Economist as a plumber with a body camera (EPBC)

Economists could do more to show their work and to maintain their results.

Economists aren’t particularly transparent in their day-to-day activities, but what they do is very important. Because economics offers little possibility for laboratory-style experiments or hard-science precision, there is a perverse opportunity for conclusions to be reached before data are collected. This is dangerous and would be less likely if economists 1) reported what they do more frequently and more clearly, and 2) shifted some of their responsibilities toward maintenance of existing policy or past results.

Esther Duflo described the potential for a shift in the role economists play in society. Rather than being biased architects designing massive social policies, economists can be the people who are responsible for maintaining social systems and keeping them running smoothly from month-to-month, without any gaps or leaks. Economists can be more like plumbers.

The worst possible way to implement this shift in responsibility would be to hire a separate group of economists to fiddle with policy or day-trade things like the stock of unemployed. Instead, a practical way to do this is for existing (and particularly newly-minted) economists to “wear body cameras”, reporting more of their day-to-day work on personal or work websites or blogs, or on twitter, or GitHub.

Since poverty is deadly and bad policy causes people suffering and death, economists, and others involved in crafting public policy, yield a lethal weapon. If they were in-effect “recorded”, the way these well-paid individuals practice their trade would likely change–both in what results are presented and also in what tasks are undertaken. And if it turns out that economists are already completely honest and unbiased, then “body cameras” would massively boost the field’s credibility.

There are now many free, open-source, and well-documented tools, like python and R, for working with public economic data and contributing to analysis. Plus, there is enough space on the cloud to share other iterations that aren’t presented in a final set of regression coefficients, for example. It would also be helpful for more economists to share the code that produces their results, so that others can extend or modify it. Increasingly, technology is making it possible for economists to show more of their work.

Economists as plumbers with body cameras, in practice, also means following up very frequently on past work and on how existing systems are performing for all people (not just the aggregated/synthetic statistical “person”). For example, the economists who justify liberalization of US trade policy could be the ones responsible for resolving the local effects from the related factory closures. Economists pushing cuts to social services in response to debt levels could report monthly on what their policy does to both the debt level and the poverty rate. In essence, economists could do more checking-up on what they’ve done in the past and, if necessary, clean up after themselves.

The EPBC therefore has two goals: 1) encouraging the showing of how results were obtained, and 2) more frequently revisiting past results. To contribute to achieving this, I’m publishing a series of jupyter notebooks that show my recent attempts at working with public economic data using python. For future projects and blog posts, I’ll link to the new notebooks, and use the tag EPBC (for economists as plumber with body camera). I’m not sure if this will work out, or be sustainable, but its an interesting idea and worth a try.

Here are the first three EPBC notebooks (python 3.6):

Is Amazon killing Walmart?

US exports by trading partner

Efficiently reading fixed-width files like the CPS public use microdata