I’ve been watching the Superfreakonomics saga unfold with interest.
I confess that I have not read either this book or the earlier Freakonomics, that kicked off the franchise. I have however, observed the exuberant confidence with which the field of micro-economics has taken on new subjects and new challenges in modern times, to some extent spurred on by this bestselling first book. For me this is of great concern. I have always been worried about the way economics has divorced itself from its fellow social sciences and how it dominates decision making and consulting in the halls of power. Perhaps this is best represented by the tip-of-the-tongue familiarity of names like Stern (and Garnaut to Australians). How odd that politicians have sought sagely advice from economists about the unfolding crisis of climate change (as opposed to other thinkers – political scientists, geophysicists, biologists, ecologists and so on).
Also concerning is the claim to this new form of micro-economics to being “value-free” or agnostic on morality. This is not true. Any decision to emphasise or frame matters is coloured by values. All the more dangerous that the authors cannot see this. There is no doubt that the power of statistics in highlighting causal relationships is something that can be put to good use. But the idea that this is new ior revolutionary is insulting to the statisticians, epidemiologists, sociologists and so on, who have used powerful statistical methods to draw such conclusions in the past.
With a major financial collapse just starting to ease, now is the time for the discipline of economics to take up its most important challenge – shaping economic systems that serve the people and nourish the living world. Systems which do not require further growth in energy consumption or resources. Some have started down this path. But until the mainstream of the profession grasps the new realities of material and energy constraints, it will indeed remain the dismal science.
Here is a great collection of links to blogs and media discussing Superfreakonomics. (Most are critical, some defending the book).