Larry Summers’ Empirical Pragmatism

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In 1987, at the National Bureau of Economic Research’s annual conference on macroeconomics, Lawrence H. Summers presented an extraordinary paper. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) conference gathered, by invitation only, the most successful macroeconomic researchers in the discipline. Summers himself was a full professor of economics at Harvard University and one of the youngest persons in recent history to have received tenure at Harvard. The purpose of the conference was to advance the best macroeconomic research.

At that occasion, Summers presented a paper entitled “The Scientific Illusion in Macroeconomics.”^ The paper argued:

  • formal econometric work where elaborate technique is used to either apply theory to data or to isolate the direction of causal relationships when they are not obvious a priori virtually always fails.
  • The negligible impact of formal econometric work on the development of economic science is manifest in a number of ways.
  • Formalism and the attendant matrix algebra serves primarily to obscure the futility of the exercise in which they are engaged.^

The response of the gathered macroeconomic luminaries, as one might have easily predicted, wasn’t reasoned acclaim for Summers’ insights:

the hubbub on this occasion was second only to that which would have occurred if Summers had chanted Alan Ginsburg’s “Howl” with accompaniment on bongos. Alan Blinder, the designated discussant of Summer’s paper, appeared at loss as to how to begin, even though he had written prepared comments.^

While conference papers were expected to be published in NBER conference proceedings, and all other conference papers had been, Summers’ paper was excluded. Summer’s paper was published only four years later in a fairly obscure economics journal with the qualifier “empirical” prepended to “macroeconomics” in the paper’s title.

In his presentation to NBER, Summers urged pragmatic economic research. He argued that theory should not construct artificial words based on a small number of abstract postulates, but should generalize empirical facts and make empirical predictions. He argued for empirical work that encompasses wide-ranging observations of the real world:

Good empirical evidence tells its story regardless of the precise way in which it is analyzed. In large part, it is its simplicity that makes it persuasive. Physicists do not compete to find more and more elaborate ways to observe falling apples. Instead they have made so much progress because theory has sought inspiration from a wide range of empirical phenomenon.^

Summers’ arguments have had little effect on normal work in the economics discipline.

While Summers advocated pragmatic empirical work, his communicative work seems highly unpragmatic. Presenting “The Scientific Illusion in Macroeconomics” to leading macroeconomic researchers at a leading macroeconomic research conference doesn’t seem pragmatic. In somewhat analogous circumstances, Summers later suggested to a NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce that biological sex differences should be considered in evaluating the representation of women among elite scientists and engineers.^

Summers’ seemingly unpragmatic communication hasn’t prevented him from having a highly successful career. Summers won the John Bates Clark Medal, a leading prize for young economists. He has been Chief Economist of the World Bank, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and President of Harvard University. Perhaps the characteristics of pragmatic communication are different from what they seem.

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