À propos my previous post, may I introduce a member of that (seemingly) rare breed, a humble economist.  Unlike our home-grown celebrity versions, I see that Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard, is prepared to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers, or even some of them.  Compare and contrast with (for instance) Morgan Kelly.

Recently, Mankiw wrote this in The New York Times:

After more than a quarter-century as a professional economist, I have a confession to make: There is a lot I don’t know about the economy. Indeed, the area of economics where I have devoted most of my energy and attention — the ups and downs of the business cycle — is where I find myself most often confronting important questions without obvious answers.

Now, if you follow economic commentary in the newspapers or the blogosphere, you have probably not run into many humble economists. By its nature, punditry craves attention, which is easier to attract with certainties than with equivocation.

But that certitude reflects bravado more often than true knowledge……. If you find an economist who says he knows the answers, listen carefully, but be skeptical of everything you hear.

Amen to that.  Mankiw is obviously more of a fox than a hedgehog.

For sure, attention is easier to attract with certainties than with equivocation, and this point has not been lost on contributors to the Irish debate on our economic future (“….lacking the means to make reasonable opinions interesting, [they] must resort to unreasonable opinions in order to get the reader’s attention”).  What a pity editors and producers fall for this every time.

From a review in the Financial Times of Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway, by Dan Gardner.

Part of the problem, Gardner explains, lies with a lack of accountability within the [economics] profession itself. Make a bold prediction and the journalists and TV cameras come running; no one remembers when it fails to come about. Following Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated distinction, Gardner divides pundits and forecasters into two kinds of beast – the fox who knows many different things, and the hedgehog who knows one big thing. Hedgehogs, he says, have a narrow range of expertise and tend to arrive at bold, bullish predictions. The forecasts of hedgehogs are simpler and more entertaining, so they soak up all the media attention. But they are much more likely to be wrong than foxes. With a wider range of data and disciplines to scavenge from, foxes tend to be more careful with their predictions, and to fare better as a result.

Morgan Kelly: definitely a hedgehog.