Arnold Kling  

Where is the Failure?

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Brad DeLong writes,


Economists are losing the battle for mindshare in public debates and discussions about the economy. Too much of what we economists write meets the technical canons of modern economics, but reaches a very small audience (if it reaches any audience at all). Too much of the rest of what we write is murdered by being forced into the Procrustean bed of the 700-word op-ed: a space too small to make any but the most pathetic and oversimplified excuse for an argument. The result is that public understanding of the economy is abysmal, and the intellectual level of the public debate is far too low...

We--that is, Joe Stiglitz, Aaron Edlin, and I--aim to start an online publication, The Economists' Voice, to be "published" by Berkeley Electronic Press, to try to remedy this situation.


I share some of their concerns. In my forthcoming book (I'm hoping it will be available in October), I write

I believe that some of the fault lies with the top graduate schools in economics, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I obtained my Ph.D. The focus on mathematical training in these programs is so intense that they tend to produce a sort of idiot-savant, competent only to publish in academic journals. It pains me to see economists for whom expounding economic principles and speaking in plain English are mutually exclusive activities.

Is the problem the "Procrustean Bed of the 700-word op-ed?" I don't think so. Paul Kruman's occasional longer pieces for the Sunday New York Times Magazine are hardly models of economic education.

I think that the idiot-savant problem is real, and Joseph Stiglitz is an example of someone whose economic reasoning and policy analysis strike me as disjoint.


Tyler Cowen writes,


something like this is badly needed.

More conceptually, I view this attempt as an implicit criticism of Google. There is nothing stopping economists from posting such writings right now, and of course longer pieces can be linked to. But who will find/read them?


The Internet is fundamentally a "pull" medium, not a "push" medium. I do not think that the average citizen is going to run to the Internet to "pull" a journal written by academic economists.

The Internet also fosters a division of labor, between linkers and essayists. For example, in the blog world, Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds is the classic linker, pointing people toward interesting material. So is Arts and Letters Daily's Denis Dutton. Russ Roberts and Don Boudreaux are more essayists. I, too, am more of an essayist.

There is actually a lot of content on the Internet that seems to me to fit the mission of The Economist's Voice, and just finding that material and linking to it would be a full-time job. So I second Tyler's suggestion of "What about an additional economics blog or journal that simply selects the best material already out there, analogous to www.aldaily.com or www.artsjournal.com?"

Instead, DeLong and friends seem to be saying that we need more essayists. In that case, Project Syndicate should be getting lots of hits. My guess is that it doesn't.

My guess is that the market for The Economist's Voice will turn out to be economics professors. They will look for essays to use in their courses, and they will also assess the state of debate within the profession.

That is a perfectly fine market, of course. I think that it would be especially nice to see economic issues debated using reason, rather than rhetoric. If that is where The Economist's Voice takes us, then it will be a valuable resource. But I think that the New York Times could just as easily be the home for a rational debate--I don't believe that the failure is due to lack of space.

For Discussion. Would readers of this blog like to see two blogs--one consisting mostly of links and the other consisting of mostly of longer commentary?


Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Economic Education



COMMENTS (15 to date)

Would readers of this blog like to see two blogs--one consisting mostly of links and the other consisting of mostly of longer commentary?

Yes, certainly

Michael Stastny writes:

One simple answer why economists are losing the battle for mindshare in public debates:

Poor advertising.

{I would like to see two blogs}

Jonathan Brown writes:

I think your fundamental point is true - many economists spend a lot of time dealing in minimally comprehensible minutae. Hayek suggested that would happen as the profession relied more on numbers to explain things. In the Counter Revolution of Science he raised the question that too many numbers would blur our vision. A lot of the noise in public policy debates is about things that probably do not capture the real - but then Hayek also raised questions about that too!

William Newman writes:

My reaction to your article earlier about Paul Samuelson (or my second reaction, after my noneconomist's "hmm, same Samuelson, right?":-) was that it's interesting what you say about the small-picture mistakes and oversights en route to overall correctness in his work, because my view of him is dominated by (and poisoned by) what I think was a revealing small mistake. I didn't write a response then, but since it seems connected, I'll write one now.

In his _Economics_ textbook (10th edition, 1977), in the last chapter ("Alternative Economic Systems"), which was largely devoted to comparing the Soviet and NATO systems, Samuelson left out any mention of the Berlin Wall, or analogous setups in other Communist or Fascist systems. Even trying to set aside my differences in political priorities (states which kill subjects who try to escape, brrr), I think it's a weird omission. Simple revealed preferences, like people voting with their feet, are interesting.

People who tend to pointedly ignore simple data and jump straight to elaborate roundabout analyses are not my kind of scientist. (I say that as someone with a graduate degree in computer simulations of quantum mechanical systems: there's nothing wrong with fancy analyses, but plenty wrong with not checking your fancy analysis for consistency with the simple stuff.)

People who tend to skip over revealed preferences in favor of nearly-impossible-to-verify claims about people's internal states of happiness (e.g., "it is a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable") face an uphill battle in convincing me that their brand of social science has much to do with pursuit of truth in a sense that I recognize.

Thus, it's a double whammy: Samuelson made a strong impression on me (and promoted his book into my "remember they thought this way" collection) by displaying both tendencies in a politically sensitive section of one of the most widely-distributed books ever written to present substantive economic arguments. And I think this kind of problem (unconvincing internal logic and various cues suggesting that politicization competes successfully with pursuit of ordinary knowledge) may weaken economic analysis as much as the kind of obfuscation you discuss.

Samuelson's writing was reasonably forceful plain English ("vulgar mistake", check). But once the internal evidence piles up that the author might have political concerns in mind and considers slipperiness or carelessness or monomania in pursuit of them to be acceptable, soon he'll tend to be forcefully plainly preaching to the choir, because everyone else who was paying attention has tuned out.

It might be that this isn't such an important problem. But my impression, looking in from the outside (from chemistry and computer science, mostly) is that it's a significant problem in the field. How long have people been pointing out that it's a fallacy to weigh idealized government solutions to gritty real-world market imperfections? And how long will it take before prominent and respected economists stop doing it? During the controversy in the Reagan administration, how many economists volunteered to pass judgment whether the Phillips curve (beloved of newspaper analyses though usually not referred to by name) or the Laffer curve is known with more certainty? (And of the ones who did, how many didn't already have political sympathies such that their remarks could be seen as covering fire for their preferred faction?)

As above, I suspect that this tendency weakens the impact of economic analysis. I also -- connecting back to the Samuelson article again -- suspect it might have something to do with the kind of people who go into the profession. A field which gives the impression that it doesn't distinguish clearly between what's known with certainty and what's only approximately true and what's only a best guess already has some problems attracting the kind of people who are drawn into physics. (I observe this as a biologist and nearly-physics minor who ended up in doing computer simulations of chemistry in grad school, and who had some complaints of this sort about the way chemists tended to present things). Beyond that, any suggestion that that distinction is conflated with the distinction between things which are politically important and things which are politically inconvenient would probably make the recruiting problem worse. (I never seriously considered going into economics, but if I had, the way that I was marked down on an econ paper in part because the idea of private alternatives to the Space Shuttle was manifestly impractical -- because private industry cannot raise that much capital -- might have made an impression on me...)

Bruce Cleaver writes:

Yes, my vote is for two blogs.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

How long have people been pointing out that it's a fallacy to weigh idealized government solutions to gritty real-world market imperfections? And how long will it take before prominent and respected economists stop doing it?

I agree it's a mistake. I don't agree that "prominent and respected economists" do it.

I would also like to point out that it's a mistake to treat idealized free market approaches as the obvious solution to gritty real-world problems, and in my view this is a far more common error.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Arnold, just keep your voice, keep it authentic, let us know what interests you, organize it however it makes sense to you. If it continues to resonate and make us think, I'm sure we'll continue to read.

DeLong laments that he and his ilk can't communicate outside journal-space then proposes to solve it with "*the* place on the internet" where they will be able to communicate. OK, whatever. Have any academic economists ever studied the total fallacy of "build it and they will come"? Seems like that would make a good Ph.D. dissertation.

Jason Ligon writes:

I think Brad misdiagnoses the problem.

Economists have little public credibility because they are seen as tools of justification for whatever policy a politician wants to advance.

Disagreements between the various camps are sufficiently technical that most people hear something like 'blah, blah, blah,' and will therefore not be persuaded from the version that provides justification for their preferences.

The economy is viewed as a political award system, so what politicians say matters and what economists say doesn't.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

The real culprit lies in the differing levels of education enjoyed by the reading Public. The new Century requires online editing. Any concept which might be unknown to the Reader must be linked to satisfactory detail. Brad De Long will suffer from all economic material, advocating an economic and political agenda on which others will disagree. They will fail of Readership.

I will state a axiom moronic: State your Enemy's position accurately and honestly, and try to defend your own. Until the Reader witnesses that your position stands up well in debate, you will not acquire an audience. lgl

I think another element might be that economists don't seem to realize how they come off when they write for a general audience. They're often either bossy, spelling out the tough choices, telling us in absolute terms what would be more "efficient," as though these things can be mathematically determined once and for all. Or they seem autistic. Lansburg at Slate, for instance, may or may not be a great economist. But the way he rattles through his pieces, flipping off a little of this, and then a little of that, showing off his brilliance, reveling in weirdo paradoxes, isn't going to appeal to many who aren't already smartypants autistics.

I think the blogosphere has done a great service to the rest of us, non-technical but interested types. Being able to read you, Marginal Revolution, Brad, and others writing informally, linking, thinking out loud -- hey, you sound like human beings doing your best to puzzle your way through a life that never behaves quite like you expect it to.

But yeah, no doubt economics could use something like Arts and Letters Daily -- a daily best-of-economics, nothing but links and teasers, and making a point (as ALD does) of linking only to pieces that, however sophisticated, are always and in every way readable and approachable. Just another blog wouldn't do it, I don't think. The special layout of ALD confers a special "best of" quality on the pieces it chooses to highlight. Another thing ALD is smart about -- as a magazine editor is smart -- is choosing a wide variety of pieces: sexy pieces, popular pieces, academic (if accessible) pieces, newsy pieces, thoughtful-from-out-of-nowhere pieces, provocative pieces ...

And yeah, the economics field definitely needs a better sense of showbiz where presenting itself. To be honest, the fact that it lacks a sense of showbiz is one of the reasons it looks like a bizarro field full of weirdos. What normal human being lacks a sense of showbiz, and doesn't have at least some knack for salesmanship and self-presentation? So long as economists mutter about incomprehensibilities and seem to be ordering up policies that normal people resent while telling us all how good these policies really are for us, sure, normal people are going to shun economists. Why wouldn' t they?

William Newman writes:

Bernard Yomtov writes "I would also like to point out that it's a mistake to treat idealized free market approaches as the obvious solution to gritty real-world problems, and in my view this is a far more common error."

For policy discussion which makes it as far as op-ed pages or opinion magazines, I doubt this. For one issue in particular where there's a considerable amount of consensus among economists -- free trade -- I think I've seen a big enough sample of discussion in enough places to outright dispute it. Is the idealized free market approach overrepresented (compared to clever fiddling with retaliatory barriers and bilateral agreements and how much we can get away with without irritating our allies too much and so forth, and perhaps also compared to all the mercantilist assumptions written into news articles) in discussions of trade policy? Or is it perhaps underrepresented but justifiably so because that the consequences would be bad for the country (USA, for me) overall, compared to the real-world system in existence now, if we dogmatically dismantled the entire trade policy apparatus and went with as nearly unilateral free trade as possible?

Besides that, I have an on-topic remark in the next paragraph, about taboos. There is not much serious discussion in the popular press of bizarre ideas which economists sometimes discuss seriously (like removing the AMA's statutory monopoly); maybe a new journal would change that, or needs to respect it, or something. After that, so much for the topic -- I am stung by the charge of insufficient respect for the grittiness of real-world problems (and I continue to suspect market critics of insufficient respect for the grittiness of real-world policymaking public choice problems), so after the taboo point I'll stop worrying about new economics journal formats and just try to defend against the charge by appealing to the history of market policies which have made it into the real world.

Of course I would agree that there are plenty of gritty real-world problems where free-market folks argue that simply going back to markets and freedom of contract would be an improvement. Obvious US examples include the AMA's legal monopoly, the FDA's prior restraint of drugs, the way cities and states prohibit most private local bus/van services, and the public school system. The free-marketeers irritate everyone else with their confident claims, and are in turn sometimes irritated by a lack of people willing to make a detailed defense of a rationale of the status quo. ("It's a gritty real-world situation, you wouldn't understand" is not a detailed defense.:-) In most cases neither side has many chances to say "I told you so", since free market policies remain taboo while we judiciously adjust medical insurance regulations, carpool lanes and light-rail systems (or, in one taboo violation, sometimes road pricing), and statewide or national education standards and policies.

In some areas, though, "I told you so" might still be possible, since taboos have been broken and markets have pushed into messy real world situations where few would have expected 35 years ago. In such cases, I don't see a clear pattern that free-market idealizations make for bad policy. (Of course, I'm biased, but I'd be interested if someone could point out such a pattern.) The successes as well as the failures tend to be mixed unfree markets, so it's often unclear, but to my knowledge the big-name failures have involved market restrictions at the levels of price controls or government-created monopoly. Regrettably for "I told you so" from my side, most of the successes have been seriously unfree markets too, so much so that there's considerable ambiguity. Maybe we could find a few clear cases, though.

Among the messy failures, maybe California's energy markets would have failed terribly if they were excessively free, but that's a big hypothetical. The way they failed in the real world was deeply connected to the price controls on them, and few economists would consider a price-controlled market to be a fine specimen of pure free-market policy exuberance. Among the messy successes, I think there's a good case that various kinds of transportation deregulation have been a success overall (or "generally less screwed up than the previous situation"), but as above, I admit that so much central regulation and detailed fiddling remains that it's hard to to make a free-market-triumphal case from them.

Maybe not all cases are hopelessly messy, though. In one area which touches my professional interests, spectrum auctions, my impression is that they have been a success by most impartial standards, at least by the rather low standard of "better than the distinctly nonutopian state of centrally allocated spectrum rights in the real world". Is my impression wrong? Or is it correct, but the success is attributable to clever policy fiddling to avoid excesses of market zeal, or perhaps because of some new factor in modern economies which makes what wasn't practical 50 years ago practical now? Or are spectrum auctions a success simply because the zealots really were right 30 and 60 years ago, that ordinary property rights would've been better than the centrally allocated approach?

Glen Raphael writes:

I'd say the biggest outright win for the free marketeers is the creation of FedEx, UPS and other private package delivery services. When private companies were allowed to compete directly with the Post Office, they were able to provide faster, more reliable service for a similar price with a level of "universal coverage" that was often better than that of the post office (delivering to an address rather than to a "Mail Stop" in remote regions.)

Airline price deregulation is a close second.

Lynn Rutherford writes:

A Blog with links to articles the regular guy could understand would be nice. I have often been interested in an economic issue and had to go to the research papers to get the background. That's been tough going since I am not an economist.

An Art & Letters kind of site for economics would be worth its weight in gold to me. The person who put it together would be providing a valuable service.

William Woodruff writes:

Certainly the (early) classical economists are partly to blame, with their emphatic embrace of mathmatics, of the public ignorance of the field.
Something which the behaviourist (and Post Keynesist) have been attempting to rectify.

Differing opinions (regarding the results of proposed of fiscal solutions to whatever is wrong with the country at any given moment) by economist on both sides of the political spectrum merely confuses the public, because economics is a self-proclaimed 'science', which implies certainty.

However, personally, two blogs reduces the incentive for further research on topics.

William

Timothy Taylor writes:

An economics clearinghouse website made up mainly of links, perhaps some with short comments, would be very helpful. For example, I can imagine sections giving links to: 1) op-eds by economists;. 2) newspaper or magazine articles that vividly illustrate some economic point; 3) overviews of reports that have come out from governments or think tanks; and 4) interviews with economists.

But I also think maintaining such a website is, if not quite a full-time job, at least a very significant commitment of time. Also, I think it would be necessary to have the backbone to avoid linking to everything, and instead maintaining some kind of quality control.

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