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Don’t Blame Economics, Blame Public Policy

Engineering and medicine have in many respects become separate from their respective underlying sciences of physics and biology. Public-policy schools, which typically have a strong economics focus, must now rethink the way they teach students – and medical schools could offer a model to follow.

AMMAN – It is now customary to blame economics or economists for many of the world’s ills. Critics hold economic theories responsible for rising inequality, a dearth of good jobs, financial fragility, and low growth, among other things. But although criticism may spur economists to greater efforts, the concentrated onslaught against the profession has unintentionally diverted attention from a discipline that should shoulder more of the blame: public policy.

Economics and public policy are closely related, but they are not the same, and should not be seen as such. Economics is to public policy what physics is to engineering, or biology to medicine. While physics is fundamental to the design of rockets that can use energy to defy gravity, Isaac Newton was not responsible for the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Nor was biochemistry to blame for Michael Jackson’s death.

Physics, biology, and economics, as sciences, answer questions about the nature of the world we inhabit, generating what economic historian Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University calls propositional knowledge. Engineering, medicine, and public policy, on the other hand, answer questions about how to change the world in particular ways, leading to what Mokyr terms prescriptive knowledge.

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