Simplify, simplify

I might just go ahead and quote myself:

“One of the principles of writing economic theory is to create a simplified abstraction of reality.”

This is from an article by Russell Jacoby in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The world is complicated, but how did “complication” turn from an undeniable reality to a desirable goal? Shouldn’t scholarship seek to clarify, illuminate, or — egad! — simplify, not complicate? How did the act of complicating become a virtue?”

This is quite clearly not an article about economics (phew). It goes to show how very, very different we’ve become from the other social sciences and arts. Yesterday I was talking about the development lab at MIT; would they say, “Ah, there’s a million and one things that affect the quality of education. I’m going for a drink.”? Of course not. Economics seeks to expose in the simplest possible terms the relationships around us. Indeed, the world is complicated; that’s why the MIT lab has to perform randomized trials to isolate the effects of programs. It’s why theorists create little models of the world.

Contrast this with this characterization from Jacoby:

“The refashioning of “complicate” derives from many sources…. [acaemics] will prize efforts not only to complicate but also to “problematize,” “contextualize,” “relativize,” “particularize,” and “complexify.””

In economics we want to know: what you’re saying, why you’re right, and what could make you wrong. That’s about it. One of the most valuable consequences of treating economics as a science is that we parachuted out of this borderline nonsense:

“They will denounce anything that appears “binary.” They will see “multiplicities” everywhere. They will add “s” to everything: trope, regime, truth. They will sprinkle their conversations with words like “pluralistic,” “heterogenous,” “elastic,” and “hybridities.” A call for “coherence” will arrest the discussion. Isn’t that “reductionist”?”

This explains a big part of the schism between positive economics and other social sciences; we are OK with leaving some things out if it helps. When it comes to the policy debate and the normative questions, we have to throw all the other stuff back in, but “it depends” is a conclusion acceptable in positive economic research only if you can tell me exactly how and why it depends.

Jacoby has the neat sign-off:

“The cult of complication has led — to alter a phrase of Hegel’s — to a fog in which all cows are gray.”

In economics, our judgment cows are gray, but our scientific cows are black and white.


Making Economics Relevant Again, from David Leonhardt in the New York Times, has been recommended to me by more than one tipster. First of all, the most astonishing thing in the article, to me, is this table that includes an account of the number of economics degrees given every year since 1949: I thought majoring in economics had been on a steady upswing for decades, but apparently a lot fewer people were studying economics in the 90s. The number is just back up to where it was in 1990.

Anyway, the article kicks off:

“It was only a decade ago that economics seemed to be an old and tired discipline. The field no longer had intellectual giants like John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman who were shaping public policy by the sheer force of their ideas. Instead, it was devolving into a technical discipline that was even less comprehensible than it was relevant.”

Possible revisionism here, but it’s certainly a tempting argument. It might reflect the sleepy state of economic policy rather than the discipline as a whole, but I take the point. We’re pointed to an old New Yorker article from 1996 which drives the point home in spectacular fashion; forgive the long quotation:

“A few weeks ago, the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to William Vickrey, an 82-year-old professor at Columbia, and James Mirrlees, a 60-year-old professor at Cambridge…. the newspapers had some difficulty explaining the prize-winning work, which the Nobel committee referred to as “the economic theory of incentives under asymmetric information.” ..But when reporters tracked down Vickrey, an amiable bear of a man, he refused to play along: instead of expanding on the obscure mathematical theory that gained him world attention, he insisted on talking about his practical ideas for reforming the subways, the electoral system, the budget deficit, and much else besides. A “Times” reporter tried to pin him down, but Vickrey quickly dismissed his prize-winning 1961 paper as “one of my digressions into abstract economics.” And he went on to say, “At best, it’s of minor significance in terms of human welfare.””

What a priceless story. However, it might not just be the abstract math that marginalizes economics: Leonhardt goes on to argue that some economists are disgruntled at what they see as the cause of the “recovery” he perceives in economics. I can’t really argue with this:

“the new research often consists of cute findings — which inevitably get covered in the press — about trivial subjects, like game shows, violent movies or sports gambling.”

It’s like the Christmas stuff I talked about before. It isn’t a true reflection of economics research and it makes economics look ridiculous. To try and figure out what really mattered, Leonhardt decided to survey economists to find out who they thought “was using economics to make the world a better place”. It’s a question begging to reject Vickrey’s digressions into abstract economics. Presumably, to be an economist who actually does some good for the world, your research must be good science and very, very close to a solid and appealing economic policy. And lo:

“there was still a runaway winner…. the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at M.I.T., led by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee.”

I won’t try to put this any better than the original article:

“They want to overhaul development aid so that more of it is spent on programs that actually make a difference. And they are trying to do so in a way that skirts the long-running ideological debate between aid groups and their critics…. The basic idea behind the lab is to rely on randomized trials — similar to the ones used in medical research — to study antipoverty programs. This helps avoid the classic problem with the evaluation of aid programs: it’s often impossible to separate cause and effect.”

Let’s figure out what’s going on here. The research uses randomized trials to disentangle causality, the ubiquitous problem for figuring out relationships from real-world data; because the method is strong, they can rely less on normative judgment when they make the jump from the science to the policy, thus cutting ideology out. Just like the Obama team I was talking about yesterday, the gap between science and policy is vanishingly small here, but clearly it’s crucial for the success of the whole venture that the science be pure as snow. The science can’t tell you you’re right or wrong to hold the belief that children should be educated – that’s all on your head – but it can perform the true role of positive economics and help you figure out exactly how to improve the quality of education if that’s what you want.

The reason why these development economists are perceived as the most “relevant” is twofold: they have easy to understand, convincing science and they explicitly embrace the normative implications of their science. Their science is as sophisticated as it gets, but they certainly don’t need esoteric math. On that note, the last word goes to that New Yorker article:

“One way to encourage economists to become more worldly might be to abolish the Nobel Prize for economics, which since its introduction, in 1969, has helped foster a professional culture that values technical wizardry above all else. Deprived of the publicity surrounding the annual Stockholm ceremony, economists would actually have to do something useful to get noticed.”

EDIT: Actually I’m not sure that should be the last word. By the merits of, for example, the work Duflo, Banerjee and co. are doing, they would absolutely qualify for a Nobel memorial prize in economic science. The prize does seem to have become at least as much an applied math prize as a “good economic science” prize, which I guess is the problem the New Yorker article is highlighting. The problem isn’t the prize, but the criterion for winning, perhaps.

Turning economics research into policy

Hat tip to the inimitable GoodLiberal for pointing me in the direction of an excellent article I would certainly have missed otherwise. It’s by Noam Scheiber and it’s about Barack Obama’s advisers; in particular some of the economic policy advice he’s been getting. You can find it here, but get it while it’s hot because it might move behind the subscriber’s wall at the New Republic. To be clear, the economic policy parts are most interesting to me, but there’s more to it than that.

It’s interesting both how Scheiber characterizes the type of economic theory that’s apparently fueling some Obama policy, and how the path from one to the other winds. There are so many fun lines I might just go ahead and start quoting. On the distinction between academics and nonacademics:

“In economics, it’s the academics who are first-rate engineers and the nonacademics who are either dreamers or technicians.”

Very well put, though I fear a little harsh on dreamers. Research and teaching in academia are indeed geared towards the sterile positivism; the engineering analogy is well drawn. I do wish we had a bit more dreaming in the dreamy spires of academia though.

The article starts out by describing “behavioral economics”, that field that’s trying to figure out how people act and how to build it into economics.

“Behaviorists like Thaler believed that the perfectly rational, utterly selfinterested maximizers of economists’ imaginations had little in common with actual human beings, who frequently err when making simple calculations, who have trouble with self-control, who often act out of altruism or spite. But what’s really interesting is how Thaler and his fellow behaviorists responded to this fairly critical insight. Though rational self-interest was the central tenet of neoclassical (i.e., modern) economics, they didn’t take a wrecking ball to the field and replace it with some equally sweeping theory of human behavior.”

Behavioral economics is possibly the least revolutionary revolution ever to hit an academic discipline, because, as Scheiber is alluding to, the behavioral school is absolutely not changing or abandoning the methodology of economics. As I’ve noted before, the “perfectly rational” economic man can happily do whatever the behavioralists want him to do to be more “realistic”; it’s therefore not necessary to come up with a whole new way of modeling people.

Instead the behavioral school is writing down models of “perfectly rational, utterly selfinterested maximizers” who act in accordance with the behavioral evidence. That is, writing rationalization of the “irrationality” we observe. Contrast this with the traditional criticism of economic man, which is to throw up ones hands and loudly reject the whole idea of trying to predict what people will do. I prefer the behavioral way.

Anyway, what’s coming from having this type of economist on the Obama team?

“For example, one key behavioral finding is that people often fail to set aside money for retirement even when their employers offer generous 401(k) plans. If, on the other hand, you automatically enroll workers in 401(k)s but allow them to opt out, most stick with it. Obama’s savings plan exploits this so-called “status quo” bias.”

Does it take an economist to suggest this? Of course it does not; the article argues, however, that the “engineers” in academia are the ones who can tell you if the opt-out policy will increase saving or not. That’s a nice example of the value of positivist economic science: it gives you the evidence that switching from opt-in to opt-out might increase retirement saving, which is handed off to the policymaker, who says “I want to increase retirement saving”, and proposes opt-out. Presto. Did any part of the economic science at the bottom of the pyramid require esoteric math or have an ideological bias? Doubtful.

Here’s an even better one:

“Obama wonks tend to be inductive–working piecemeal from a series of real-world observations. One typical [economic adviser Austan] Goolsbee brainchild is something called an automatic tax return. The idea is that, if you had no tax deductions or freelance income the previous year, the IRS would send you a tax return that was already filled out. As long as you accepted the government’s accounting, you could just sign it and mail it back. Goolsbee estimates this small innovation could save hundreds of millions of man-hours spent filling out tax forms, and billions of dollars in tax-preparation fees.”

How simple, how wonderfully useful that would be. How fickle am I that I would vote purely on the basis of an easier tax return?

“The Clintonites were moderates, but they were also ideological…. The Obamanauts are decidedly non-ideological. They occasionally reach out to progressive think tanks like the Economic Policy Institute, but they also come from a world– academic economics–whose inhabitants generally lean right.”

Oh really? Aside from the repetition of this common error about economists’ politics, this implies that the positivist approach to academic economics is bleeding into economic policymaking, drastically shrinking the gap between the science and the normative judgment informed by the science. The crucial distinction remains – for example, I could argue that it’s wrong to make people opt-out of a retirement scheme rather than opt-in, a violation of their right to be left alone, and I couldn’t be wrong, despite what the science said would happen – but the information on which the policy is based is very close to the policy itself.

The Cold War revisited; elections and policy

Here’s a third-hand recommendation, with a hat tip to Economist’s View: an interesting Paul Krugman article on why capitalism “won” the Cold War. The thesis is this:

“Communism failed because of an inability to provide a sustaining reason for existance; only under crisis could it work…. [it] failed as an economic system because people stopped believing in it, not the other way around.”

The hybrid system of regulated capitalism alongside a centrally planned public sector dominates the modern world. As far as I can tell, a purely capitalist economy is equally difficult to find in history as a purely communist society; perhaps the hybrid reflects some natural impossibility of living at either extreme. The argument that some resources are best allocated, or some goals best achieved, by one mechanism and some by the other is a strong argument – though of course not one immune to counterpoint.

There isn’t a lot of big economic policy debate these days. The dominance of the hybrid system naturally pushes policy debate into a very small subset of all the possible economic policies. That’s not necessarily a criticism; you could, for example, blame either status quo lethargy or status quo satisfaction for containing the debate.

That makes the Krugman article a bedfellow of a recent mini-debate about whether elections matter for economic policy. Economist’s View also covered that one here; it seems to have kicked off with a Tyler Cowen article in the New York Times with the perfectly descriptive title “It’s an Election, Not a Revolution”.

Cowen says:

“This election is certainly important. But based on the historical record, it isn’t likely to result in a major swing in economic policy. Fundamentally, democracy is not a finely tuned mechanism that can be used to direct economic policy as a lever might lift a pulley. The connection between what voters want, or think they want, and what ultimately happens in the economy, is far less direct…. Shifts in economic policy are usually quite moderate.”

The Economist’s View cites a counterpoint from Kevin Grier:

“I see real differences. I don’t see McCain lifting the cap on FICA earnings. I don’t see McCain going for publicly created “green jobs”. I do see both of them “fixing” the AMT. I don’t see McCain as so anti-trade as Obama.”

I’m sorry, but I think I just went in to an apathy coma. Not to be too obnoxious, but if that’s the best we can come up with, I’m taking Cowen’s side all day long: the big questions are not asked. It could be a product of the political system, of apathy, of satisfaction, of something else entirely. Reflexive defense against attacks on the significance of democracy have grounds far larger than just economic policy, but it’s difficult to deny that, for better or worse, we won’t see any seismic shifts any time soon.

Economists’ political preference

While we’re sitting in the old ivory tower, some economists are out there in the real world. They’re very different from the academics, in their work and their demographics. The Wall Street Journal runs periodic surveys of private-sector economic forecasters; here’s a bit from January:

“On the political front, most of the respondents expect a Democrat to be elected president this year, although they personally prefer a Republican.”

Contrast this with the academic economists; here’s the summary from a 2003 survey of members of the American Economic Association, one of the big “trade groups” of academic economists:

“The responses show that most economists are supporters of safety regulations, gun control, redistribution, public schooling, and anti-discrimination laws. They are evenly mixed on personal choice issues, military action, and the minimum wage. Most economists oppose tighter immigration controls, government ownership of enterprise and tariffs. In voting, the Democratic:Republican ratio is 2.5:1.

The academics seem like “social liberals”, but I’d bet both the academics and the private-sector economists are “fiscal conservatives” (with apologies for possibly bastardizing the political terminology). Perhaps it relates to the liberal-friendly character of academia, the subject of the study I cited here. Here’s another result from the survey of the forecasters:

“Some 56% of the economists disapproved of President Bush’s stewardship of the economy, while 44% approved. That is especially startling considering 59% of the economists said the stock market performs better under Republican presidents, compared with 28% who said it favored Democrats.”

The Republican preference of the private-sector economists does seem to be grounded in their beliefs about the effect of the political climate on the financial sector. Academic economists, by and large, don’t care a lot about what’s happening in the financial sector (or, indeed, about anything that might be identified as “economics” by a layperson). The first-guess potted conclusion is probably that the non-academics care about the financial ship – which is indeed their livelihood – enough that they want a Republican to steward it, while the academics care more about politics that isn’t economic policy, where they prefer Democrats.

Does positivism indocrinate?

Somewhere in the history of the practice of economics we went positivist. Research and teaching of the subject both became technical and methodological, preoccupied with the “if this, then what?” questions of economic science, and rejected policy debate as unscientific. A semi-famous quotation from Keynes:

“The Theory of Economics … is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique of thinking, which helps the possessor to draw correct conclusions.”

Weirdly, this sterilization has in fact had the paradoxical effect of reducing the scope of economics that’s presented to students and researched by economists. Ronald Coase puts it like this:

“Mainstream economics, as one sees it in the journals and the textbooks and in the courses taught in economics departments has become more and more abstract over time, and although it purports otherwise, it is in fact little concerned with what happens in the real world…. economists since Adam Smith have devoted themselves to formalizing his doctrine of the invisible hand, the coordination of the economic system by the pricing system.”

I’m not arguing for anarchy in the profession. It just seems strange that we sterilized the science, freed it from value judgments and the real-world status quo, then presented it using nothing but the status quo to illustrate our tools. We worked so hard to show that our method gives you all the levers and buttons you could ever want, then obsessed over one or two of them.

Did the positivist revolution lead to a sterilization of normative economics as well as positive economics? Keynes’ “correct conclusions” are positivist conclusions; there cannot be “correct conclusions” to the actual, real-world questions that the science of economics is supposed to inform.

There’s a crucial difference between carving normative judgment from economic science and ignoring normative judgment altogether. It’s particularly difficult to illustrate in classes the difference between the two sides of our coin when we never hold normative debate. Does that make the positivist content of our classes seem like ideological indoctrination?

If we either presented a full diversity of positive models when we taught our methods, or engaged in actual normative policy debate to illustrate the application of our methods to real, difficult problems, we can preserve the positivist revolution and show the next generation of economists that Keynes was right. Economics can be a method for everyone, not a doctrine of the status quo. Economics can be scientific, but teaching economics like a natural science would certainly not be my first choice.

Visiting the real world

Economists don’t spend a great deal of time in the real world. We’re especially bad at having arguments, which is strange, considering that we have an infinitely flexible method and a bunch of unanswerable normative questions.

Unfortunately we’re all adrift on the ocean of economic science. The work that researchers do generates the kind of tedious methodological debates that help seminar audiences catch up on their sleep, but it doesn’t generate actual ideological debate: perhaps that’s the biggest possible endorsement of positivism in economics, but we didn’t need to lose it.

I always liked the Oxford Review of Economic Policy; it’s one of the few examples of a true economic policy journal, which means that while it’s still a bit dry, it’s non-technical and, more to the point, actually talks about real stuff. For example, this issue from last year is a survey of what’s going on with pensions – not exactly riveting, but if you’re into that kind of thing, an invaluable look at how economic science can inform ideological debate on pension reform. This one does much the same for growth and development in India.

The saddest misconception about positivism in economics is that we must sweep out all normative debate in order to be “scientific”. Yes, we have to avoid ideological prejudice when we research what’s actually going on, but doesn’t it seem like we’re building a fancy machine and never turning it on? Our “scientific” results don’t change the fact that our economic models don’t provide any “answers” to the great normative questions of what we should be doing.

It all must be especially boring for the poor undergraduates who are the cannon fodder of scientific economics. They get the distilled versions of some of our scientific methods and modeling – without, mind, necessarily finding out about their flexibility – but don’t get any practice in using economic analysis to engage in real policy debate. Perhaps it’s another casualty of the loss of the essay in economics; perhaps that comes from our huge enrollments, victims of our own success.

Just because positive economic modeling is supposed to separate itself from ideology, it doesn’t mean that economists should. Perhaps if we argued a bit more, we’d bring some life back to our discipline.

Do as I say, not as I do

Another Arts & Letters tipoff today. The teaser for the article reads:

“Do professors indoctrinate students by expressing a political ideology in the classroom?”

Similar to what I was talking about the other day when I was arguing that ideology leaks into economics courses when we start using them as civics lessons. The article being referred is from the Chronicle of Higher Education, asking why academia is liberal. Yesterday I reported a survey that found majority liberal political views among economics grad students; it’s not controversial to suggest that university and college faculties are predominantly more liberal than the population.

The article also mentions the real source of the Arts & Letters teaser quote: a study by Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner called, delightfully, “My Professor is a Partisan Hack” (you can read the whole study (pdf) here). That study tried to figure out how students perceive the political leaning of their professors, and how similarity with the students’ own views affected their enjoyment and perception of their courses.

The authors asked students to complete course evaluations that, among other questions, asked them to identify their professors’ political and ideological views, and to report their own confidence in their answers. The surveys were all done after political science courses. The Chronicle article summarizes one of the big results:

“their research showed that students were turned off when professors expressed views that were contrary to their own…”

Perhaps not surprising. The article goes on:

“Mr. Maranto asked the Woessners to contribute a chapter to his book on why conservatives don’t pursue doctorates. Typically, he says, there are a few answers to the question. Liberals say conservatives want to make more money than professors earn, while conservatives argue that they get less encouragement from professors than liberal students do.”

I would love to do a similar study for economics courses. Some interesting questions:

  • Can students confidently identify political ideology of economics professors? Should they be able to, given the supposed neutrality of what we teach?
  • Would students correctly guess that the majority of economists identify themselves as liberal? Does the content of economics courses skew this perception of the professors’ beliefs?
  • Are non-conservatives turned off by economics courses?
  • Do students see economics professors as spreading ideology? If so, is the ideology consistent with the professors’ beliefs? Is it consistent with the students’ perception of the professors’ beliefs?

We need to know how the teaching of economics meshes with the students beliefs and opinions. I strongly believe that the economic method is capable of accommodating and being used by people of any political or ideological belief, but I’d be astonished if such a survey of economics students revealed that this was in fact the case.

Here’s my pitch: do economics professors indoctrinate students by expressing ideology in the classroom? If they do, I believe they are committing a far graver sin than political science professors who do the same. We can separate policy debate from opinion in economics; we can separate out method from our beliefs. Do we?

The Woessner article concludes:

“professors may be well advised to strive for political balance—vigorously challenging students’ viewpoints and presenting multiple perspectives without identifying their own political orientations.”

If we could accomplish something like this in economics – value-free and varied economic method, plus lively ideological debate on economic policy – we might get economics courses that are interesting, useful and diverse. That would beat the mangling of positive and normative economics that too often passes for a real economics course.

The Making of an Economist, Redux

Last summer I read “The Making of an Economist, Redux” by David Colander, a 2000s do-over of a 1980s survey of whats going on in the wee brains of economics grad students. A little bit of introspection goes a long way, but not much of what’s going on in the book really seems like me or economics grad students I know.

Right up front we get a peach of a definition:

“For example, were an undergraduate student to ask an economist how to become an economist…. he would most likely tell her, ‘To become an economist who is considered an economist by other economists, you have to go to graduate school in economics.'”

And we thought defining “economics” was hard! Indirectly, this really tells you as much as the book itself about what economists are up to – that is, forming a closed shop where only PhDs may enter. That would be less worrisome if we weren’t beating diversity out of PhDs almost as aggressively as we beat it out of “Principles of Economics” students…

Anyway, the book surveys economics graduate students. Well, economics graduate students at one of the “elite” (book’s word) schools (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Chicago, Columbia, MIT, Princeton, Yale). Colander defends this choice by pointing out – correctly – the disproportionate influence of economists stationed at those schools, which hire new faculty predominantly from one of the others’ PhD pools. Perhaps limitations in the research budget are to blame, but it would be very interesting to see what was going on at other institutions as well. Non-US universities, smaller schools…

It might change a few of the most surprising results of the surveys. On the issue closest to my heart, 40% of the grad students surveyed disagree that “we can draw a sharp line between positive and normative economics”. Which makes my eyes water.

On the other hand, a bunch of boring-type economic policy questions drew pleasingly all-over-the-place answers. One with some degree of consensus: A strong majority agreed with the statement “Income distribution in developed nations should be more equal”, which is emphatically not what I would expect the public perception of an economists’ opinion to be. It probably partly reflects political beliefs; the students’ stated political allegiance breaks down like so:

Conservative: 16%
Moderate: 24%
Liberal: 48%
Radical: 6%

Not sure what “radical” is trying to catch, but there it is. Is it strange that all these budding economists are “liberal”? In my experience, not really, and in any case, the stereotypical right-wing markets-crazy economist is actually not one with actual basis. Believe it or not, devotees of the “economic method” are not necessarily fiscal conservatives, for example.

More relevant to the issue of what economists do is the question of what the students believe helps people succeed in grad school: a full 67% said “having a thorough knowledge of the economy” was unimportant, which I would wholeheartedly agree with. In courses at the undergraduate level, I was exposed to plenty of history, of the subject and of the world, and plenty of policy debates; at the graduate level, math. And statistics.

The closed shop isn’t much interested in policy debate. It’s not necessarily the job of academic economics to do these things, but I can attest that it makes most graduate-level courses as much fun as a slap to the head. We dive down the rabbit-hole of the literature of our chosen field, but lose whatever tenuous grasp on reality we once had.

An interesting side-effect of this infatuation with what other economists have written (even at the expense of what other economists have thought) and of the closed shop is that PhD theses are interchangeable. Everyone’s doing pretty much the same thing, geared towards the ubiquitous “job market paper” that is supposed to prove to the union bosses how good you’ll be at publishing papers like theirs. It’s either a theoretical paper that looks like other theoretical papers, or an empirical paper that looks like other empirical papers.

I don’t know how much this is true of other disciplines, but I often feel that very little of what we research is question-led, which also kills a big chunk of the chance to be daring or creative. There’s not a lot of big-picture, big-idea, thesis-for-its-own-sake intellectual masturbation going on – and I do mean that as a criticism. Colander’s survey shows our diversity; do we really all want to produce the same work? Can there be more than one way to do good science, good economics? What made us want to become economists? What happened to the questions we wanted to ask? Graduate students: this might be our last chance to ask them.

Economic literacy, or how we squashed dissent

My heart smiles on veterinarians today:

“Popular misconceptions

Economics is commonly viewed as being focussed on money. This notion has been reinforced in veterinary medicine…”

A quotation, apparently, from “Veterinary Epidemiology” by Michael Thrusfield, that I stumbled upon while prowling for some evidence on what we’re doing to economics students.

A large chunk of the evidence on that subject comes from formal economics articles ridiculing the population’s incompetence. This one actually asks students some questions testing so-called “economic literacy” (who sets monetary policy in America, what are profits for, what happens to export if the dollar increases in value (yawn)) and this one has some suggestions on how to promote it.

I’ll put aside my skepticism that knowing, for example, the difference between fiscal and monetary policy is important to a person. The questions that aren’t purely civic literacy are boring and/or irrelevant; more dangerously, the promotion of “economic literacy” in an introductory economics course represents another challenge to the correct perception of what economics actually is. If we make civics the goal of introductory economics courses, we lose any semblance of teaching “principles”, and slide further into pretending that economics will offer the technocratic “answer” to your every question.

As if to reinforce this fear of mine, the questionnaire article finishes up by trying to convince me that

“…economic knowledge has a direct and substantive effect on opinions about economic issues”

That’s seems reasonable, until the example:

“An opinion question asked: If the supply of oil was reduced by a crisis in the Middle East, do you think the United States government should prohibit oil companies from raising oil and gasoline prices?

Over four in ten college seniors were opposed to allowing the oil companies to raise prices, hardly a strong endorsement of competitive markets…. what college seniors know about economics directly affects their acceptance of a market result.”

Where do I begin? What breathtaking arrogance it must take to assume one has the unimpeachable answer to an “opinion question”. What a sad revelation of the true failure of economics teaching it is to equate “economic literacy” with “a strong endorsement of competitive markets”. Worse than sad, it’s infuriating. When this passes – in the supposedly prestigious American Economic Review, no less – I am entirely unsurprised that students who take economics courses answer “opinion” questions differently than other students. Our economics courses are dogmatic and pass opinion and ideology as scientific fact.

This isn’t political: I hold my own beliefs, as anyone is entitled to. Perhaps “economic literacy” would help people decide what they believe. That’s the difference between “I’m not sure would happen if we tried to move to socialized health care” and “I think I have a reasonable idea of what might happen if we tried to move to socialized health care”. I’d be thrilled if we could help someone answer that question.

What my profession seems to be pushing is instead the difference between “I don’t believe that the market mechanism is always best” and “I believe that the market mechanism is always best”. Is it possible that “economic literacy” could change my mind? Of course it’s possible; that doesn’t mean that it will, or that it should. There’s a very fine line between wishing for economic literacy and wishing that people believed what you believe, and crossing it is unacceptable.

Of course it would be great if we all knew a bit more about how the institutions that control our resources operate. Keep it out of my “principles of economics”. If you care so deeply, make everyone take a course called “how economic policy works in the United States”. Don’t pollute my discipline with your sleight of hand. If suppression of debate, and sacrificing the chance to teach economics without ideology attached are the price of “economic literacy”, it’s a price far too high.

Now that I’ve gone off the deep end, I should point out the classic survey of public versus economists, the “Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy” which is actually pretty interesting. The (comparatively) reasonable “Straight Talk About Economic Literacy” (pdf) by Bran Caplan is a nice (but long) article that talks about the survey and asks why the responses diverge.

Is it too late to enroll in veterinary school?