Why Can’t Economists Be More Like Officers in the US Military?

When I got to my office last Friday, I saw that there was going to be an event in the room across the hall. I noticed that an individual in uniform was getting the room ready. I assumed that there was going to be a seminar presentation by one of Hoover’s National Security Affairs Fellows. The NSAF program has for much of my 33 years at Hoover brought in mid-career officers in the military as well as the State Department. This program has been very successful in attracting promising young officers, including HR McMaster and John Abizaid before they were household names. James Mattis visited Hoover for the three years before he became Secretary of Defense in 2017. I have always been impressed with our military visitors and thought I should attend this seminar.

The event began at 11:44am and was not a seminar. Instead it was the promotion ceremony for Jennifer Ann Branigan Carns to the rank of Colonel in the US Air Force. It left me with a much deeper impression than any seminar could have.

The ceremony began with an excellent presentation by Captain Lushan Hannah. He first discussed Colonel Carns’ impressive career. The ceremony was not recorded but you can learn about her career in an interview she gave last December. Captain Hannah then described the role of a Colonel, a topic about which I knew nothing. This was followed by pinning of the appropriate insignia and comments by Colonel Carns. All very moving. Not a dry eye in the room.

None of this was surprising. These people are the cream of the US military and promotion ceremonies are important milestones in each individual’s career. Everyone in the ceremony acted professionally and with great respect for each other, the institutions they represented, and their goal to secure and protect our nation. In fact, in my 33 years interacting with the NSAFs at Hoover, they have always been professional and respectful. I have never served in the military nor is there any military tradition in my family. In fact, my great-uncle fought in WWI, came home healthy, but died in a blasting accident while clearing some land, giving me the (silly) notion that farming is more dangerous than war. I have had hundreds of conversations with the NSAFs and asked many questions, some of which I am sure were stupid questions reflecting my ignorance of military matters. These men and women always responded in a professional and respectful manner, and gave me many insights that only they could provide.

Towards the end of the ceremony, it hit me why I was so impressed: the behavior of leaders in economics is so different from the professionalism displayed by these officers. Below I ask my NSAF colleagues a series of questions about how they would act in situations similar to those described in my recent posts.

Question 1: Suppose you spoke to a large audience of other military officers. If someone in the audience asked you a question, would you say “I am not going to answer that question because almost everyone in the audience would be unable to understand my answer”?

That is what Xavier Gabaix said at a Midwest Macroeconomics conference. I have seen military officers asked many questions at Hoover events, some of them hostile, but the response was always respectful and informative. I think I know how my NSAF colleagues will answer question 1, but I will wait for them to answer.

Question 2: Suppose someone asked the Superintendent of West Point what he was doing to improve the fighting skills of his students. Would he say “I tell them to chat with people at Annapolis”?

That is what Richard Clarida, Professor at Columbia University, said when I asked him what he was doing to help his students solve macro models. He did not feel any obligation to train his students in modern solution methods, instead telling them to talk with professors at NYU. I would like to know if the Superintendent of West Point also feels no responsibility for teaching his students the most advanced methods of military science.

Question 3: Suppose a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was asked what he was doing to improve the fighting skills of the soldiers under his command. Would he refuse to answer the question?

That is what Federal Reserve Vice-Chairman Clarida did in 2020 when I asked him what he was doing to help Federal Reserve economists analyze their models. His lack of a response makes me wonder why an Ivy League professor would spend four years as a Vice-Chair of the Fed if it is not to serve as a way to bring the best academic research into the Federal Reserve’s community of economics researchers. I have no reason to think that any Governor of the Fed disagrees with Clarida’s contempt for the idea that the Fed should improve the analytical abilities of its research economists.

I have one more question prompted by another conversation with an economist in a leadership position. I have had some conversations with Presidents of the Econometric Society about the mathematical sloppiness in some Econometrica articles. In the last such conversation, he asserted that he doubted there had been any serious math errors in Econometrica papers. I then started to give him an example but he cut me off, saying he did not want to hear examples. He (mistakenly) thought I was going to mention something related to my research, and went on to say “Sometimes a person’s work is not appreciated until after they die. That may be the case with you.” A math nerd approaches the President of the Econometric Society about mathematical issues, and all the ES Prez wants to talk about is the nerd’s death. My last question for my NSAF colleagues is:

Question 4: Suppose someone approached the Secretary of Defense with documentation of flaws in the analysis of military equipment. Would SecDef Austin refuse to discuss the matter and say “Things will be better after you die”?

The comparison between my experiences in dealing with economists and what I observe in interactions with US military officers is stark. I do not foolishly believe that petty and unprofessional behavior is never seen in the military, but the economists in these examples responded to serious questions with contempt, and did so in situations where one expects them to remember their professional responsibilities. As you will see in future posts, things get only worse when it comes to my less public interactions with the leaders of the economics community.

Friday’s ceremony left a deep impression on me because it reminded me that there are communities in which people take their responsibilities seriously, and treat each other — and me — with respect and professionalism. At my age I cannot change the community in which I work, but that hour was a refreshing break from dealing with economists. I thank all the NSAFs — current and past — for the standards of professionalism they display.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments