Political Economy = bullshitting ?

Nick Rowe, one of my favorite bloggers, recently made a claim that I strongly disagree with:

When I hear the words „political economy“ I usually reach for my shovel. … „Political economy“ has two (modern) meanings. It can mean political scientists bullshitting about economics. Or it can mean economists bullshitting about politics.

Being a trained economist, with a research focus on political economy, I hope I am not bullshitting in my academic work. But Nick’s statement did challenge my thinking: why do I tend to share his view on “political scientists bullshitting about economics”, while dismissing the other? Isn’t that inconsistent?

I don’t think it is. Economics is a social science just as political science. Both shared more or less a common methodology prior to the use of mathematics in modern economics (let’s leave out the mathematics of voting rules and other political issues). However, to understand economics, theoretically and empirically, the methods of traditional political science and economics have exhausted themselves a long time ago.

Since then, economics has opened up and developed two very useful methodological avenues: the strict mathematical treatment of human behaviour as rational utility maximization, and the empirical methods for dealing with “dirty data”, that is, non-experimental data.

The methods of political science have evolved as well, but not necessarily in a direction that is useful to understand economics. And why should they? Political scientists want to study political science, not economics. Economists did not develop these methods to understand politics either.

And yet, the new methods in economics can be applied to sub-fields of political science. Is that “bullshitting”? For some political scientists, it may well be. Chris Blattman describes an extreme view that political scientists may hold:

A caricature of economists: they only respect papers, they tend to like small questions answered ridiculously precisely, and they use a narrow set of mathematical tools for the job or simply don’t bother with the question.

There is some truth to this, but that is exactly why these methods are only useful for certain subsets of questions in political science. However, younger scholars in political science (!) departments do use these methods, which in Nick’s view means that political science professors like James Snyder or the young German Jens Hainmüller and many others are bullshitting about political science. Doesn’t sound right, does it?

There are other concerns about “political economy”, but I will leave it at that for the moment: political science methods are mostly unsuitable to understand economics beyond a certain point, which is why “political economy” from a political science perspectives should make Nick reach for his shovel. Economic methods on the other hand can (can!) be used to tackle some (some!) political questions. It is not the same thing.

PS: One side note on empirical work. The attempt by economists to answer empirical questions “ridiculously precisely” is not even a criticism to me. It is a praise. Being “ridiculously precise” is a precondition for the empirical results to be taken seriously at all. Non-ridiculously-precise empirical work is misleading and dangerous and often plain useless. Of course, the search for such “ridiculously precise” issues can have side effects.

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