Monday, December 06, 2004

Becker/Posner Blog: So Far, So What?

by Tom Bozzo

Portions of the world have been atwitter over the new blog by famed Chicago economics pseudo-Nobel laureate Gary Becker and famed jurist Richard Posner. I confess to idle curiosity.

Now come the first two posts, rather shallow comments (one from each) on the justifiability of preventive war, and they're already being roasted for being no more, and arguably less, insightful than the rest of us monkeys with computerized typewriters. Kieran Healy further argues that the apparent disconnection between the eminence of the authors and the quality of the posts suggests a put-on.

While Healy's riposte (and another discussing the inevitable response from the Medium Lobster at Fafblog!) is plenty entertaining, the problems seem more basic and subject to less extraordinary explanations. A big part of the problem is that the lawyer wrote what amounts to an economics post and the economist wrote an international relations post.

So Becker can say what he wants to say about whether modern terrorism has changed the decision process for engaging in pre-emptive war, but the authority of what he says would appear to derive almost exclusively from force of academic personage (as I can't locate any relevant scholarship on Becker's homepage), which those Chicago economists obviously don't lack. The previous mass-consumption writing (partly) authored by Becker that I'd seen was a Wall Street Journal op-ed a while back on the miracles attributable to tax cutting, which should have lowered the rational expectations of anyone else who read it.

Posner's is the more difficult case. He gets rapped in the Crooked Timber comments for some shallowness of his understanding of economics. I haven't read Posner's law-and-economics scholarship to evaluate, though some of his defense-of-economics writing, quoted by Brian Leiter in one of Prof. Leiter's economics-bashing posts, is less than awe-inspiring. What seems possible is that the idea that there could be an expected cost-expected benefit justification to preventive war might have seemed like a novel thing to post, when in fact every economist already knows that it's just a matter of having the right costs, benefits, and probabilities. This focuses a lot of attention on other details, and that's what brings out the Medium Lobster.
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