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Is Economics a Science?

In 1980, following a decade of high inflation and unemployment — a combination that economists had previously thought to be impossible over extended periods — The Public Interest ran a special issue titled “The Crisis in Economic Theory.” Today, there is little talk of a crisis in economic theory. But in the past decade, we have experienced a financial crisis and subsequent decline in employment that also followed a path economists had previously thought to be impossible. Economists seem more confident than they did in 1980, but are they more deserving of confidence? If anything, some of the questions confronting economics should run deeper now than then.

In fact, the basic question of how economics should understand itself now demands urgent attention. Since the American Economic Association was founded in the 1880s, economists in this country have sought special status as scientifically grounded policy experts. Over the past 50 years, in particular, they have largely attained that status. Whether they deserve it is less clear. And what a scientific economics would really look like is not nearly as clear as some economists now imagine, either.

And it’s not just the practice: Even the ideal of economics as a science now demands serious scrutiny. If economic theory is not in crisis, maybe it deserves to be.