Economics has been called the "queen of the social sciences". This can be bad news as well as good news. On the bad news side, many of the elite in the profession mix and mingle at the centers of power and glitter; this can undermine any residual humility.
There is also the problem that erudition can be at the expense of useful knowledge and insights. This week's Econtalk podcast (Russ Roberts interviews Adam Davidson on manufacturing) helps to make the point. Davidson went to the trouble of learning what really goes on in a U.S. manufacturing plant -- and how and why it survives as well as how and why this is never simple.
This is where competition on many margins actually happens. Comparative advantage (vis a vis Chinese competitors in this discussion) is much more subtle than what we teach our students. Labor markets, on-the-job-training and the nature of our K-12 education system are also analyzed. How do we get these three to interact more productively? Will the folks we elect to office ever make room for enough freedom and flexibility for there to be progress on this front?
Economic aggregates have their place. Theorizing is important, but it has to be grounded in some reality. I do not know how much on-site time Davidson spent at the plant that he discussed. But it sounds like a perfect internship for prospective PhDs in economics and related fields.
Here is a sample of some of the reflection by economists.