The Perils of Economic Consensus

Disagreements among economists reflect the fact that their discipline comprises a diverse collection of models, and that matching reality to model is an imperfect science. It is better for the public to be exposed to this uncertainty than for it to be lulled into a false sense of security based on the appearance of certain knowledge.

PRINCETON – The Initiative on Global Markets, based at the University of Chicago, periodically surveys a group of leading academic economists, of varying political persuasions, on the issues of the day. Its latest roundup asked whether President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan helped to reduce unemployment in the United States.

Officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the plan entailed government spending of more than $800 billion on infrastructure, education, health, and energy, tax incentives, and various social programs. Implemented in the midst of an economic crisis, it was the classic Keynesian response.

The economists were virtually unanimous. Thirty-six of the 37 top economists who responded to the survey said that the plan had been successful in its avowed objective of reducing unemployment. The University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers cheered the consensus in his New York Times blog. The virulent public debate about whether fiscal stimulus works, he complained, has become totally disconnected from what experts know and agree on.

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