Noah Smith has a fairly caustic meditation on the role of math in economics, in which he says that it’s nothing like the role of math in physics — and suggests that it’s mainly about doing hard stuff to prove that you’re smart.
I share much of his cynicism about the profession, but I think he’s missing the main way (in my experience) that mathematical models are useful in economics: used properly, they help you think clearly, in a way that unaided words can’t.
What is true is that all too many economists have lost sight of this purpose; they treat their models as The Truth, and/or judge each others’ work by how hard the math is. It sounds as if Smith was taught macro by people like that. And there are a lot of people in macro, some of them fairly prominent, who are what my old teacher Rudi Dornbusch used to call “fearful plumbers” — people who can push equations around, but have no sense of what they mean, and as a result say quite remarkably stupid things when confronted with real-world economic issues.
But math is good, used right.
Vir: Paul Krugman, New York Times