Monday, January 17, 2011

Cowen Proposes an Oath for Government Economists

Over at the Marginal Revolution (here), Tyler Cowen takes a gratuitous slap at his fellow economists working for the federal government, suggesting that they should be required to swear an oath "not to act against the truths of their discipline for political gain". This is in response to calls for academic economists to adopt an ethical code that requires them to disclose (at least) conflicts of interest in the policy advise they give. As a recent New York Times story (here) reports, this is particularly a problem among a small number of prominent academic economists who write about financial regulation while advising, and even serving on the boards of, investment banks.

It is not immediately clear to me, however, that government economists suffer from the same kinds of conflicts of interest that have led to so much criticism of academic economists in the wake of the financial crisis. Indeed, Cowen merely lists the number of economists working in various branches of the federal government; he provides no analysis in support of his call for them to take a special oath. He does not provide any evidence of cases where government economists' advice has been potentially or actually tainted by personal "political gain" (whatever that might mean). Nor does he specify which eternal "truths" of economics they are not presently upholding. Surely, Cowen does not suppose that bad government policies - of which there are plenty - are necessarily promoted, or even acquiesced in, by government economists, the vast majority of whom are not political appointees.

Finally, Cowen takes an extra gratuitous slap at the Environmental Protection Agency, doubting whether its 163 economists are enough. The unmistakable implication is that EPA is an economically reckless federal agency that imposes substantial net costs on society. That sentiment is as bogus as it is widespread. It is worthy of the Wall Street Journal editorial board. It is not worthy of Tyler Cowen.

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