What’s Wrong With Economists?

You probably recall Hillary Clinton turning anti-economist in the dying days of her campaign:

“Well I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to put my lot in with economists.”

And more recently John McCain has jumped aboard:

“I trust the people and not the so-called economists to give the American people a little relief.”

Honestly, I don’t get it. So let me ask two questions. And these aren’t rhetorical questions — I am serious about trying to better understand both.

First, what’s so bad about (so-called) economists anyway? I thought that the job of experts was to offer expertise. Is it that we are not offering our expertise, that we don’t have expertise to offer, or that expertise is not required? Or something else?

And second, why does economist-bashing suddenly make political sense? Both McCain’s and Clinton’s comments came subsequent to economists suggesting that the gas-tax holiday was pure pandering. And the polling I saw suggested that the public believed us. Indeed, it may even have cost Clinton a chance to turn things around in the North Carolina and Indiana primaries.

What gives?


Steini

Most people oppose economics because the proposals made by economics are not in their interest. It is true, that human beings are mostly individualistic utility maximizers and nothing more. Even most successful people don't know that, because they don't have to. Society is not rewarding conscience or reason, but opportunism and drive so they don't have to think ahead and change their strategy.

The truth is: most good things in western democracies come from their constitutions. The people living in these states are just unconscious cue balls - and most importantly they ARE NOT talented with reason.
The constitutions were developed only by a handfull of very smart people. People who know the rules of the game and how to engineer things so that something worth can emerge.

MOSES

Economists will always disagree for as long as there is going to be more than one way of solving an economic problem. To fit into the dire times, we can either elect to pursue higher/more income or cut down on the expenditure, trouble is that one is progressive and the other is retrogressive though it helps you see tomorrow. Political economics will always be populist and myopic so as to capitalise on people thirst for solutions. Most of their work is just stop gap.

Henry

I don't believe it's so much economists as opposed to anyone involved in policy analysis, with economics being disproportionately represented in that. No-one ever bashes economists over the correctness of a mathematical formula, it's only when they apply it to policy does anyone care.

Because people are both encouraged to participate in politics and since it is deceptively simple, many people have (sometimes very strong) opinions on political matters. It's more than just the normative (such as "how much do we value equality over utility?") but in the positive as well ("what are the results of privatisation?") The vast majority of people do not take anything close to a scientific approach to the positive economics of policy. People with liberal views will seek information that confirms their worldview (for instance, they will be much more likely to read articles focusing on the negative effects of tax or spending cuts) and vice versa for conservatives. When large amounts of the population have pseudo-scientific views on something, it's going to be hard for any scientist to be taken seriously. I imagine that this would have (and still will be in some households) with doctors when belief in folk or alternative remedies was much higher.

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Micah

I think the climate is right to bash economists because the economy is bad. To someone who doesn't understand the economy or the field of economics, an economist is probably just a custodian of the economy. In bad times, the kind of voter who would fall for this ploy probably blames economists for the turndown/non-recession.

Mike

Anybody complaining above that economists are wrong half the time doesn't fully understand the scientific method, theory, or how true knowledge is arrived at.

Anybody who pushes the envelope of what is "known" runs the risk of being wrong. That's why we do science first, and engineering second. That's the whole point of an experiment or a test.

The trouble, it seems to me, with the perception of economists is that they can't run macro-experiments and can only do their studies in the real world after the fact. It would be the equivalent of rocket scientist waiting until Armstrong was on the moon, then figuring out how the rocket was built.

Economics (macro) is reverse engineering.

ac

I'll go back to the relativism introduced by the postmodernists in the social scientists in the 80s and 90s wrecking the ground science was standing on.

The solidity of scientific evidence has been replaced by the view of scientific evidence as one theory of many.

Daniel Reeves

Dischord between economists and everybody else represents people's preferences to ideology over reality.

echoclerk

I'd say most people dislike Economists because a lot of what is wrong with the world is their fault? (free market idealogoues...anyone?)

Economists have a tendency to present their unproven market theories and ideas as Scientific fact, even when they seem to fail at the most simplest real world predictions....

David

Well, politicians are liked even less, so they're lashing out at economists in a populist gesture.

But also, economists are perceived as (mostly) being wedded to a particular ideology, free market capitalism, and a model of growth that doesn't seem to take resource depletion very seriously.

That worries a lot of people.

Rhys

Taleb's article is an interesting one; not the least because where I come from, Western Australia, you only see black swans.

Alex Cannon

I think politicians and the public in general don't like the expertise that is being offered. This has been touched on somewhat in the media. People don't want to know the truth if it isn't about some villainous oil company exploiting hard-working American's or an OPEC conspiracy set on crushing the American economy. I empathize with them in that I understand how they feel and their resistance to the cold hard facts of how the world works according to economic theory. But I'm a student of economics and an aspiring economist, and I learned a while ago just why it's dubbed as the dismal science. It'd be nice if politicians and the public could jump on board.

Kyle D

My parents are extremely upset at me and often argue with me because I am getting a degree in economics. They claim that economics does not illustrate what goes on in the "real world," citing their myopic experiences and misfortunes. And for anybody who says, "well, economists are sometimes overconfident about their theories"... to get an idea of how my parents are, they also believe that statistics are useless because they somehow don't represent what is actually going on! They really have no idea how the scientific method works or anything like that. What upsets me the most is that I actually don't think my parents-- or at least my mom-- is really all that dumb. And what I fear most is that there are probably plenty of other people out there with such anti-fact biases.

I try to explain to them that calling economics "just theory" undermines the fact that what they say is "just theory" as well, albeit very myopic theories. Yet they dissent.

Well, it got really annoying to the point where I had to basically say "screw you guys" and severed all ties with them. They weren't even financially supporting my college education, anyway.

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John Jay

Despite my efforts to avoid it, I ended up in a poltical discussion with someone last year.

He was talking about GDP growth under Bush and I mentioned it was entirely due to borrowed money being pumped into the economy, and if we counted our per-capita debt we'd see that we've sunk in the last 7 years. That is, the amount of money we borrow each year for the Federal Deficit is approximately equal to the rise in GDP. It's like borrowing money from the bank, handing it to your wife, and claiming your household income went up.

His answer? "I don't understand what you're talking about." Dude, I said, the government borrows money from China and hands it to you and you spend it. You still owe the money after you've spent it. "I still don't get it. Liberals are too complicated."

- from an Engineer and Business Manager

Dummidumbwit

Economist are overeducated academics and can espouse different political views, Trickle Down economics being a classic case. Politics and Economics are not logical but emotive, the Stock Market emote and respond emotivelt to data. So It's really just a case of preserving tenure of Academics to spout something to justify paying them more than the Min Wage they are worth? The only people who are not stupid are the ones that realize they are stupid? Reagan knew enough to be president, Dave Stockton just knew how to annoy everyone? It's a high stakes game with shifting rules OK? Play to emotions in the direction you want to go.

Joel

This might be bordering on a strawman argument, but I think she was just arguing for the sake of it, perhaps to show that she's smart and her methods are better. And also due to escalation of commitment. She had sunk cost in her commitments and couldn't change "just cos some economists" suggest otherwise.

Ben

As an economist and an ecologist, this is something I face everyday in my job. It's simple really - economics has a credability problem. As a discipline, mainstream economics sails dangerously close to pseudoscience. Off the top of my head:

1. Mainstream economics tends to be proscriptive rather than descriptive.

2. Its 'theories' tends to align 'conveniently' with certain political perspectives (although most social sciences are guilty of this) - leaving it exposed to allegations of political bias.

3. It relies on Panglossian assumptions which only apply to the real world in exceptional circumstances (perfect competition, perfect information, rational behaviour, consumer sovereignty etc. etc.).

4. Using regression analysis to try to model complex systems and to predict their behaviour is futile at best and self-deceptive at worst. I think econometrics, as a discipline, disappeared up its own fundament a long time ago.

However, all is not lost. Thumbs up to Vernon Smith and Co for trying to introduce some empiricism into this discipline. Thumbs up to Georgescu-Roegen etc for realising that thermodynamics matters. Thumbs up to Daly, Costanza and all the other ecological economists for realising that the biosphere supports the economy and not the other way around.

And thumbs up to Levitt and Dubner for doing what Gould and Dawkins did for evolutionary theory - popularising what was previously a dry and dusty area of human inquiry.

Engaging with people who aren't economists is probably the number one thing they economists can do to improve their perception in the broader community.

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Peter St. Onge

Politicians offer cool stuff for free.

Economists say that it costs money, and might not be that cool.

Ergo, politicians hate us.

VK

These aren't very hard questions:

1. People want life to be all smiles, sunshine, and happiness. Economics forces them to deal with reality, and they don't want it.

2. Stupidity. Never, ever forget that people are stupid. Unless I'm mistaken, you're all PhDs who work with other PhDs. You get used to an environment where everybody is smart, educated, and mostly rational. That's not real life. Most people are just not very smart. I'm a med student who works with other med students, I know how easy it is to forget that. But the sad truth is that there are more stupid people in this country then there are smart people, and you have to play politics according to that rule. And don't forget, the stupid are also more likely to be poor, which makes for a potent combo when something like a temporary gas tax repeal is dangled in front of them.

philosophy major & not bitter at all

Maybe they sense that the electorate is starting to think that there might be a link between the economy (looking a bit shabby) and economists? 'It's the economy stupid' just doesn't sound like a vote winner now, does it? The last 2 to 3 decades have been the golden age of the (fundamentalist/radical utopian) economist. All other voices drowned out/shut down. That's over. There's a whole lot of really fairly intelligent people from a lot of different disciplines who are not too unhappy about that. So economists in general may be tarred with the same brush as their failed messiahs and have to work a bit harder ? Boo hoo.

sustainibertarian

Because economics is not a science, but many of its followers act as if much of what it has to say is absolute and without major holes or weaknesses. Because economists treat reality in a narrow minded focus of profits over reality, such as ecological realities or social realities.