But that can lead economists down a slippery slope, since the real economy involves real people and human motivations do not always boil down to arithmetic equations. "How do you quantify a telephone call from MITI (the Japanese government's industrial policy agency) to a Japanese company?" asks Faux in an interview.
The real technical economists often skirt that problem by focusing their research on narrow issues that can fit within the confines of mathematical models. In journals such as Econometrica, the bible of technical economists, practitioners debate how to make their models more effective and mathematically sound, often without addressing the ends to which they are used.
The result: Mathematics tends to drive the research, rather than the other way around. And the results offer limited insights into how society works.
The titles of two articles recently published in Econometrica show why Clinton and other political leaders might have difficulty deciphering today's econospeak: "Monte Carlo methodology and the finite sample properties of instrumental variables and statistics for testing nested in non-nested hypothesis," and "Semiparametric estimation of monoton and concave utility functions for polychotomous choice model."
Even some economists shake their heads.
"I have a rule of thumb that I will cancel subscriptions to economics journals if I go for a whole year without being able to understand at least one article," said Don Ratajczak, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "I've finally gotten to that point with some of them. In trying to make economics scientific, they have made it not useful."
Many economists defend the technical research, arguing that it is needed to push the outside edge of the profession's understanding of how the world works. "The drive is for deeper understanding and that drive leads you into things whose policy relevance is not visible right away," said Griliches.
Others stress that the technical research has not precluded work that could be useful in Washington, because the profession has grown so rapidly that it can accommodate it all. In fact, the American Economic Assn. launched a journal in 1987 to counter the technical trend and provide an outlet for broader policy-related articles.
What's more, while they are frustrated here at home, American economists are playing a growing role in public policy outside the United States--especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. For instance, Harvard's Jeffrey Sachs and a handful of adventurous American economists have become roving international advisers, as newly capitalist governments struggle to stave off economic collapse.
Even so, it clearly takes special skills to bridge the gap between the academic and public policy worlds. Even more rare are the economists who are liberal enough to share core Democratic beliefs that the government should intervene more forcefully on international trade, industrial policy and regulatory matters.
"Too many economists want to import, in the name of science, their conservative ideology to Washington," complained one economist who is close to Tyson.
Of course, the Clinton team is not the first new Administration to snub the economics profession. In 1980, Reagan won the presidency with a philosophy--supply-side economics--that had little backing in the economics profession.
Supply-siders like economist Arthur Laffer and writers George Gilder and Jude Wanniski were derided by the economics profession as mere pamphleteers.
Yet these rebels brought a political revolution to Washington, and mainstream economists took a back seat throughout the Reagan Administration. Indeed, since the 1960s, the profession has rarely been able to duplicate the influence and visibility it attained under Kennedy, when broad-thinking economists like Walter Heller and Tobin played key roles in shaping policy.
Economists have lived with that reality for years, but they were hoping for a change with Clinton, especially after he promised to "focus on the economy like a laser."
But the economic problems that worry Clinton the most are ones that few academic economists think much about.
"Economists think they have a God-given right to powerful positions in government," observed Rudi Dornbusch, an economist at MIT. "But the typical economist has not spent much time researching the important issues that are facing Clinton--what to do about the inner cities, how to make American corporations No. 1 again, what to do about education, what to do about job training."