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« Ten Things I Like About Being a Parent, II | Main | Hugo's Novel »

August 04, 2003

Economists and Audience Sense

Friedrich --

Though I'm a fan of econ and enjoy poking around the field, I'm no one to pay attention to where the nitty-gritty of econ is concerned. (Many will enthusiastically endorse this self-evaluation: see the comments on this posting here, for example.) But where superficialities are concerned, I persist in thinking that I'm entitled to the occasional opinion and reflection.

The presentation of econ for a popular audience, for example. Hey: "presentation" and "the popular audience" -- two things a few decades in the arts and the media help you learn a bit about. One thing I find myself marveling at is how often economists trying to present their subject to a broad audience make the same kinds of mistakes. What could they be thinking? Do they have no audience sense at all? Here's an all-too-typical econ-for-the-popular-audience sentence:

"Each person engages in specialization, or a divison of labor, producing what he or she is best at."

"Producing what he or she is best at"? "Each person"? Excuuuuuuse me? I'm amazed that anyone could write such a sentence and think that he's doing his field (let alone his readers) a favor. Why? Well, on reading this sentence, my speaking-for-the-popular-audience mind screeches to a halt then spirals off into resentful babbling, all of it along these lines:

"Oh yeah? And sez who? If you think I do what I do on the job because it's what I'm best at, you've got another thing coming, bud. And, judging from my experience, if you think the market is a trustworthy, let alone the ultimate, arbiter of what people do best, I've got about a zillion incompetent people I'd like to show you. For example, Mr. Know-it-All Economist? Let me introduce you to my boss."

Then I hear the sound of copies of this economist's book being chucked vindictively into nearby wastebaskets.

After all, why wouldn't readers stare at this sentence and think, "Actually, asshole, what I'm best at is being a mommy (or a hubby, or a soccer coach, or a friend, or a home cook, or an amateur chamber-music cellist -- or, come to think of it, a blogger). And for none of this do I get paid. So take your so-called science and shove it."

This author, presumably trying to do p-r for his subject as well as enlighten his readers, has just insulted and lost his audience instead. Good job!

I'm going to risk the usual ribbing and take this opportunity to sneak in a slightly bigger reflection. Which is that, as far as I can tell, it seems to be all too common for economists to forget that people choose -- or to some extent choose -- how to interact with the market. (Perhaps it's wrong to suspect that the way specialists present their field to a popular audience reveals a little something about them and their field -- what the heck. Plus, I think it's generally speaking a good thing to make specialists wrestle with the responses of the wider world. Humanizes 'em.)

Over here, Person A. Over there, The Market. Doesn't it seem basic (as well as, let's face it, simply polite) to acknowledge that, to some extent, how Person A chooses to mix it up with The Market is up to Person A? Examples: enthuasiastically or lackadaisically; efficiently or whimsically; committing vast personal resources to it or doing her best to avoid putting herself on the line. Person A might well choose to withhold from The Market what she feels is best about herself -- or even spend some effort keeping The Market away from what she cares most about. Why? Perhaps because that's the way it suits her to move through this bigger-than-the-market-thing we call Life.

Granted that we're all inevitably interacting with the market -- it's part of the water we swim in -- and even granting that all these decisions can be interpreted as economic decisions. Still, why should it necessarily follow that the market is a trustworthy evaluator of something called "what we do best"? That seems to me like leaping over a really immense number of questions. (Example: Isn't it important not to forget that the market isn't the only water we swim in?) It also seems to me like the kind of leap many economists are prone to making, and exactly the kind of thing that alienates many potentially-interested people from the field.

What could this mean? Why are so many economists so prone to making this particular leap? Hmm.

In any case: Hey, Mr. Economist-Who-Wants- to-Write-for-the-Popular-Audience: Think of your readers, for god's sake. It's one thing to make the claim that, as far as experience has shown, a free-ish market does a good-ish (if still imperfect) job of sifting and sorting economic resources and exchanges. Say this kind of thing in this kind of way and you aren't going to lose your audience, most of whom will find the assertion provocative and want to see where you go with it. But it's another thing entirely to claim -- just like that -- that the free market is the final evaluator of what people are best at. If you're going to assign that kind of God-like power to the market, then you shouldn't be surprised when people treat you like a fundamentalist religious nut and do what they can to avoid you.

I find myself toying with a few possible conclusions:

A) Perhaps it's harder than you might offhand think to write about econ for a popular audience.
B) Perhaps many economists really are emotionally tone-deaf weirdos who prefer the answer-everything, clean intricacies of their pet systems to the unresolvable mess that is real life.

Your hunch?



posted by Michael at August 4, 2003


As a former econ major, I think most economists are tone deaf wierdos. Or, more to the point, people who want to do their best to distance themselves from the emotional side of life, or the nature of emotion in decisions, and want to believe in "rationality."

The only econ prof I ever had who seemed different unfortunately taught my "Intro to Econ" class and made me think I liked this stuff. But he always had a way of bringing everything back to a pragmatic issue that made the huzzah!!! light go on. He used to start one lecture always with "Why does beer cost more in Indiana in the winter than in the summer?" He'd take you through the theory, and then always relate it back to costs of shipping, and demand, and the guy at the liquor store who has to pay his electic bill 12 months of the year, etc.

He, however, had to be hounded into finishing his doctorate in order to get tenure, and actually likes football and scuba diving and pretty girls, too. The rest of them acted like "emotion" was some horrific faux pas best to be avoided.

Posted by: annette on August 4, 2003 11:55 AM

Tell me about it. As I've mentioned before, I am currently engaged in graduate study in economics - and it's mostly out of spite. I despise economists (at least the mainstream, neo-classical variety, who continue to push their outdated theories, oblivious to the fact that the entire stinking edifice was completly blown apart long ago...), and I'm seeking to gain all the ammunition I can to destroy their breed. Maybe spite isn't the best motive for graduate study, but it keeps me interested...

Posted by: jimbo on August 4, 2003 12:24 PM

well, michael partly in response to your rolling conversations on this site, i recently felt the need to learn something about the 'dismal science' under whose shadow we live, some of us cowering, but all of us insecure. some thoughts (warning! not many conclusions):

the 'shadow' is cast by another different, yet sibling idea of stark 'materialism' (and that economics deals with materials or people-as-materials, to me is no coincidence) is science's disowning of any 'why?' questions, preferring the much less messy and much more lucrative 'how?' question:

'how?' is the question technology answers. 'why?' is too religious and doesn't yield any palpable 'results'...and that's what we want/need---results! now! or else the 'investment' doesn't 'yield'...we're damn good at tackling the 'how?' question and think, 'so why bother with why?'

but why does economic theory seem to work? well, psychoanalysis seemed to work too---and people gasped at freud who reduced human motivation down to sex and aggression. econ narrows it down to one: selfish 'utilization' maximization...could this be the 'dismal' in the science? and should know-how be mistaken for 'knowledge'?

thousands of years ago, plato and socrates warned against the pitfalls of the overly materialist view of the universe (or even of life here on earth) gives the unwanted side-effect of meaninglessness and moral relativism...sounds familiar, doesn't it? (well, only if you want it to ;-)

though, by the same token, both plato and socrates believed in telos (a god-like intentionality)...which we converted into 'capital-p-progress' for our more convenient sublunar purposes like...making people feel obsolete and left out of the race...or that there was an inexorable march forwards: join or be relegated to insignificance! (mmm. sounds like another fav of yours, evo-bio)

too many how's---not enough wise ;-)

Posted by: dan on August 4, 2003 1:48 PM

Hello, Michael. Academic idiots abound in every field. This seems like an unfair swipe at economists. For more intelligent viewpoints, you might try reading Russ Nelson's weblog, The Angry Ecomomist, or Donald Luskin's Poor and Stupid.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan on August 4, 2003 5:07 PM

Alan---more intelligent than Michael? Or more intelligent than any of us?? Seems like that remark might be a little miscalculated if it's intended to sway an audience, too...which was Michael's point. I took a quick look at "Poor and Stupid"---it just seems to point out that economists are politically biased as well as tone deaf. Therefore---how are any of us being unfair?

Posted by: annette on August 4, 2003 5:39 PM

Well....if we're getting into a discussion of more readable pop-econ tracts, there's always Krugman.

Posted by: Mark on August 4, 2003 7:46 PM

Uh, "more intelligent viewpoints" than the one Michael criticised. Sometimes I'm too terse.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan on August 4, 2003 11:12 PM

Oh, and I should have mentioned Asymmetrical Information. It's past my bedtime, and I'm too tired to link, but the name's weird enough to google easily.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan on August 4, 2003 11:14 PM

Annette -- He liked "football and scuba diving and pretty girls, too"? Heavens, an economist and a person both. I wish I'd bumped into someone like that back in my school days.

Jimbo -- One of these years I'm going to get you to pause, pull together a few of your thoughts, and give us a brief, enlightening econ lecture. I'm going to try to, anyway. "Spite" -- what better motivation to go to grad school under, eh?

Dan -- I hear you. A funny balancing act, don't you find? I mean, on the one hand it's all very enlightening. (At least so I find it.) On the other, they can't really take it that seriously, can they? Which of your various sources have you found most helpful? And which most obnoxious?

Alan -- Point taken, and thanks for the links. (I'm a big Jane Galt fan.) On the other hand, why not goose 'em when you've got half an excuse? Anyway, I'd never dare take on the actual substance. No qualifications to do so. I'm just discussing them as people addressing a popular audience. And it is remarkable how many of them make the same mistakes. I've read a couple of dozen intro-to-econ-for-the-popular-audience books, and I'm very struck by the way the same mistakes keep cropping up. Do you think I'm wrong to take this tendency as significant in any way?

I did once meet and chat with the wife of a fairly prominent economist (even I'd heard of him). And -- surprise, surprise -- she told me that he was brainy, full of advice and answers, and a disaster to be married to. Had no idea what a relationship was, let alone an emotion. Soon after, she divorced him. So, with admittedly little evidence, I'm prone to think that economists tend towards the Martian. This might well be unfair of me. And I am a big proponent of getting to know a little econ, which I've found to be a big help generally , especially speaking as an arts guy.

Mark, You're kidding, right? You find Krugman helpful? How?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 4, 2003 11:32 PM

Michael, some random comments on this post:

1) Of course the market is not a "a trustworthy evaluator of something called "what we do best"" But it is a trustworthy evaluator of what other people thing it is worth paying you to do. And not really you, but the service you happen to be providing at the time. If an unemployed computer programmer takes a job driving a cab....

2) How much one "chooses to interact with the market" in not an indicator of how much money you make. Or is it? Do you define more income = more interaction?

3) When it comes to valuing what people do, it might be useful to keep ends and means in mind. Motherhood, arguably the most important job around, pays nothing, because it is not a means it's an end. Financing it is what people work for. When you speak of stuff "outside the market" you are speaking of ends, which could not exists without the means (the market). No? I guess I don't see such a... dichotomy? For me the whole universe is just one big extended order, where means and ends often overlap.

Posted by: Paul Mansour on August 5, 2003 9:17 AM

Paul -- Excellent econ lesson, many thanks. May I put you in touch with a few econ profs who badly need straightening out? On your points:

1) Yes! And exactly the kind of distinction people who write about econ for a popular audience ought to learn to make, don't you think? Why do you suppose they don't?

2) Sorry, didn't think I was arguing that how one chooses to interact with the market determines how much one makes (although it can, of course). Was just trying to make the point that one can choose, and inevitably does choose, how to interact with the market. We aren't just little grains of sand being knocked around by forces over which only economists have control. And I was trying to point out that this element of choice has almost never been addressed by the writers on econ whom I've read, Austrians excepted. (One reason I'm fond of the Austrians.) Jimbo hints that the post-Keynesians take this kind of thing and much else -- whim, psychology, accident, uncertainty --into account, so I'm hoping one day one of them will write a book aimed at non-math-head fans like me. I'm currently flipping through "Dubunking Economics," and finding it very tantalizing. Have you tried it?

3) "Ends and means" -- another excellent topic that writers on econ for a popular audience almost never get into. Why do we do these things? Even if they've got no answer, they really ought to allow room for the question.

So why don't they? That's the kind of question I'm wondering about. Really, almost from the point of view of an editor -- I read these books marveling that the authors leave this kind of thing out. Don't they know that general audiences need this kind of stuff? Strictly from an audience-sense point of view, it's basic.

I could well be wrong, but I suspect (after having read a couple of dozen of these books and spent a lot of time surfing, and nudging friends who actually know biz, money and econ) it may reveal a bit about the econ personality type, or at least the econ-geek personality type. Like I say, I could be wrong. But, at least when reading econ books meant for a popular audience, I'd much prefer to hear the voice of a person (who knows something about econ) than that of a Martian (who's got only a dim, and overintellectual idea of what it is to be human).

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 5, 2003 9:48 AM

michael---my 'non martian' source prize goes to a fav of yours: the econ course by timothy taylor (teaching company). the marketing blurb from their website:

'If you’re a player in today’s economy—and we all are—this course is a must for you. Professor Timothy Taylor is an expert at making economic principles crystal clear so we can all understand them and apply them in our roles as workers, consumers, savers, investors, taxpayers, and voters.'

i'm lucky enough to have a public library with a healthy stock of such courses on tape for my hour-long commute! (no, i'm not on commission)

reading a bit of adam smith's 'theory of moral sentiments' has been helpful (and trust me, i don't believe i could ever finish it) if only to get an account of the philosophical (read 'pretty cynical though not without sense or charm') perspective which formulated the entire subject of econ as we (in the west) know it.

another helpful source from outside of the field has been the late stephen jay gould's 'full house'----why? he does a great job (though repetitious) of laying out our common fallacies concerning statistics; i.e. how readily we create a 'trend' in data where none really exists...commiting closure---a rorschach test in numbers. this to me is of cardinal importance, judging by how much of our 'data' about the world (in everything from advertising to elections) hinges on statistics! talk about total platonism---it seems as though the epistemology our 5 immediate senses will be totally replaced by the averaged ideals of surveys and statistics!

Posted by: dan on August 5, 2003 11:25 AM

Dan -- Great to meet another Timothy Taylor fan! He's amazing, isn't he? And I appreciate him more, the more I read other intro-to-econ books. A rare skill to be able to present the material so straightforwardly, I guess. And you actually read "A Theory of Moral Sentiments"? You're braver than I. I love Smith, but all those damn commas -- can't some editor prune them out? I get lost halfway through a sentence with more than a couple of commas in it. So I've only gone through one best-of collection (all quotes, a half page or shorter), and a good discursive bio of Smith, I think by Jerry Muller. Thanks for recommending the Gould, which I'll have to check out. Statistics -- I hear people can do amazing, and amazingly misleading, things with them.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 7, 2003 6:10 PM

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