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Why Are Economists So Boring?

September 24th, 2010 . by economistmom
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Jon Stewart teases about how boring economists are, in this clip from Wednesday night’s show. And unfortunately, the second-most-popular adjective used to describe economists, particularly economists in important positions, is probably this. ;)

4 Responses to “Why Are Economists So Boring?”

  1. comment number 1 by: Jim Glass

    No other comments under this post? To make up for that, I’ll put up a long one. You’ve been warned!

    IMHO, economists are so boring — and they are — because they overwhelmingly are academics selected, trained, promoted, repeat, on the basis of their ability to impress basically only each other, not average people of the real world. (I’ve been to a couple conferences on tax policy featuring some of the biggest name economists, and even when attacking each other they were boring. Yawn.)

    Very few economists — especially top ones from the few places like Harvard, MIT, Chicago, etc, who dominate important policy positions and discussion — ever have had a job in which their getting paid depended upon successfully communicating with the 70% of average adults who have IQs of 85 to 115, mostly with no higher education, almost all knowing zip nada about economics.

    Compare them to lawyers. Academic lawyers can be just as boring, but the great majority of lawyers practice. And even a top Harvard or Yale practicing lawyer, to get paid, must deal all the time with that 70% of the population — clients, opponents, jurors, judges, government bureaucrats, press, marketing people, the list goes on. They have to convince and massage these people continuously. So Alan Dershowitz and Johnny Cochrane … not boring!

    Economists constantly make the most basic communication mistake of addressing their own concerns in language devised for themselves — not the audience’s concerns in the audience’s language. (See: Jon Stewart.)

    E.G., Social Security really is about the simplest of all issues to explain. But for some reason economists insist on doing so to the public in terms like, “SS’s course is is unsustainable, with an actuarial imbalance of x.x% of covered payroll over [whatever] years.”

    What the heck does that mean to anyone? A lawyer who used such professional jargon to explain something to a jury of proverbial bus drivers, or even to a client, would be an ex-lawyer driving a bus himself soon enough.

    If economists want to become un-boring to get more respect on the Daily Show they have to start following the three rules of getting one’s ideas across to the public. (I make my living in large part by communicating technical legal/financial issues accurately to non-experts, and these are real rules.)

    1) Speak to the populace using populist rhetoric about populist concerns to “kick up a dust” and get attention.

    Milton Friedman did not describe SS’s problem as a percentage of taxable payroll — he called it a “Ponzi scheme” held in place by a “confidence game” that the young will lose. Ideas people understand!

    When JM Keynes was writing the General Theory, his peers complained he was unfairly tough on classical economics and Pigou. He answered that his book had new ideas he wanted to get out and “I mean to kick up a dust”. He was also like that as a regular writer of popular newspaper articles on popular subjects, sort of the top economist oped-er/blogger of his day.

    2) Be rigorously accurate and always act with professional respect to others, cementing your credibility. There is no contradiction between this and #1.

    If Friedman got called on the “Ponzi” critique, he could not only explain exactly what he meant but also point out that earlier Paul Samuelson had praised SS as “A Ponzi scheme that works“, and Krugman had written that the “Ponzi element” of SS is going to force the young to take a loss.

    He was always was polite to other points of view, and I don’t know of him ever impugning anyone personally, for all the heated conflicts he was in, including being shouted down at his own Nobel ceremony.

    Keynes in his collected popular writings (”Essays in Persuasion”) is no name-caller and no cartoon Bloomsbury leftist, saying if the revolution comes he’ll fight with the bourgeoisie, and telling people at the pit of the Depression that they were still better off materially than in their parents’ day.

    3) Go meet the masses to convince face on, especially the masses who oppose you. E.g., Milton Friedman notably discusses greed and virtue with Phil Donahue.

    Friedman even went on semi-crank Georgist web sites that proselytize the “single tax” land tax as a panacea for all ills, very politely explaining why although yes, land tax is efficient, he was not a Georgist. (I try to imagine Krugman dealing with the like …)

    Friedman and Keynes were probably the two most mass-influential economists of the last 80 years. And not boring! It worked for them. How to apply these rules today?

    I just spent some time looking at the Concord Coalition home page. Up front and center: News Coverage of the Concord Coalition, then the whole right column is about the Concord Coalition. Wow, talk about talking about yourself on your most valuable space. Clicking on some things … lists of reports … some pie charts …boooring.

    Why would 95% of Americans care? Who is the audience CC is trying to reach? It sure looks like people who already know about these issues. If so, OK, but who is that supposed to influence?

    If CC wants to be non-boring and educate the public, how about “kicking up some dust”, maybe with an opening splash page, in scary red outline…

    If you’re 50 years old, YOU are going to pay 50% higher income tax rates than today on YOUR pension, IRA, life savings, even your Social Security benefits — to pay for your own Social Security benefits and Medicare.

    If you are an AARPer, don’t think anybody else is going to pay this tax for you. YOU have the income and own the wealth that have to be taxed to pay your benefits. If you think “the young” will, or even can, pay the cost of your benefits for you, you are kidding yourself or someone has fooled you.

    If you are Tea Partier, don’t think keeping taxes low today will keep them from going up 50% on YOU later. Lower taxes today only mean *even higher* taxes later unless you cut YOUR OWN retiree benefits. If you think….

    That speaks right to what people understand: their own taxes and benefits. It’s a bit of dust-kicking rhetoric like Friedman’s “Ponzi scheme … confidence game”. It’s NOT BORING!. Would some accuse Concord of going down-market (where the people are) populist? … and going partisan? Yes! That should be what you want, if Concord really wants to reach the populace.

    It wouldn’t hurt Concord’s credibility a bit, no more than Friedman hurt his — as long as the rules of rigorous accuracy (CBO has scored that tax increase) and “no personal/political party partisanship” are followed.

    Moreover, I’d say that Diane, Mr Bixby, and the other top dogs at CC should personally go into the discussion groups at AARP.org and Tea Party sites (using nom de chats, not real names) to pitch their beliefs, linking to Concord-site web pages as support and to get that info out.

    See what you response you get from those real people. :-) I’ve done it, and I guarantee it will be a lot more educational about how to frame these issues to reach average voters than watching 20 panel discussion debates between Douglas Holtz Eakin and Jamie Galbraith.

    And it won’t be boring. It will be the antidote to being boring.

    All IMHO, FWIW.

  2. comment number 2 by: Gipper

    James,

    Awesome! Spot on! Right on!

    I agree with kicking up a little dust.

    I think Concord Coalition’s main mission is for Mr. Bixby and Ms. Rogers to attract donors to preserve their employment.

    Concord has been around since 1993 and they still don’t have an online tool that would let you plug in taxation and spending programs that could enable you to generate your own budget scenarios.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to have such a tool so that a journalist or a citizen at a town hall meeting could ask an elected official, “Show me the printout from your Concord Coalition online budget proposal?”

    That would be a hell of a lot more useful for elected officials, their staff, and the general public than another stupid tour of boring buget geeks.

    However, they’d have to spend their budget for salaries of people currently not on the payroll, or outsource the work.

    Think like an economist: it’s all about the self interest of the workers.

  3. comment number 3 by: Economists Do It With Models

    I’m not boring. That is all. :)

    Actually, no, it’s not all…I’m more than a little peeved at Jon Stewart because I can safely infer that he would be frustrated if someone told him that he/she doesn’t listen to economists because they’re boring, but he has no problem perpetuating that mentality for a cheap laugh. It’s not helpful. NOW I’m done.

  4. comment number 4 by: Jim Glass

    A very not boring economist! :-)