By Graham Peterson
Economists have a council that reports to the president. They work at our Federal Reserve Banks. They’re more often hired by industry. And they get greater discussion in the New York Times, as Justin Wolfers has just pointed out.
Other social sciences have inferiority complexes about the fact. Economists have superiority complexes about the fact. Everyone loves talking about it — economists are most influential. They only fight about why they are and whether it’s fair and deserved.
But the discussion lacks intuition for sample selection bias. Economics is only dominant in elite discourse — newspapers, bureau white papers — and has had little to no influence in the street. But what if the ideas that really shape people’s lives come from the street?
How does it respond to its lack of street-level influence? Print increasingly algebraic textbooks for kids who can’t remember high-school algebra, and congratulate itself on its sophistication. For 200 years economists have been publishing polemics about this or that economic fallacy. At what point do you stop and think, “hey maybe people don’t get it because we’re explaining it poorly”?
Economists don’t do that because economists are rational, because of incentives. They have convinced a small group of patrons that they possess a very special magic, and those patrons pay them handsomely to talk to themselves. So why bother making the ideas understandable and useful to anyone else?
On the other hand, everybody in the developed world knows what the subconscious mind is. Most of them have a grasp of institutional racism. Couples in trailer parks argue about their lack of communication skills and childhood traumas. Businesspeople furiously consume magazines telling them how to improve their culture.
Ask someone, even an undergraduate economics major, what a comparative advantage is. Or an average cost curve. Exactly.
If the goal is to influence people who can afford to pay for advice they don’t understand, and give them arguments that they’re helpless to adjudicate or apply to their own lives, then economics is doing a fantastic job. Keep the barriers to entering the conversation you’re having high, and you can prove you’re important with your salary.
The undergraduates will flood your majors to get the labor market signal whilst having no clue what you’re talking about. The politicians will rush to hire you to give technical justification to their moral pageantry. The Sunday morning sophisticate will read your NYT blog and think, “Gee those economists are smart. Republicans are evil after all. Thanks, Paul.”
But the rest of the world will be shaped, at the level of its neighborhoods and relationships and workplaces, by the people who give them tools to think and argue and persuade and influence each other. I’m all for calculus and supply and demand diagrams, but everyone in this debate needs to think a lot harder about whether social science’s first job is to influence suits.
If you believe that society is a top down system in which elites write the ideas that everyone else just dances to (and us intellectuals, for personal reasons, just love that idea), then it matters a great deal that economists are well represented among elites.
But if you believe that society is a bottom up system, or an “emergent order” as economists used to call it, then it matters a great deal that people live and breathe models from other social sciences, that have diffused much more widely.