Monday, March 17, 2014
Do economists control our ideas?
John Maynard Keynes famously said: "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood...Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." And Nicholas Kristof recently wrote: "[E]conomists (including my colleague in columny (sic), Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education."
Maybe our ideas are shaped by dead economists - Milton Friedman's libertarian vision, for example. But do living economists really hold such sway over the public discourse in this day and age? I'm not so sure.
With regard to the general public, only a few economists command real wide-ranging respect. Paul Krugman is the most prominent of these. But Krugman is an opinion columnist. When he writes about stuff outside his academic specialty - for example, race and politics - does he really carry more weight than his colleagues David Brooks, Nick Kristof, or Thomas Friedman? Maybe a bit more, but not a huge amount more. And there are not many Paul Krugmans out there. In lists of "top public intellectuals" and "most influential thinkers", few economists make an appearance.
Even in purely economic matters, economists don't seem to command the public respect one might expect. Sure, Robert Barro and Martin Feldstein pop up periodically in the Wall Street Journal to say that deficits or QE are bad, and Greg Mankiw rails against taxation of the rich in the pages of the New York Times. But there are a bunch of people saying the same thing (and the opposite thing), and it's not really clear to me that the stellar research careers of Barro, Feldstein, and Mankiw give these guys a greater power to move public opinion than the average WSJ staff writer or magazine pundit.
In fact, the general public seems to mistrust the verdict of economists on some key economic issues. Most Americans still seem to believe, for example, that free trade is not always a good thing, in defiance of economists' concerted (possibly too concerted) attempts to convince them otherwise.
There are some economists who successfully advance "big think" ideas - Richard Florida, Erik Brynjolfsson, and Tyler Cowen come to mind. But are these academics really more effective at this than, say, writers like Malcolm Gladwell? And among academics, aren't there psychologists and physicists and biologists whose popular books are just as powerful as those of economists? Steve Pinker is a good example.
Then there's Freakonomics, but I don't think anyone is the slave of Freakonomics. Though the phrase "slave of Freakonomics" is pretty fun to say.
How about elite opinion? People like Larry Summers and Christina Romer certainly seem to have some sway over the Obama administration, but overall their Keynesian advice was unable to overcome Obama's own instinct toward austerity and low deficits and structural reform. Art Laffer certainly seemed to have an outsized influence over Reagan and the GOP, but he's "the exception that proves the rule" (meaning, of course, that he's by far the biggest exception I can think of off the top of my head). In terms of broader elites - business leaders, opinion writers, Congressional staffers - it's more difficult to say.
How about effects on other fields? In the legal profession, there is the "law and economics" movement, which seems to have had a big effect. Economics made a push into the sociology realm with Gary Becker's "imperialist" econ, but that is no bigger than, say, psychology's intrusion into econ, or postmodern critical theory's intrusion into anthropology (Ha! See that? Random unprovoked anthropology diss!). And though you occasionally see an article about "the economics of sex", I don't think most people have yet bought into the idea that we can explain our daily lives with utility functions and Nash equilibria.
Actually, there has been somewhat of a pushback by other academics against the notion that economists are all-purpose sages. Physicist Mark Buchanan, for example, has been very vocal in challenging macroeconomics in public.
So if economists have outsized control over society's ideas, well, it's not that outsized. When it comes to the ability to exert undeserved influence over the minds of humankind, there's one group that blows economists, and everyone else, away: