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What’s the point of economists?

A 14th-century trepanation: are modern economists any more scientific? PHAS/Universal Images Group/Getty

When the Queen visited the London School of Economics during the financial crisis of 2008, she asked the professors the question “consuming the nation”, says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian: “Why did no one see it coming?” They didn’t have a good answer, later acknowledging it had been a “failure of the collective imagination”. Fourteen years on and we’re facing a similar economic disaster – and once again, the economists are all over the place. Those favoured by Liz Truss want taxes slashed to encourage growth; Rishi Sunak’s lot think we should focus on fighting inflation. You really can take your pick: increase debt or curb debt; raise interest rates or lower them. Economists claim their profession is a social “science”. But currently they “stand round the ailing economy like medieval doctors, arguing over leeches versus potions”.

Compare that to how actual scientists approached the pandemic. “University virologists rallied instantly to the UK’s aid. Options were assessed, solutions modelled and tested.” Debate ensued and a consensus emerged. Of course, only time will tell how correct this was, but the policy guidance was at least “evidence-based and clear”. Economists complain that theirs is a complicated business, with a gazillion different factors and unknowns. Well, sure. But pandemics aren’t that simple either. And the abject lack of any economic consensus is leaving the government and the public as clueless as each other. “Where is the Queen when we need her?”