The economist gives his view on the UK housing crisis, big data and how economists’ reputations rise and fallby Josh Lowe / April 22, 2014 / Leave a comment
“I never understand why ‘economist makes forecast’ is ever news”: Tim Harford. ©PopTech
What are the limits of big data? Should we take economic forecasts seriously? And why should economists be more like dentists? I spoke to writer and broadcaster Tim Harford, ahead of his talk with Prospect this Thursday in association with Little, Brown, about these and other quandries. Harford is the author of a weekly Financial Times column, five books including the bestselling The Undercover Economist, and is the presenter of Radio 4 series More or Less. By peering beneath the bonnet of everyday situations and problems, he enlivens and explains dry economic principles in a manner which is always engaging.
Update: Listen to a recording of Tim Harford’s talk on Irving Fisher: “The lost economist”
You write about economics for a wide audience, is that because you believe there’s some benefit in wider economic literacy?
I do, but I also just find it fascinating. I don’t think Brian Cox does The Wonders of the Solar System because he believes the world would be a better place if people understood about the rings of Saturn, I just think he finds physics extremely interesting. It brings him joy and he wants to spread the love. I feel the same about economics. Our society is intertwined with the economy that we’ve built, which is a fantastically complex system. I hope that my writing about it might do some good, but that’s not why I do it.
What do you think the wider public perception is of economics?
There’s a sort of split personality here. People widely feel that economics did not perform very well in the crisis, and yet they keep coming to economics for forecasts. Somehow people can’t quite kick the habit of asking economists for advice.
Economists are seen as prophets, then?
I think the association of economics with forecasting is unfortunate, and is down to the fact that one great way to get an investment bank’s name on business television is to hire a guy called a Chief Economist who will go and prognosticate. John Maynard Keynes famously said it would be splendid if economists were a competent humble profession like dentists. You would never ask your dentist to predict how many teeth you will have in 20 years’ time, or whether you will need to have your wisdom…