictive accuracy over that time period or any other, no data sets or tabulations of economists' work or models.

Instead, we get the philosopher's game of shifting the burden of proof. Apparently, a feeling deep in the pit of his stomach that economics has made no progress is a sufficient basis for Rosenberg's screed claiming that economics is unscientific.

So that "proof" that economics isn't a science? It's really just a fact-free empirical claim.

It all feels a bit ... unscientific. It leaves me wondering, "What is philosophy good for?"

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Justin Wolfers at