Imagine if you will a 9-11 commission for economists, an investigation into the myriad intelligence failures of the dismal science and its gray-faced practitioners. We were surprised by the ineffectiveness of the post-Soviet free market economy, caught off guard by the Asian crises. We do not predict recessions. We do not understand the causes of unemployment. The means of accomplishing growth in the developing world elude us completely. Our deepest wisdom about the stock market states explicitly that markets are far smarter than we are--and further, that drunken monkeys hurling their feces at stock listings pick winners as often as Nobel laureates.
Dr. Box isn't writing the column today because taxes are due and he hasn't finished filling out the forms. He's going to cheat, he told me. The chance of being audited is very small and cheating is optimal. (He routinely shoplifts for the same reason). Dr. Boks does not attempt to describe reality. He is a theorist in the purest sense. He neither likes nor understands the world that flesh and blood humans inhabit. But the public at large expect us to describe, predict, and explain. They actually believe we should be... relevent. What if we were to be held accountable for our shortcomings, preposterous as they are, just as the intelligence community has been called to account for its own?
Our commission, I'm sure, would be every bit as ridiculous as the current 9-11 circus. Picture the economists being grilled, one by one, about their falsified models and bogus forecasts. Krugman would be up there, front and center. His sermons of doom, gloom, and "no relief in sight" came just before the recent economic upturn. But that would not be a problem for him or for the rest of us. We're nothing if not resourceful. Everyone would find someone else to blame, some excuse, some hypothesis that had not been satisfied. Stiglitz would mutter something about "errors of sign" and say the opposite of what he'd said before. Each pompous specialist would defend his turf and swear that if only the profession had listened to him and him alone, all would have turned out well. Richard Clarke sounds like every academic: If only the world would listen to me, life would be blissful for all the earth's creatures.
The 9-11 commission ultimately tells us very little. No one expected 9-11, least of all those who pretend we could have and should have seen it coming. Richard Clarke opposed the invasion of Iraq. That is the major source of his considerable discontent. The wisdom of the Iraq war has little to do with anything Clarke has said. Nor do the intelligence failures speak to the major issue of the war. Iraq is an empirical question now. Oddly, everyone seems to approach the issue through pure theory. This is an issue that will not be settled by theoretical fiat. If the invasion leads to transforming changes in the Middle East, if we begin to see democratic reforms and a slow turning away from theocratic extremism throughout the region, then it will have been wise. If instead, it leads to "blowback," to repressive regimes and more violent groups and movements, then it will have been unwise. The rest is sound and fury. Politics as a team sport, devoid of integrity. There is some evidence on each side, at the moment. Reasons for hope and reasons for skepticism.
I know what Dr. Edgeworth Boks would do. He would seek out a separating hyperplane to find the mathematical optimum that would gurantee a better future.
Would that there were such an object.