We'll skip the bad analogy at the beginning of the piece. Mark's point is essentially a standard one. Academics are out of touch with the "real world" and basically spend their time staring out the window thinking deep thoughts for their own entertainment.
Apparently, as we keep hearing from the usual rabble-rousers, academics failed to predict the financial crisis, so what are they good for anyway? Further,
...a few practitioners saw the housing bubble coming.Who were those people anyway? They must have made a killing! Did they predict the turning point in housing prices in 2006? Did they predict that prices would fall from their peak by about 35% (or whatever)? What exactly is a bubble anyway? Do those practitioners have a good definition of this phenomenon? What do they think caused it? Do they know when the housing market will turn around if they are so smart?
What's at the root of the problem?
Economics has lost the connection between the practitioners and the academics. This may have something to do with the desire among economists to become more of a science – a heavy focus on theory and math is the result.So, we would do much better if we did not use the tools that Newton, Pontryagin, Bertsekas, Arrow, Debreu, Samuelson, Solow, Nash, Harsanyi, Selten, Hurwicz, Maskin, Myerson, etc., gave us. Then we could better communicate with those in the trenches and the world would be a better place.
There is no great divide between academics and practitioners in economics. When I go to conferences and go out to give seminars I meet people working in many different fields in economics. Plenty of them move around among institutions where people think about policy and advise policy makers, institutions where the main job is doing frontier research and educating students, and consulting work. Go to any business school and you will find loads of applied economics that people find useful not only as an organizing tool to make sense of the world but for making money. In business schools applied economics sometimes is called finance, accounting, or marketing.
One of the great successes in economics is auction theory. This started off in a quite abstract, mathematical fashion, and ultimately expanded into empirical work in the hands of people like Robert Porter, Ken Hendricks, and Harry Paarsch, for example. Auction theory has been used successfully in the design of auctions of bandwidth and oil leases, and there are currently economists working for Yahoo and Google who use their knowledge of auctions to contribute in important ways to making those companies profitable.
Closer to home, there are plenty of high-level academics who are willing to get their hands dirty at regional Federal Reserve Banks and at the Board of Governors in Washington. In this respect, there is far more interaction between academics and the Federal Reserve System than was the case 10, 20, or 30 years ago, thanks in part to the pathbreaking work done by people like John Kareken, Art Rolnick, Tom Sargent, Gary Stern, and Neil Wallace at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in the 1970s.
Now, here's where Thoma mentions me:
Academic economists do evaluate policy proposals theoretically and empirically, and they do provide forecasts of the economy. But forecasting in particular is not the main focus of their efforts, , and they’ve all but ignored – even looked down their noses upon – forecasters and practitioners in the government and business communities. They are often viewed as data grubbers who use old-fashioned models and techniques, and are thus unworthy of attention from high-minded academics.Notice what he's up to. Mark fancies himself as a very high-minded and fair individual who would never stoop to name calling, but he's essentially calling me an arrogant twit. If you go back and read my post, you'll see that it was a response to some interview comments by Larry Meyer that included this:
My views would be considered outrageous in the academic community, but I feel very strongly about them. Those models [modern macro models] are a diversion. They haven’t been helpful at all at understanding anything that would be relevant to a monetary policymaker or fiscal policymaker. So we’d better come back to, and begin with as our base, these classic macro-econometric models.Meyer essentially disparages post-1980 modern macroeconomics as a waste of time, and I thought that deserved a response. The gulf there is not a problem for modern macro, it's a problem for Meyer, who has not taken the time and trouble to understand what macroeconomists are doing and how he can make use of it. Why Mark Thoma can't see that is beyond me.