New treason of the anti-intellectuals


More than 200 leading economists have signed a petition denouncing Hillary Clinton and John McCain’s proposal for a gas tax “holiday” during the summer months, reasoning — correctly — that the scheme would discourage conservation and widen the deficit, while doing little for those it purports to help. Hillary’s response:

Well I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to put my lot in with economists. We’ve got to get out of this mindset, where somehow, elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantage the vast majority of Americans. 

The statement is noteworthy in two respects. One, it elevates mere pandering to the level of metapandering — pandering about pandering. Charged with pandering to voters’ pocketbooks, she responds by pandering to their anti-intellectualism: “economists … elite opinion…”
Two, it illustrates the uniquely precarious position of economists, and economics, in the popular imagination. Imagine! “Well I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to put my lot in with doctors when it comes to decisions about medical treatment.” Or: “We’ve got to get out of this mindset, where somehow we rely on physicists to tell us about quantum mechanics.” Economics is the only profession where people who have never studied the subject, never read any of its major works, never so much as thought about it, nevertheless feel entitled to dismiss two centuries of the most rigorous intellectual spadework — not for nothing is economics known as the queen of the social sciences — with a wave of their hands.
There are few subjects where it would seem more important to listen to expert opinion than economics, touching as it does so directly on bread-and-butter questions of the public interest. Yet because it is so intimately bound up in everyday matters, people feel uniquely entitled to substitute their own opinions for those who actually know something about the subject.
Not that it’s helped her any. Perhaps the overall impression, that she will say anything and do anything to get her hands on power, no matter how nonsensical or self-contradictory, is what did her in, in the end. “However lucky Error may be for a time, Truth keeps the bank, and wins in the long run.” The man who wrote that, I need hardly add, was an economist.


New treason of the anti-intellectuals

  1. Considering its sketchy track record, particularly in the third world, there is every reason to believe that calling economics “the queen of social sciences” would indeed be “for nothing”.

    (But then, who really calls it that, besides presumptive economists and, perhaps, bankers?)

  2. Paul Krugman once tried to figure out why ‘anti-economics’ is so popular. From “The illusion of conflict in international trade”, reprinted in Pop Internationalism:

    As far as I can tell, the attitude of policy-minded intellectuals to economics is pretty much unique. Many people have opinions about legal matters or about defense policy; but they generally accept that a fair amount of specialized knowledge is necessary to discuss these matters intelligently. Thus a law degree is expected of a commentator on legal affairs, a professional military career or a record of study of military matters is expected of a commentator on defense, and so on.

    When it comes to economics, however, and especially international trade, it seems to be generally accepted that there is no specialized knowledge to master. Lawyers, political scientists, historians cheerfully offer their views on the subject, and often seem quite sure that whatever it is that professors have to say – something they are fairly blurry about – is naïve and wrong…

    [T]he attitude … that international economics requires no special knowledge, and that the theories of the academics, whatever they are, are obviously silly … is extremely common…

    [W]hy is this attitude so prevalent? At this point, I am in the awkward position of having to defend economic professionalism by playing amateur sociologist, but let me offer the following five-part hypothesis.

    First, economics is a subject that touches so many real-world concerns that there is a great incentive to claim expertise. This is especially true of international economics, in which the romance and allure of anything to which to word “global” is attached adds to the attraction of the enterprise. As a result, a large number of people inevitably propound views about international economics without much background in the subject.

    Second, ignorance finds strength in numbers. Since so many lawyers, political experts, etc. feel free to opine on economics, others considering such a role do not hesitate over their lack of formal qualifications or knowledge of the field.

    Third, economics written by non-economists often sounds more persuasive than the real thing. This is not just a matter of jargon: no matter how well explained, serious economic analysis is often intrinsically difficult…

    Fourth, there is a lot of bad-mouthing of economists. This is understandable. After all, suppose you are, say, a military expert who has decided that he is an economic expert too. You write an article or even a book on the subject; then an academic economist tells you that all of your ingenious arguments are familiar fallacies covered in an undergraduate textbook, and that your basic thesis involves a contradiction because you do not understand national accounts. You might decide that you really should go back and read a basic textbook; more likely, you begin denigrating economists as pompous types who actually don’t know anything.

    And finally, the bad-mouthing of economists, by people who typically have rapport with their audience because they share that audience’s misconceptions, reinforces the perception that economists have nothing to offer – which encourages more non-economists to declare themselves experts, enter the fray, and reinforces the cycle.

    In short, there is a circular process by which bad ideas drive out good. As far as the public discourse on international trade is concerned, this process is essentially complete: not only sophisticated theories, but comparative advantage and even S – I = X – M have been driven out of the discussion.

  3. I think part of it also is the popular myth that economists are chronically at odds with one another. Thus, whatever their individual expertise, they are thought to be unreliable as a profession. In fact, most economists agree most of the time.
    The paradox, it has been said, is that they are listened to least on the matters where they know the most and are most agreed: the benefits of free trade, the evils of price controls, the follies of subsidies and quotas. Microeconomics, in short. Whereas in matters of macroeconomics, where historically they have known the least and been least agreed, they are often treated as rock stars — especially when, like the Keynesians, they claim to have repealed Say’s Law.

  4. Economists tend to be a lot less annoying when they’re not operating in a vacuum under the assumption they’re the enlightened decendants of Augustine of Hippo.

    Say’s Law would carry a lot more weight these days if the banking system weren’t so busy pounding down interest rates with a hammer.

    Say and Keynes were both men of their time but I don’t think its too much a stretch to think they’d both agree with you about the tax holiday but just wouldn’t agree about why. Say because the demand will be there anyways and Keynes because there’s already inadequate supply. Other than that they’d both see it as irresponsible populist pandering.

  5. “Economics is the only profession where people who have never studied the subject, never read any of its major works, never so much as thought about it, nevertheless feel entitled to dismiss two centuries of the most rigorous intellectual spadework…”

    The discipline of history often faces the same problem, for similar reasons. Because it it so tied to people’s identity, like economics is to daily life, people feel the right to make things up to fit their own personal narratives. See a couple of Wells’s most recent posts for good examples.

  6. Give us a break, Andrew, and stop generalizing like Hillary. There is a wide gulf in the profession. Are the economists that the Obamamessiah uncovered marxist economists, Keynsians or Chicagoans?

  7. Although my faith in the laws of economics fluctuates along a nearly un-graphable trajectory, I have to say that even reverting to pure “common sense” would lead me to conclude that a gas tax “holiday” will accomplish little.

  8. If market forces are driving the price of a barrel of oil and that price determines the price of gas at the pumps, why do we need a carbon tax, when taxes are already included in the price?

  9. The thing about this is that economists will always view these proposals through the lens of broader economic policy. What does it do to public finances? Does it “stimulate economic growth”? And so on. But this (and the closest Canadian parallel, the GST cut) is not about any of that. These policies are proposed simply on the basis that people are financially squeezed and deserve some money back. Now you can still argue against that for plenty of good reasons, but the point is that economists are not going to analyze issues on that basis. Hillary could very well grant their point on conservation and the deficit and say it’s still worth it.

    That said, I will now put my fine political science education to work and question the value of proposing a summer gas tax holiday when the next president won’t be inaugurated until the dead of winter.

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