Who said econ and poli sci don't mix?

Dan Drezner


KAI RYSSDAL: There was no lack of really big economic news this year. We had bank failures and bank bailouts, climate change and health care change, the technical end of the worst recession in 75 years. But we got to worrying that with all of that, maybe we missed something. News that slipped by without enough notice. So we asked a few of our regulars for the economic stories that didn't make the headlines.

Commentator Dan Drezner says one of the biggest was a change in the way we study the economy itself.

Dan Drezner: For decades, there was a clear but unspoken pecking order in the social sciences. Economists were royalty, and every other discipline was part of the peasantry. Economists were treated as real scholars, with their very own Nobel Prize and everything.

Political scientists, on the other hand, were mocked for having the word "science" in the title. The old joke goes that an economist who switches to studying political science raises the average intelligence of both disciplines. It's not true, but the perception is powerful. Powerful enough for Sen. Tom Coburn to have tried scrapping National Science Foundation funding for "poli sci" earlier this year.

Coburn's effort failed, however, and for good reason -- 2009 was a banner year for political scientists, and a not-so-banner year for economists. For much of the year, economists engaged in vicious infighting over their failure to anticipate the 2008 financial crisis.

To be sure, the economics profession was not completely responsible for the meltdown of markets. The proponents of "efficient markets theory," however, did contribute to a laissez-faire regulatory approach that allowed the asset market bubble to expand and then pop.

While economists have taken a big hit, the demand for political science has never been greater. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense started its Minerva program. It awards multimillion-dollar grants to political scientists to better understand areas of "strategic importance to U.S. national security policy." Risk consulting based on political science models also exploded in the past year. And in 2009, half of the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Elinor Ostrom, who is -- wait for it -- a political scientist.

Why is political science so hot? The Great Recession has dramatically increased the role of government in the economy. The more power given to the state, the greater the interest in analyzing how and why governments do what they do. The smart political scientists are meeting this demand with trenchant research and critical commentary. As for the not-so-smart political scientists? Well, maybe they can switch to economics.

Ryssdal: Daniel Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University. His most recent book is called "All Politics is Global."


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