Economics is Dismally Hard

Economics: it’s really complicated and difficult to write about from a skeptical perspective. It inhabits a weird no man’s land between the “real” sciences and the social sciences. On the one hand, economists study very real social phenomena, using detailed and complex mathematical models. On the other hand, the field is still rife with opinion and ideology. The fact that it’s all but impossible to do controlled economics experiments doesn’t help matters.

Within economics, opportunities to “debunk” others’ claims are few and far between. Whereas everything can be (and often is) examined critically, there is often valid disagreement as to how data should be interpreted and whether or not it supports a theory. This puts skeptics into a very uncomfortable position when dealing with economics: we usually cannot say that something is very certainly right or wrong. Nevertheless, a critical examination leading to an understanding of economics is crucial to living in the modern world. It helps us understand practical questions, like why banks charge a higher interest rate for credit cards than they do for mortgages (or even just why they charge interest at all), and the bigger picture questions, like why the U.S. (and therefore a lot of the world) is currently going through a recession.

That’s why, rather than writing a skeptical post about some economics topic, I’ve instead decided to compile a list of places where you can get good-quality information on current events and issues in economics.

  1. Planet Money: NPR (blog/podcast)
    Planet Money is the perfect place to go if you only have a cursory interest in economics, or if you’re unfamiliar with a lot of the terminology employed by economists. The Planet Money is to take team endeavors to take important economic concepts and news items, and to make them both interesting and comprehensible to a wider listening audience. Despite making their topics accessible, they are still usually covered in an excellent amount of depth and detail.
  2. The Economist (online magazine/podcast)
    Somewhat surprisingly, The Economist also has a lot of good articles on economics. While not quite as accessible as Planet Money, The Economist has top-notch reporting, and is an amazing publication. It is a necessary source for anybody interested in staying on top of current world economic (and/or political) issues.
  3. Marginal Revolution (blog)
    Marginal Revolution is a blog written by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok. Probably one of the more popular economics blogs, Marginal Revolution tends to focus on current events. The quality writing, combined with a number of recurring theme posts, make this blog fun to follow.
  4. Worthwhile Canadian Initiative (blog)
    Worthwhile Canadian Initiative describes itself as a “mainly Canadian economics blog”, and that’s (more or less) exactly what it is. This blog tends to focus on major issues and current events in Canadian economics. The blog is written by four Canadian economics professors (well, 3 professors and a lecturer): Stephen Gordon (Université Laval), Nick Rowe (Carleton University), Mike Moffatt (Ivey School of Business), and Frances Woolley (Carleton University).
  5. The Conscience of a Liberal (blog)
    This is a New York Times opinion blog written by Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2008. Krugman is a very opinionated/liberal/Keynesian economist, with an interesting and distinct writing style. Though Krugman doesn’t go to great lengths to make his blog accessible to those not well versed in economics, it’s still a fascinating read.
    For the more adventurous reader, you can dig up some of Krugman’s old articles online at his MIT website, here.
  6. Greg Mankiw’s Blog (blog)
    This is the personal blog of N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economics professor who is both a world-renowned economist, and author of one of the most popular introductory economics textbooks of all time.

Have any other good links or sources? Feel free to share them in the comments.

Thumbnail photo: “Keep an eye on your money” by PhotoGraham

4 Responses to “Economics is Dismally Hard”

  1. flocci says:

    The Long Run Blog is pretty good. It includes as a contributed Karl Mamer, host of The Conspiracy Skeptic, a Canadian.

    https://thelongrunblog.wordpress.com/

  2. There’s a couple areas of economics that could be worth a good debunking. There’s this “money as debt” conspiracy going around about how our economic system is going to collapse unless we switch back to the gold standard.

    Another one is the use of technical analysis. Basically, it’s the idea that one can predict the future of the market based on the past performance of the market. The people that use it justify it with all sorts of bad arguments, but it all boils down to confirmation bias. Remembering when it works, and forgetting when it doesn’t.

  3. linu says:

    “Krugman is a very opinionated/liberal/Keynesian economist, with an interesting and distinct writing style.”
    :)
    You can go to http://www.lietaer.com, it’s worth seeing. There is an article there where Krugman himself said to Lietaer that he (Krugman) has always followed one piece of advise that his MIT professors had given him: “never touch the money system”. So go figure.

  4. Paul Buhler says:

    I like to listen to Econtalk, hosted by Russ Roberts. Does cover current economic issues, but also has looked at historic episodes. Sometimes Roberts speaks more than his guests.
    Also the BBC has a lot of information and analysis on their website.

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  • Mitchell Gerskup

    Mitchell Gerskup recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in Economics and Philosophy. An avid atheist and skeptic, he has served as the President of the University of Toronto Secular Alliance, helping to promote science, reason and critical thinking around Toronto. He also volunteers with the Centre for Inquiry’s Ontario branch, and currently sits on the CFI’s Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism. Mitchell is also an accomplished competitive debater, having debated all across Canada. In addition to issues of economics and philosophy, Mitchell is interested in the fields of science and technology.