Arnold Kling  

Journalists and Five-year Olds

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Bryan asks,


can you write an economically sound answer to the question "When [i.e., why] Did Life For the Poor Get Better?" that a five-year-old could understand?

When you get an answer that works with five-year-olds, you can move on to try and explain it to journalists. For journalists, the market only exists to cause problems (it's like Matt Ridley's complaint that the press makes it sound as if your genes are there to cause disease.) What solves problems, in this view, is the wisdom and good will of leaders.

Reading Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, it occurs to me that the human brain is wired to see some things and to miss others. For example, we have a really hard time understanding probability. We build up our understanding based on what we can see and touch. In that world, substances are either there or they are not there. Probability is not an intuitive concept. Even Einstein, confronted with the notion that we cannot know a particle's exact location but only a probability distribution for that location, famously resisted by arguing that "God does not play dice."

Another element that is hard-wired into our brain is cause, effect, and intention. We see cause-and-effect in simple, immediate terms. We often impute intention, even to inanimate objects. Until Isaac Newton came along, it apparently was easier to think of objects as falling out of a desire to be closer to the earth. In fact, when one invokes God's will, as Einstein did concerning the Uncertainty Principle, one is reverting to an unconscious model in which cause-and-effect is linked with intention.

So back to Bryan's question. How do you explain the reduction in poverty? As the result of the willful acts of wise leaders? Or as the result of some complex process that you call "economic growth"? The brain reaches for a simple explanation that invokes intention, rather than a complex explanation involving impersonal forces.

What Bryan calls "anti-market bias" among non-economists is no mere accident. It is our natural form of cause-and-effect modeling. It is the form of cause-and-effect modeling that one finds not just among five-year-olds but in 99 percent of articles written by journalists. It is the form of cause-and-effect modeling that is at work when Congressional committees undertake investigations.

What would I say to a five year old? I might say this:


There are lots of people in the world who will give us things that we want, as long as we give them something they want in return. This is called trading. Some of the things we trade are hard to see--they are like nice thoughts. Other people keep thinking up nicer things to trade with us, and we keep thinking up nicer things to trade with them. We keep trading nicer and nicer things. Many years ago, people had not thought up all of these nice things, so they did not have as much to trade as we do. That is why people who lived back then were poor, and we are not.

Now, can anyone come up with an answer that will work for journalists?


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CATEGORIES: Economic Education



TRACKBACKS (1 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/762
The author at Sacred Stew in a related article titled Wrongheadedness: Nature or nurture? writes:
    ...are people innately stupid or are they taught things that stifle critical thought? It would seem as though the answer is "yes" to both: man has rather nasty instincts left over from our days spent in tribal societies with nearly zero-sum economie... [Tracked on September 28, 2007 5:41 PM]
COMMENTS (16 to date)
Maniakes writes:

For journalists?

Life got better for the poor when technology and infrastructure had grown to the point that a worker could get more done in a 40 hour work week than his grandparents could have done in an 80 hour work week, so people didn't have to work as hard and there was still enough more stuff made for the poor and the rich to both be richer than they had been a generation or two previously.

mgroves writes:

I don't think it's a matter of explanation: it's a matter of willful ignorance or unrealistic expectations. No explanation will work, because they don't want it to.

Troy Camplin writes:

Life had gotten better for the poor throughout history. Poverty is the natural state of man. Wealth is what is unusual, and it, not poverty, is what needs to be explained.

General Specific writes:

I haven't finished Pinker's latest book yet, but so far he's rehashing material Lakoff popularized years ago, in particular the connection between our metaphorical understanding of the world, our physical makeup, and our evolutionary past.

Good stuff all the same.

As far as economic growth, standards of living, and the likes, I'd also point out to the kid that human consumption of coal and oil--plus some uranium--has also played a significant role in reducing poverty--including a strong role in the green revolution, e.g. pesticides and fertilizers.

Ideas are great but you can't power anything on ideas. You have to start with a low-entropy source somewhere.

I'd also point out the significant role played by government sponsored research, particularly research that was an adjunct or spinoff of defense spending in the 20th century.

Kids will understand that.

Floccina writes:

Journalists are experts at attracting viewers/readers/listeners. The problem is that many economic truths are not good for attracting viewers.

Venu writes:

"Reading Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, it occurs to me that the human brain is wired to see some things and to miss others. For example, we have a really hard time understanding probability."

Incidentally, this is exactly what the Overcoming Bias crowd talks about.

General Specific writes:

I would love it if someone could stop journalists from looking at the day's events--or their particular pet peeves or ideological obsessions--and then making statements like "market drops 100 points because of ..."

Faux news seems to be the most egregious when it comes to this nonsense.

Unit writes:

Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) wrote the following in "Essai philosophique sur les probabilites":

"In matters that are only likely, the difference in the given prior data that each person has about them is one of the main causes for the variety of opinions that we see reigning over the same objects"[...]
"It's the influence of the opinion of those that the many consider more knowledgeable, and to whom it is customary to give credit on the important questions of life, that is responsible for the propagation of these errors that in ingnorant times have covered the face of the world. Magic and Astrology give us two great examples. These mistaken beliefs inculcated since birth and adopted without questioning, and having as their only basis the fact of being universally accepted, have persevered for a very long time; until, finally, the scientific progress has destroyed them in the minds of the enlightened sector of the population, whose opinion has then helped destroying them further within the public at large, through the power of the process of imitation and habit, the same process that had helped establish these biases in the first place. The power of these mechanisms, the powerful might of the moral sphere, establishes and maintain inside a whole nation ideas that are entirely opposite to those that it conserves in another country with the same sway. What indulgence should we then NOT have for the opinions that are different from ours, since this difference depends only on the different points where circumstances have placed us!
We shall then enlighten those that we feel are less educated, but beforehand we shall examine with great scrutiny our own opinions, and we shall weight impartially their respective probabilities."

(The translation from the French is mine). I think this could also be of interest to the OvercomingBias crowd.

liberty writes:

maybe one day journalists will smarten up to the average intelligence of five year olds...

Carl Shulman writes:

Easy on Einstein...the talk of God playing dice was metaphorical.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein#Religious_views

General Specific writes:

Lakoff's recent works have been fluffy to say the least (and obviously politically motivated--as if these blogs aren't??). But that's not what I refer to. I'm thinking in particular about Women, Fire, and Dangerous Ideas; Metaphors We Live By; and Philosophy of the Flesh.

Pinker is a much better popularizer of ideas, and his most recent work will expose more people to the metaphorical nature of thought, but I'm not entirely convinced that--in an essential sense--he brings that much new to the topic. I never finished The Language Instinct because I'd been exposed to all those ideas reading linguistics books--and he just didn't bring anything new to it. His most recent work seems to bring greater novelity, but the essential ideas--which have been referred to in this blog--are covered by Lakoff in the earlier works I referred to above.

Pinker brings a different take, but same essential ideas as far as I can tell.

Kimmitt writes:

Life for the poor got better when two things happened -- first, we got better and better at making things, so we could make more things in less time. Part of this was working together in big places, like factories, to get lots of work done, so at first mostly only the people who owned the factories got richer. Second, when we figured out ways to share the new stuff between the poor folks and the rich folks so that everyone was better off, we all got richer together.

thebastidge writes:

Not all cultures and languages have equally strong cause-and-effect chains. Even idioms within languages can point to earlier times when cause-and-effect were not as tightly coupled.

For example, in Korean or Japanese, accidents happen; only sometimes is it acknowledged that accidents happen because of X. This is however a much weaker link than directly "x caused the accident" which is difficult or impossible to say in those languages.

I think that to an extent, the idea of intention and cause/effect are opposing vectors in thought. That is, to the extent that a group or individual bases his reasoning and worldview on intent, the less he pays attention to rigorous analysis of cause-and-effect, and vice versa.

Steve French writes:

Great! Now do one for deadweight loss!

9160 writes:

Reduction in poverty? This slight change in the poverty numbers has decreased because of the fast economic growth that has influenced every aspect of people’s lives. Technology has made things even simpler for people in the workplace and out. Things that would take people days to do only take minutes now, which means that more can be accomplished everyday. And because more things can be done in 24 hours than a decade ago more people have been obtaining jobs in many different areas.

Journalists write about technology everyday and they seem to make it interesting, which means that they are making economics interesting. Although some people think that economics can’t attractive in the newspapers, these journalists sure are making us read their articles.

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