The Amazing Brad DeLong

by Mario Rizzo  

I don’t know where Brad DeLong acquired his philosophy of economics. DeLong responded to an article by Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, on “austerity.” The following is part of what the Financial Times edited out of the published version. DeLong posted it on his blog. He says there are two types of economists:  

“One type chooses, for non-economic and non-scientific reasons, a political stance and a political set of allies, and twiddles and tunes their assumptions until they come out with conclusions that please their allies and their stance. The other type takes the carcass of history, throws it into the pot, turns up the heat, and boils it down, hoping that the bones and the skeleton that emerge will teach lessons and suggest principles that will be useful to voters, bureaucrats, and politicians as they try to guide our civilization as it slouches toward utopia. (You will not be surprised to learn that I think that only this second kind of economist has any use at all.)”  

So either you are an ideologue masquerading as a person of science or you are a historicist, a person who discovers truths innocently – that is, without theory – approaching the data and extracting something out of them.  

What? Can he really mean this? I guess he can. But surely this is a greatly impoverished philosophy of science. The former is just intellectual fraud and the second is impossible if taken at face value. You cannot hope to extract anything from the data of history without some prior provisional theory. Data are constructed. Important and relevant events are chosen while the unimportant are downplayed.  

What are the principles according to which data are constructed? What are the factors or standards by which some events are chosen as relevant? These are theoretical issues. In an important sense the carcass, the boiling, and the pot itself are creations of theory.  

Since the second type of economist is impossible, the reality is that the two types of economists to which DeLong refers are really the same: ideologues masquerading as scientists. In DeLong’s world:  Either you consciously and deliberately distort science for extra-scientific purposes or you unconsciously distort it for non-scientific purposes. Either you are an explicit ideologue or an implicit ideologue.  

The implicit ideologue deceives himself as well as others. He acquires his ideology as a result of prejudices, psychological needs, fantasies and so forth. Although the deliberate deceiver is morally reprehensible, the implicit ideologue is pathetic and perhaps more dangerous because he really believes he is objective.  

Fortunately, science is possible. It need not be either explicitly or implicitly disguised ideology.

We have learned more about how Brad DeLong practices economics from the above quotation than we have about the discipline of economics.

42 thoughts on “The Amazing Brad DeLong

  1. DeLong is indeed amazing. Some years back (ca. 2000) he was posting that Reagan created deficits by cutting tax revenues; I emailed disagreeing, and after several exchanges got him to admit to me that revenues had in fact increased rather than fallen, and that spending — for which the Democratic Congress was as much responsible, had increased faster.

    He never retracted his original argument publicly that I’m aware of, but at least back then he seemed capable of acknowledging that those of us who disagree with him might actually have arguments worth considering. But at this point he seems a deliberate deceiver himself, incapable of civil debate.

  2. DeLong position is even more fantastic than it first seems. He claims that there is no economic theory. What goes under the name “theory” is simply ideology in the sense of mere prejudice. BUT, mirabile visu, DeLong can escape the need for theory-ideology simply by studying history. But without theory, what is history?

    This is all quite absurd. It cannot be defended.

  3. What is as equally disturbing about De Long, is that he is apparently taken seriously by both mainstream economists and policy analysts.

    This says much about the economics profession, in general, and the quackery of policy making.

    In December 1950, Frank Knight said, in his presidential address to the AEA,

    “The latest ‘new economics’ and in my opinion rather the worst, for fallacious doctrine and pernicious consequences, is that launched by the late John Maynard (Lord) Keynes, who for a decade succeeded in carrying economic thinking well back to the dark age, but of late this wave of the future has happily been passing.”

    De Long truly represents that carrying back to a Keynesian dark age and an even earlier misguided German Historicism (as Mario rightly points out).

    Unfortunately, Knight was warn in thinking that “this wave of the future” was passing. It continues to plague us.

    Richard Ebeling

  4. When a messy, smelly, boiling carcass “suggests” things to you, something is amiss.

    Could Delong have come up with a description of “good” economics that sounded more like a witchdoctor?

  5. What I find astonishing is that he is so clearly of the former type, the ideologue type, yet cannot see it in himself. The amount of attention he focuses on ad hominem attacks reveals the vector of his motivation.

  6. One can collect data points for only so long before one has to make sense of them. One makes sense of them by developing a theory. Data make no sense without a theory with which to ineterpret them. There was much flailing about in biology before Darwin’s theory of natural selection and, especially, the New Synthesis. This doesn’t mean that just any theory will do. Psychology flailed about for quite a long time in search of a proper theory to make sense of the data — Freudianism, Behaviorism, Jungianism, etc. — and is settling in on some more cognitive and systems-theoretic approaches (and, of course, some Darwinian ones). Please note, though, that the more complex the system one needs to theorize, the more recent the proper theories have been developed.

  7. It seems a little odd for you to add the “without theory” part to a metaphor for DeLong, when it’s quite obvious that DeLong appeals to and uses theory in his own work.

    He seemed here to be just making the case that some people learn from history and some people don’t (a case, I might add, that I’ve read on this blog before too).

    Where does his alleged atheoretical stance come from, Mario? Simply because he didn’t talk about it here? I think that’s a little much.

  8. Daniel Kuehn,

    Yes, he uses a bogus theory like Keynesianism. What’s even more bizarre is the respect he gives Marx, and the ad hominems agaainst economists such as Mises.

  9. Daniel,

    If you read the rest of the linked blog post by DeLong you will see that there is no ambiguity:

    “One of the embarrassing dirty little secrets of economics is that there is no such thing as economic theory properly so-called. There is simply no set of foundational bedrock principles on which one can base calculations that illuminate situations in the real world.”

    “The ‘economic principles’ underpinning their theories are a fraud–not bedrock truths but mere knobs twiddled and tunes so that th right conclusions come out of the analysis.”

  10. Mario –
    You didn’t read that to mean what David Henderson was saying here:

    Or what Greg Mankiw was saying here:

    That seemed to me to be all he was saying. He, like many conservative and libertarian economists have, was just pointing out that when you have severe identification problems like you do in the estimation of macroeconomic policy impacts, an awful lot of what you get out of an analysis depends on the model, and an awful lot of models have really bad assumptions.

    I don’t personally see how one would read it any other way, particularly because it’s pretty obvious how DeLong himself uses theory if you’re familiar with his work. I don’t know – I suppose yours is another way to read it, I just don’t see it. I think he’s making the Henderson/Mankiw/standard econometric professor point.

    Mathieu – I read the sentence, I suppose I just didn’t see it as being exhaustive of all the methodological options and issues, as you apparently do.

    Bill Stepp – His praise of Marx is extremely selective, and he also has some broad critiques of Marx. What specific positive things that he has to say about Marx do you have a problem with? It’s been a while since I’ve read/heard DeLong on Marx but if I remember right the only thing I had heard him praise him for was his grasp of a few broad historical trajectories.

    Also, simply calling Keynesianism “bogus” doesn’t really constitute a counter-argument. It’s fine for you to think that, but simply asserting it doesn’t really do much as a response to me.

  11. Daniel,

    Brad DeLong is a professor. He is not to be treated as “baby student” who cries after an exam that he meant something different from what he said. He must be held to the standard of what he said, not what he might have meant. His words on the blog were not ambiguous. Whether his work reflects his methodological pronouncement is hard to say. After all, he says that he believes that there is no economic theory. So presumably he picks and chooses among the available “theories” those that meet his (unconscious?) prejudices or lead to results he considers “reasonable” given his (unconscious) prejudices.

    On this issue in this post, DeLong may have inadvertently revealed a “dirty little secret” about himself. I wish Dr. Freud were here.

  12. “He is not to be treated as “baby student” who cries after an exam that he meant something different from what he said.”

    Mario, I understand that.

    I think you and I are simply reading what he said differently. I never claimed that he meant something different from what he said. My claim is that from my reading, he did not say what you are infering he said.

    “So presumably he picks and chooses among the available “theories” those that meet his (unconscious?) prejudices or lead to results he considers “reasonable” given his (unconscious) prejudices.”

    I think this is true to a certain extent only. What I thought was obvious when I first read the DeLong post, before you posted this, was that he was refering to building block theoretical points (he calls them “foundational bedrock principles”). Things like rationality, preferences, etc. We simply don’t have a theoretical grasp of these things. So theorizing is inevitably a little haphazard. A cynic might say we choose on the basis of prejudices, and even a non-cynic has to admit that is bound to happen in some circumstances. I would prefer to say that we work with a theoretical framework that we think is the best available.

    This, however, isn’t really a black mark on DeLong specifically because if you believe the claim he’s saying that everybody does this and everybody struggles with the problems of economic theorizing.

    I see nowhere where he dismisses economic theorizing wholesale. What I read (and now reread) was an honest critique of some of the more axiomatic theoretical claims that economists make, and the risks that that introduces.

    The fact that you yourself have to write “so presumably he…” suggests that you recognize the specific and circumscribed way in which he critiqued the state of economic theory too.

    He certainly didn’t make a broad-based critique of economic theory.

  13. Daniel Kuehn,

    No doubt his praise of Marx is selective, but any praise at all is one piece too much.
    (Ditto for Che, even if he liked his dog.)
    As for Maynard K., read Hazlitt’s book, which is subtitled “An Analysis of the Keynesian Fallacies.”
    Or Hahn’s book “The Economics of Illusion.”

    Keynesian economics is the real hoax of the 20th century.

  14. “No doubt his praise of Marx is selective, but any praise at all is one piece too much.”

    Nothing at all?

    He said serfdom was bad. I’ll praise him for that.

    I’m sure he had a few other good points.

  15. Daniel,

    Perhaps you should edit DeLong’s blog posts and newspaper articles. If he were saying what you, Mankiw and others (including myself) have said about the problems of economic theory, an interesting discussion could be had. But, alas, he did not say these intelligent things nor did he have the benefit of your rewriting.

  16. Daniel,

    In support of Mario’s reading and critique of Brad DeLong’s paragraphs, I ask this question. Isn’t the contrast between DeLong’s view of “economic theory properly so-called” and the historicism he prefers what drives his argument? It is clear to me when reading his paragraphs that his point is that his historical investigations AVOID the hazards that the theorizing inevitably presents. And his reasoning for this, although it is not super clear, is that the “principles that are useful to voters and politicians” to “guide our civilization” that come from the investigations are somehow free of assumptions and “non-economic reason” or “political stance” that would lead to “conclusions that please their allies and their stance.” It seems to me that there is a significant presumption that this historical investigation is atheoretical. I could be wrong, though.

  17. Daniel –
    I’d just point out two things:

    1. Your interpretation of his homage to economic history as “historicism” specifically is contingent on your argeement with Mario’s interpretation of what he says about theory. If you don’t read it that way, appealing to economic history alone doesn’t really constitute “historicism” per se. In other words, you don’t have to be ahistorical to be a non-historicist.

    2. All he seems to be saying to me is: (1.) our theoretical foundation is a lot shakier than many economists would like to admit, but (2.) wow! we have history to look at and help us arbitrate. I think you really have to work at reading any more than that in it.

    Mario – on your point about re-writing DeLong – remember this is just a newspaper article. Economists can talk about rational expectations and identification problems when they blog. When you write in the Financial Times, as educated as those readers are, you can’t really talk technically about these methodological issues. Knowing the context and the audience, though, I thought that would have been a fairly obvious interpretation of what he wrote.

    Alright – that’s all the time I’ve got for now. I think the point is just to assume a good faith effort on most people’s parts and be pretty suspicious if you think a dark secret has been revealed (and don’t get me wrong – DeLong could definitely take this advice himself).

  18. Thanks for the response, Daniel. I guess I might agree with your take on what he seems to be saying were I to ignore the fact that there is very little, if anything, in what I’ve read on his blog (I’m not an economist and haven’t read his academic writing) that would suggest that he would look at “history” in order to do anything other than support his position. I’m pretty suspicious of him and of any claims that purport to result from boiled carcasses of history.

  19. I wonder what DeLong thinks “theory” is. He says “theory properly so-called” has “foundational bedrock principles on which one can base calculations that illuminate situations in the real world.” Hm.

    The word “illuminate” is a bit of a weasel word, but we can cut him some slack since he was not writing for a philosophy journal or something. The word “calculations” is interesting. So if you cannot “calculate” something, it’s no part of science? So what’s he got in mind?

  20. Daniel Kuehn:
    I submit that you didn’t bother to read the article before commenting on it here. My evidence?

    Daniel Kuehn:
    “Where does his alleged atheoretical stance come from, Mario? Simply because he didn’t talk about it here?”

    The blog post states:
    “One of the embarrassing dirty little secrets of economics is that there is no such thing as economic theory properly so-called. There is simply no set of foundational bedrock principles on which one can base calculations that illuminate situations in the real world.”

    As a result, I am placing you into the DeLong Economist Type I category (though your comments suggest you believe you are DeLong Type II).

    Either way, in the future, I’ll read your comments through this filter. I’m sure you’ll disagree, but this is pretty clear in my opinion.

  21. Is it possible DeLong is saying obnoxious things to get attention and generate comments? I can think of other seemingly well trained economists whose thinking seems to have jumped the rails. They have done quite well for themselves. DeLong’s is at Cal isn’t he? Wonder if his colleagues appreciate his screwy generalizations about the profession.

  22. Daniel –
    It’s worth keeping up with DeLong’s blog. Ironically enough, DeLong and Rizzo remind me of each other and I think are often both better than Krugman and… oh I don’t know let’s say Cowen in this regard. Cowen and Krugman know the theory they use or believe very well, and they know historical episodes worth citing to support that. And they’re both brilliant, don’t get me wrong. But Rizzo and DeLong have an incredible breadth of historical and theoretical knowledge, and they’re both great at history of thought especially, which I personally appreciate. If you like Rizzo’s posting and you can tolerate reading people you don’t always agree with or even rarely agree with for plain good insight, then I think you would like DeLong. He bitches a lot, sure, but he does it along with a lot of substance.

    jd –
    I have no idea what that means. You’d do best not to read my comments through any filter and read my in good faith. I try to write in good faith. I did read the entire blog post before Rizzo even wrote his up, and I read it again when I came to read here. I simply don’t think that passage says what you’re saying it says. I think you have to be looking for something to disagree with to read it that way.

  23. Daniel – since you never read the article, and yet defended and re-interpreted DeLong’s comments to mean something that he hasn’t actually written: either you’re some sort of psychic that can read people’s minds and intentions, or more likely you’ve got a pre-defined viewpoint and conclusions, and you simply fit everything into it, no matter the facts. A DeLong Type I economist (again, see the article). The filter means your comments (by default) are political hackery.

  24. At the very least, DeLong is inviting misunderstanding and ridicule. Even a charitable interpretation of his words leaves me with that impression, because he is a good writer and capable of much greater clarity.

    My hunch is that DeLong is more concerned with creating a melodrama out of macroeconomics, and affecting ignorant and credulous readers, than he is concerned with good economics (nevermind good philosophy of science or epistemology).

    He is a smart man with some good insights, no doubt–those with the time and patience to tolerate his personality may benefit.

  25. Oh I see! You were referencing DeLong’s own terms. I thought that was a system you came up with.

    Come one jd – the whole point is from where I stand it looks like you’re re-interpreting what he says and adding your own preconceptions.

  26. either you’re some sort of psychic that can read people’s minds and intentions, or more likely you’ve got a pre-defined viewpoint and conclusions, and you simply fit everything into it, no matter the facts. A DeLong Type I economist (again, see the article). The filter means your comments (by default) are political hackery.

    Daniel manages to generate similar sentiments from the commentators when he comments on a blog that leans in the libertarian direction. Daniel needs to do some introspection and find out why he evokes that kind of response pretty consistently.

  27. In many ways, I would rather Mario discuss the rest of the article. DeLong is interpreting history (meaning he has to have a theory with which to interpret it — he brings up Keynes, whose concept of economics is almost as bad as Marx’s). What is the Austrian interpretation?

  28. Brad DeLong is ot making an epistemological point, he is simply saying that there are two kinds of people who call themselves economists:

    1) Hacks
    2) People who study the economy

    He does not claim that economists in sense 2) do not create theories to explain economic behaviour, he is simply claiming that there are are a large number of economists in sense 1) who create models containing assumptions that lead to those models leading to conclusions that are conducive to the desires of powerful individuals.

  29. Speak of the devil, your favorite economist-rapper Maynard K. was quoted in the Wall Street Journal today, p. A6: “Pyramid building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth.”
    He was also quoted in that paper a couple years ago stating at a Washington restaurant
    that he could increase employment by brushing some towels from a table on to the floor. So now you know what to do the next time you dine out.
    And someone tell Bastiat that his time is up.

  30. “ot” should be “not”, of course.

    And can I confirm, Mario Rienzo, that you think that people who sincerely try to understand things about the world are “pathetic” and of the same order of moral depravity as people who deliberately try to undermine the free and fair discussion of ideas by pushing ideas that favour their own interests whilst knowing these ideas to be wrong?

  31. I thought you might be interested in this follow-up on DeLong’s blog:

    The commenter in question seems to have interpreted the point as I did – that DeLong was talking about foundational assumptions/building blocks and not broader theories of how the economy works.

    Of course DeLong has and respects a theoretical perspective. What he doesn’t have and what no economist really has is the set of building blocks: a solid understanding of rationality, preferences, etc.

    I understand how unsettling this can be for a school of thought so grounded in a priorism – I still think that’s what DeLong is saying and I largely think he’s right.

  32. I read the comment DeLong “hoisted.” I don’t know what it means in terms of economics. Frankly, I do not think DeLong has given much serious thought to this issue. It not worth your time trying to save his initial remarks.

  33. In that other comment DeLong posted, vtcodger says, “You don’t have to know how economics works to know that fiscal austerity during downturns and fiscal profligacy during booms are both bad ideas.” I guess that settles it.

  34. “Could Delong have come up with a description of “good” economics that sounded more like a witchdoctor?”

    Of course he could have. He forgot to mention the all-important “Boom! Shwati! Oosh!” chant.

    “I guess that settles it.”

    Magical thinking leads to magical realities where water flows uphill and you can paddle your canoe ’round a lake of stew. Having cast aside all aid from any and all formal sciences for theory DeLong, as with most people, is now trafficking in raw prejudice. The only difference is that DeLong knows his arguments will all be intellectual fraud, by his own reasoning, and that his position is worthless. I suspect this will not stop him from telling everyone what he thinks they should be doing in the future; he may increase his output to offset lack of substance by sheer volume.

  35. I do not agree that economists fit into those two categories. I can think of economist work that has no political relevance, and also no connection to any historical record.

    However I try not to take those remarks from Delong too seriously, as if they were the blueprint or foundation of the rest of his work. Delong’s own Macroeconomics textbook has things in it that I don’t think fit into either category.

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