Search the Site

If All the Economists Were Laid End to End, Would They Reach a Conclusion?

There is an old quip, attributed to George Bernard Shaw, that if all the economists were laid end to end, they’d never reach a conclusion.

My own experience has always been just the opposite. Most economists think very much alike.

If you want to feel like the smartest person in the room, often a good way to accomplish this is to be the only economist. Frequently, the one economist will say things that make a lot of sense that no one else would ever come up with.  When I am that one economist, I sometimes feel like a genius.  Until a second economist enters the room, that is.  Because when the second economist shows up, he or she often says all the smart things I was going to say, before I can say them.  It turns out, it is not the economist who is brilliant, but rather the training we get as economists which leads us to think differently from non-economists, that sometimes makes us seem smart. 

So was George Bernard Shaw right?  The data have something to say on this issue.  A panel of economic experts assembled by the Initiative on Global Markets at Chicago’s Booth School of Business weighs in from time to time on the issues of the day.  These are very prominent academic economics representing a wide ideological spectrum.

They are asked whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the position posed in the question.  They can also say they are uncertain or have no opinion.  For the purposes of my analysis, I will lump together “strongly agree” and “agree,” and do the same with “strongly disagree” and “disagree.”  I ignore anyone who says uncertain or has no opinion.

Well, it turns out that economists – at least these 40 economists – agree on just about everything thrown at them so far.  I had my crack research assistant Maria Ibanez go through every question they’ve ever been asked and compute how much agreement there is by question. Of the fourteen questions posed to them thus far, on nine of them every single economist shared the same opinion! Not a single dissenter in the bunch.  There has only been one question in which fewer than 80 percent of the economists are on the same side of the issue.  That was a question on education, where the group split roughly two-thirds/one-third when asked whether vouchers were a good idea.