The Wall Street Journal is chock full of goodies this morning. I recommend special attention to Thomas Sowell’s commentary on economic literacy (subscription required). His focus is on the value that academic economists provide when they explain economic relationships to the public:
Some years ago, the distinguished international-trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati was visiting Cornell University, giving a lecture to graduate students during the day and debating Ralph Nader on free trade that evening. During his lecture, Prof. Bhagwati asked how many of the graduate students would be attending that evening’s debate. Not one hand went up.
Amazed, he asked why. The answer was that the economics students considered it to be a waste of time. The kind of silly stuff that Ralph Nader was saying had been refuted by economists ages ago. The net result was that the audience for the debate consisted of people largely illiterate in economics and they cheered for Mr. Nader.
Prof. Bhagwati was exceptional among leading economists in understanding the need to confront gross misconceptions of economics in the general public, including the so-called educated public. Nobel Laureates Milton Friedman and Gary Becker are other such exceptions in addressing a wider general audience, rather than confining what they say to technical analysis addressed to fellow economists and their students. By and large, the economics profession fails to educate the public on the basics, while devoting much time and effort to narrower and even esoteric research.
The net result is that fallacies flourish in discussions of economic policy issues, while the refutations of those fallacies lie dormant in old books and academic journals gathering dust on library shelves. As former House Majority Leader Dick Armey — an economist by trade — put it: “Demagoguery beats data in making public policy.”
He then goes on to highlight common political misunderstandings of the economic consequences of trade policy and tax policy. It speaks to me because he has hit upon one of the reasons why I do what I do.
And right below it on the page is a column from NH Senator John Sununu on a bill he is proposing that would treat VOIP as an information service, not regulate it with an obsolete approach from the days of copper. Worth thinking about.
But now I have to go catch a plane …