The Economist's New Clothes: Rigorous Capital and the Enigma of Policy Influence

Zachary Griffen, University of California, Los Angeles

The influence of economic ideas over policy, and consequently social life, has been well documented. The ubiquity of economics as a field has made it a useful site for studying the role of technocratic expertise in public affairs more generally. Yet this ubiquity has also focused attention on situations in which economists successfully achieve policy influence, even though this is not always the case. Take, for example, the “individual mandate” component of the Affordable Care Act: after years of insistence that the entire ACA marketplace hinged on the mandate’s inclusion in legislation, economists went silent when it was repealed to almost no effect. How can we reconcile the well-established claims to superiority promoted by the economics discipline with the fact that on some of the most prominent contemporary policy issues that economists study, their influence often underachieves? Drawing on the concurrent but divergent historical trajectories of the economics of education and health economics in the U.S., this paper develops a theory about the politics of knowledge production that draws on the metaphor of the emperor’s new clothes. In the fairytale, when the townsfolk come to the realization that the emperor has no clothes, the emperor doubles down on symbolic authority and carries on walking proudly through the town. Similarly with economics: when it comes to the evaluation of applied policy topics, economists accrue status from the novelty of methodological rigor, even in instances that result in policy failure. Building on the theory of scientific capital, I develop the notion of 'rigorous capital,' which I argue has deep historical roots and serves an important sociological function for the economics discipline: it enables economists to claim legitimacy as policy experts even while remaining notionally detached from public political discourse.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 27. Expertise and the U.S. State