Friday, May 19, 2006

Poets and Plumbers

In my most recent paper, I divided macroeconomists into scientists and engineers. After reading this description of Paul Romer's contributions to growth theory in the current issue of the Economist, I began to wonder whether a better metaphor would be poets and plumbers:
Mr Romer is quoted comparing the building of economic models to writing poetry. It is a triumph of form as much as content. This creative economist did not discover anything new about the world with his 1990 paper on growth. Rather, he extended the metre and rhyme-scheme of economics to capture a world—the knowledge economy—expressed until then only in the loosest kind of doggerel. That is how economics makes progress. Sadly, it does not, in and of itself, help economies make progress.
This passage does a good job of capturing what many applied economists (like me) feel about economic theory: Too much of it is beautiful but useless.

Maybe I don't appreciate the beauty of economic theory sufficiently. I also don't have a well developed appreciation of poetry.