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May 16, 2007

Why Do People Hate Economists?

Mark Thoma's meditation on why people dislike economists is an interesting read.  My sense is that it's simpler than all that: Folks don't appreciate having their pain dismissed as meaningless static that muddles a more important aggregate picture.  That doesn't mean their pain isn't mere noise, but no one likes blithe dismissals predicated on impenetrable models.  Economists who express great confidence in their answers are going to be unpopular among populations that don't like those answers.  It's to be expected.  There are, of course, more serious critiques of contemporary economics, many of them made by renegade economists and observers frustrated by the discipline's inattention to political realities, but I think they're different than what Mark is talking about.

Also, Mark's wrong to suggest that the economics profession has been speaking with one voice, or anything like it, in favor of a seriously expanded social safety net.  Mark Thoma has certainly advocated for such redistribution, as have Paul Krugman, Lawrence Summers, and many others.  Glenn Hubbard, Gregory Mankiw, and quite a number in their conservative cohort have done no such thing, however.  And economists often react with fear and suspicion when their colleagues turn attention towards the downsides of globalization. 

That said, I don't think economists are poorly treated by the public at large.  I think they are better treated than any single profession I can think of.

May 16, 2007 in Economics | Permalink

Comments

You're right, Ezra. They are better treated, AND THEY DON'T COME CLOSE TO DESERVING IT. I'm an economist, and the reason I dislike economists (if we're going to generalize) is that they're FUCKING WRONG ABOUT EVERYTHING.

Posted by: Marshall | May 16, 2007 8:40:06 AM

I think most people don't understand economists (certainly what they are saying) and often view them as mostly political. Some economists favored tax cuts, some don't. Who do you believe? So you choose a position, largely based on some overriding philosophy, then use the economist of choice as evidence of your correctness.

BUT..economists get a Nobel prize, so they obviously are more useful than, for example, lawyers. Of all Nobel prizes, however, economics is the least respected because it is not a "real" science. It is probably the least respected of the bunch, Peace prize aside.

I don't know anyone that hates economists. Many are confounded by their jargon and annoyed that economics is not a cut and dry field, as is physics. Most people don't understand physics either, but they know the sun shines and also know there is a reason for it, whether they understand nuclear fusion or not. They do not sense that anyone can explain a housing bubble and can find many alternate explanations from reputable economists on the subject.

It's more annoyance.

Posted by: Mudge | May 16, 2007 8:40:10 AM

I don't really think the "public at large" has a very high opinion of Economists. They are seen as apologetics's for the powerful. Only the elite really have a high opinion of economists, and that's because they tell them what they want to hear. They give them a reason not to feel bad about the inequality of our society by coming up with theories as to why things have to be the way they are, or why people don't deserve a government that serves them. They keep cheerleading for globalization, knowing full well only the parts that benefit the wealthy will ever be enacted and politicians will just use their theories on "moral hazards" to avoid enhancing the safety net like they claim to endorse. It;s a shell game.

Posted by: soullite | May 16, 2007 8:49:30 AM

another possible reason: the arrogance of many economists.

By this, I mean their assertion that economic utility is the only rational one.

yes yes I know that some great work has been done by some economists debunking this, but overall, the focus is on economic efficiency and maximizing (economic) utility. I recently read a piece on France (can't remember where... Oh yes, it's this post: Pepe Le Awesome), where the blogger noted that the French have very rationally and reasonably decided to trade-off higher income for more leisure. And in the comments, such a trade-off was attacked by some (Americans, who probably have the most economistic world view).

Economics is about one part of the world and the human experience. Unfortunately too many economists see it as everything.

Posted by: upstate guy | May 16, 2007 9:24:08 AM

I the problem is that economics really is the dismal science-- it makes all these claims for itself, but it's always simplifying things down to the point at which even a layman can recognize the model isn't that useful as a guide for policy. Even Nobel winning economists usually win it for insights that seem fairly trivial (and not just in the "wow, that's brilliant yet simple" way either, just in the "no duh" way).

"Assume we had a can opener...."

Posted by: Doh | May 16, 2007 9:28:34 AM

Nobody takes a Calculus 101 class and thinks they know it all about math. But you have a huge amount of people in think tanks, the government, etc., who take Econ 101 and think they know how the economy *really* works. And then those people go and find some supply siders at the University of Chicago or whatever to build policies around their simplistic ideas.

The Econ 101 mindset, as Atrios has noted, has done a lot of harm in our policies. I assume its a much deeper problem with how the science is taught, top to bottom. You will get crazy nuts in every discipline, of course (that guy that Bush appointed to head the family planning service was a PhD, after all), but it seems like all the economists who have real power and influence are supply side free trade nuts. But maybe that's a chicken and egg problem - after all they are saying what the Republicans in power what to hear. Krugman is generally dismissed as a nut by the right but his CV can stand up to anyone's.

Posted by: number1laing | May 16, 2007 9:34:55 AM

Probably has something to do with the fact that the only economists most people ever see are hard core conservative supply siders making patently ridiculous statements such as tax cuts increase revenues and raising the minimum wage a tiny amount will lead to a recession. If more mainstream and liberal economists were interviewed by the MSM, people might think more highly of the profession.

Posted by: Ron | May 16, 2007 9:56:45 AM

Why do people hate economists?

General anti-intellectualism alive in most of the country.

People actually believe the economists when they say they can explain how the economy works, and they wonder why if economists know how things work they can't actually make things better.

People who DO understand a bit of economics get annoyed at how economists on TV project their opinions and biases as if they were High Truth derived from economic models instead of at best statistical guesses and at worst just the opinionated rantings of the economist.

People who understand statistics and who have taken at least some economics classes wonder how economists can say anything accurate about ANYTHING in the real world given how many caveats and variables they have to hold constant to make their models remotely comprehensible.

Few people know any economists, or at least they don't KNOW that they know them. The guy who rings you out at Borders may have an economics degree and be a very nice person, but such things rarely comes up in conversation.

Economists who get put on TV graduated from the best schools and generally have egos to match, so they come across as opinionated jerks.

In general, any economist that individuals will be exposed to work for the man in some form. Even with lawyers you get exposure to the "crusading defense attorney" type who defends the innocent from wrongful conviction by the man on the TV. Pop culture doesn't elevate the "crusading economist" in any meaningful way.

Just off the top of my head...

Posted by: NonyNony | May 16, 2007 10:04:38 AM

I can only talk about it from the perspestive of law and economics. I've found it has replaced thinking outside of the box toward other ideas and constructions of the law. I mean the only two viewd discussed in my law school were law and economics and critical "whatever" theory (you know, critical race theory, critical queer, critical feminist etc). There is a whole world that's ignored in all of that pseudo scientific sounding mumbo jumbo.

Posted by: akaison | May 16, 2007 10:05:57 AM

> Economists who express great confidence
> in their answers are going to be unpopular
> among populations that don't like those answers.

Particularly when they speak from chairs in tenured academia (which raises its prices 7%/year) and thinktanks that pay these "economists"(who are really political polemicists) $250k/year. Most of the people who are experiencing this 'temporary pain' of dislocation could retire for life if they had 3 years at $250k, but the economists think it is hunky for the 'dislocated' to be kicked down to Wal-Mart and starve at age 60. Creative destruction doncha know; pass the Kobe steak please.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | May 16, 2007 10:07:58 AM

Whatever you may think of other Mark Thoma posts, his "defense of economics" posts are junk. There are many good critiques of mainstream economics. And there are many people who don't know what they are talking about who go on about economists, maybe because they perceive themselves as suffering from what economists advocate. Thoma just ignores the former to go after the latter.

I also think it odd that when Thoma wants to summarize what economists know, he doesn't point to successful descriptions of economies. Instead, he brings up a general normative claim about what policy should be, usually in a manner that Gunnar Myrdal attacked three quarters of a century ago.

Posted by: Robert | May 16, 2007 10:44:00 AM

Oh yes, it's this post: Pepe Le Awesome), where the blogger noted that the French have very rationally and reasonably decided to trade-off higher income for more leisure. And in the comments, such a trade-off was attacked by some (Americans, who probably have the most economistic world view).

On the one hand, in the economistic world view (a subset of scientism), this is in fact a perfectly defensible decision to make. However, the economistic (as opposed to economic) complaint about France is the democratically elected government making the decision collectively, rather than large numbers of Frenchmen deciding individually to have more leisure by becoming unemployed.

What annoys most people are the symptoms of the disease, rather than the disease itself, that economists are, by and large, trained in graduate school to not worry about developing a scientific understanding of the economy ... theory that apes the scientific theories of other fields (preferably physics) is taught to be a preferable substitute.

Posted by: BruceMcF | May 16, 2007 10:48:29 AM

> However, the economistic (as opposed to economic)
> complaint about France is the democratically elected
> government making the decision collectively, rather
> than large numbers of Frenchmen deciding individually
> to have more leisure by becoming unemployed.

Of course, this comes more than 20 years after traditional economists claimed they understood and had incorporated game theory (specifically here the collective action problem) into their models. So either the economics pundits lied about that, or they are lying about why it is "bad" for the French to proceed this way. Take your pick.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | May 16, 2007 10:57:32 AM

I spend a lot of time at Mark's site but only recently came to understand why he and I sometimes seem to talk past each other. I don't have the exact quote but it was to the effect that Economics is the study of efficiency and not equity.

Which opened my eyes a great deal. Economics does not have good answers about equitable solutions because that is not the question they are asking themselves. If efficiency is the starting point then Free Trade based on Ricardian Comparative Advantage becomes a slam dunk winner. Once you define efficiency as GDP without attention to distribution. And if you combine this approach from efficiency with the belief that labor is always and everywhere fully compensated at its level of marginal production then it is no wonder economists shake their heads at being so misunderstood. Given the problem they have set themselves out to solve and given their assumptions on compensation the rest follows.

Which is fine but also a reason to keep these guys far away from the policy shop, the real world has a power component that their models simply don't accomodate, pricing power exists in many forms and arguing for a particular trade policy from within a framework that does not fundamentally acknowledge that is simply to play into the hands of the people who in fact exercise that pricing power.

That is why we hate economists, they start from the premise that there is no fundamental struggle between workers and capital, they assume that markets will somehow deliver equitable solutions or worse not even consider that a useful question. Whereas if you start from the position of equity, of rationally dividing returns on productivity by actual contribution to production you may not in fact reach the most efficient result.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | May 16, 2007 11:00:53 AM

1) There is a certain amount of determinism in economics which many people will find uncomfortable. People may dislike economic models for reasons similar to why they don't like polls:"You polled 200 people and predicted a Clinton landslide?" Prices rise, demand drops, supply rises...whatever. Economists in their claims to predict human behavior are denying individual freedom.

2) Do we have better attitudes towards the other social or soft sciences, sociologists, polysci, etc? Americans, at least, have an ambivalent attitude toward psychologists and psychiatrists. Examples:Havelock Ellis, Freud, Kinsey. At least economists don't get banned, as long as they justify capital.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 16, 2007 11:11:32 AM

"That is why we hate economists, they start from the premise that there is no fundamental struggle between workers and capital, they assume that markets will somehow deliver equitable solutions or worse not even consider that a useful question"

Bruce, I will search on Thoma's site for the link, but a while back he pasted a long piece showing that growth was so overwhelmingly more beneficial to all that considerations of distribution was indeed irrelevant, even counterproductive. This doesn't need much evidence, simply look at world stds of living 200 years ago. Most of the world population were subsistence farmers on the edge of survival.

If 300 million Chinese triple their std of living while their elites get wealthy and 10 million Americans get 30% poorer, that is a terrific deal.

Free trade and globalization are not modeling errors for economists, but moral imperatives. As they were for Smith, Ricardo, Marx and Engels.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 16, 2007 11:21:57 AM

I'm not sure what is worse, letting economists form public policy based on the efficiency goal that Bruce Webb discusses, or letting the NY financial people like Robert Rubin do that job (there being some overlap between the groups, obviously).

But the overall effect is as described above by others: concentration on GDP and global investment rather than equity and overall fairness to each segment of the income spectrum.

We should also note that political contributions greatly skew the advise that top policy makers provide to candidates and elected officials. The political money must be raised, so therefore the welfare of the givers is first priority in distributing policy favors. I think I'm more angry about this factor than whether economists are tending the garden correctly.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 16, 2007 11:29:34 AM

Three in a row. Sorry, but I guess 11:21 doesn't completely address Bruce's point. What would Marx say? Full capitalism everywhere first, leave economics to the capitalists, raise the consciousness of workers, unionize, grab as much political power as possible. I think even for Marx economics was never about distribution, but about productivity. The, whatever brain fart, underclass of unemployed surplus labor is inevitable. Economics & politics disappear at maximum productivity/efficiency, which is the goal.

Socialism will happen when it's inevitable, but in transitional states distribution is not an economic problem, but a political problem. As Thoma said in his dialogue.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 16, 2007 11:38:52 AM

Economics is the study of efficiency and not equity.

This may be just a way of saying it's about facts, not values (though values creep in anyway in the notion of efficiency). Economics is in part about distribution, but that is a broader subject than equity, which is an explicitly moral idea.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 16, 2007 12:44:10 PM

Not so tidy, Sanpete. Making recommendations based on the idea that increased efficiency is innately desirable, or even simply so overwhelmingly desirable that equity and other concerns should be secondary and postponable, is a decision about values as well as facts. There simply is no such thing as a value-neutral policy.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | May 16, 2007 1:31:07 PM

Bruce, please see my parenthesis and note also the word "explicitly."

Posted by: Sanpete | May 16, 2007 2:01:56 PM

*** "If 300 million Chinese triple their std of living while their elites get wealthy and 10 million Americans get 30% poorer, that is a terrific deal." ***

A terrific deal, eh? So those 300 million Chinese do all the work, and some 100 elite Chinese and 100 elite Americans get 99% of the gain, but the peasants went from $1/day to $10/day, and the American schmoes lost *only* 30% (on average -- some lost almost everything).

That what looks like a terrific deal to you? I'm not really seeing, it Bob.

People hate economists because they pretend their toy models (wrought with patently absurd assumptions) *justify* writing certain people off at the expense of the very wealthy. Over the course of history, people have gotten better by growing economies (quite by accident -- economists have nothing to do with making good economic decisions) -- *over the long term*. Some people have gotten amazingly better, some have gotten slightly better. For some, the improvement came centuries ago, for others, it came in the last two decades.

But it is *right now* that matters to people today, and economists act as if those hurting *right now* are irrelevant, because their toy models says everyone will get better.

It's also obvious to anyone with a brain that an unfettered free market is an unqualified negative -- yet too many economists are so stupid they will even argue that. So they right let get little respect, except from the elites, who happen to find economists to be great, useful idiots.

Neoclassical economic theory is based on nonsense, too, it's vitally important to understand that. The mathematical model is OK -- the assumptions that allow one to use that model are complete crap.

Posted by: teece | May 16, 2007 3:05:26 PM

A terrific deal, eh? So those 300 million Chinese do all the work, and some 100 elite Chinese and 100 elite Americans get 99% of the gain, but the peasants went from $1/day to $10/day, and the American schmoes lost *only* 30% (on average -- some lost almost everything).

Your numbers are exaggerated, but even as you tell it, it seems a vast improvement for 300,000,000 Chinese to improve their wealth by a factor of ten, even with the loss to Americans. Even those Americans who lose almost everything, as you see it, have far more than the Chinese peasants. Not sure why you think that isn't an overall improvement. It might not be one we as Americans want to support, but it's an improvement.

It's also obvious to anyone with a brain that an unfettered free market is an unqualified negative

I don't know of any leading economists who argue for that as a policy, as opposed to a theoretical illustration of the principles involved in freer trade. Neoclassical economic theory is only as bad as the people applying it. Physics is the same way, except it's often easier to ignore the ideal assumptions in the models.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 16, 2007 3:25:58 PM

Sanpete, efficiency is also explicitly a moral value. Its elevation or demotion is a moral choice about moral considerations too. There's nothing more objective about efficiency than about equity or any other goal.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | May 16, 2007 3:45:03 PM

In the U.S. the economics profession is very skewed to the right in political opinions. This is not quite as true in Europe, but it causes some of the observed biases against economists in this country. It also means that there are few places which really study alternative economic models seriously.

Posted by: Echidne | May 16, 2007 4:30:17 PM

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