David R. Henderson  

Caplan's Talk in Sweden

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Do Normative Economists Need E... Edified...
There is more than one way to make economics fun, and I hope that future research will compare and contrast the effectiveness of different approaches. Personally, however, I embrace blunt delivery of economic principles, shocking examples, and ridicule of popular economic illiteracy. I often explain to my students, for example, that almost all of them have one kidney to spare, and that their donation could allow let another human being escape from the purgatory of dialysis. Legally, however, the law freezes the price of kidneys at zero, leaving no incentive to donate. Defenders of the status quo are causing untold misery, and for what?
One of the main reasons for irrational economic beliefs, in my view, is that they are part of most people's sense of identity. They believe in protectionism, immigration restrictions, and price controls because these are the kinds of things that "People like us think." Another part of my persuasive strategy is to gradually change my audience's sense of identity. On the one hand, I explain, there is the vast majority mired in economic misconceptions. On the other hand, I point out, there is an articulate minority of economists who have spent centuries combating popular prejudice. The subtext of almost every lecture I give is, "Which of these two groups do you want to be a part of?"

This is from Bryan Caplan's excellent talk that he gave in Sweden earlier this month. The whole thing is here. [.pdf]

Bryan's passage reminded me of one of my favorite passages from my favorite piece by Paul Krugman, two of his four tips for convincing non-economists:

i) Take ignorance seriously: I am convinced that many economists, when they try to argue in favor of free trade, make the mistake of overestimating both their opponents and their audience. They cannot believe that famous intellectuals who write and speak often about world trade could be entirely ignorant of the most basic ideas. But they are -- and so are their readers. This makes the task of explaining the benefits of trade harder -- but it also means that it is remarkably easy to make fools of your opponents, catching them in elementary errors of logic and fact. This is playing dirty, and I advocate it strongly.
(ii) Adopt the stance of rebel: There is nothing that plays worse in our culture than seeming to be the stodgy defender of old ideas, no matter how true those ideas may be. Luckily, at this point the orthodoxy of the academic economists is very much a minority position among intellectuals in general; one can seem to be a courageous maverick, boldly challenging the powers that be, by reciting the contents of a standard textbook. It has worked for me!

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CATEGORIES: Economic Education



COMMENTS (4 to date)
Patrick writes:

Great quotes by Caplan and Krugman. I just hope that Bryan can continue to be part of the "articulate minority of economists [...] combating popular prejudice" and not lapse into the "vast majority mired in economic misconceptions" like Mr Krugman has.

NM writes:

Very well... Though reading through the comments on his observations on Europe suggests that the 'persuasive strategy' in question is maybe not so very persuasive after all... But I guess that just reflects how deeply-set we are in the ways of our false consciousness.

RL writes:

To be fair to his students, Bryan should point out to those not seeking to spend their professional life in economics that being the rebel in other professions may not be conducive to long-term satisfaction or advancement.

Pete Murphy writes:

Speaking of ignorance, there is nothing more ignorant than economists who, following the beating the field of economics took over the seeming failure of Malthus' theory, have sworn to never again give consideration to the ramifications of population growth. If they did, they might come to understand the relationship between population density and per capita consumption, and the role of population density in driving unemployment and in setting up the global trade imbalances that brought the global economy to its knees.

Instead, the field of economics remains mired in the theories of 18th century economists. If the other sciences took the same approach, today's economists would still be reading about Adam Smith and David Ricardo by the light of whale oil lamps.

Pete Murphy
Author, "Five Short Blasts"

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