Saturday, July 29, 2006

Do Economists Have Any Answers?

Mark Thoma of Economist’s View writes

Do Economists Have Any Answers?

I am asked repeatedly what the solutions are to the problems that occur with globalization and increasing inequality, but the answers I give are not the answers people are looking for. Economists have done a good job documenting and highlighting the problems, but have had far less to say on how to overcome them.

There are some questions in economics that are not yet well understood. Many smart people have spent long careers searching for good answers and are still looking. And the answers that we currently have aren’t panaceas. Mark’s analogy is eye-opening:

I know a lot of you like to beat us up because we don't have the answers, and it's useful to motivate us to look all that much harder, but I'm not any more embarrassed for our profession because we can't solve every problem than doctors are who can't cure the common cold. And (this will make some of you mad) they, like us, have to listen to a lot of folk remedies that supposedly work, be told they are idiots, etc. And though every once in awhile the folk remedy is valid, generally the suggestions come from people who really don't understand all facets of the problem. You can't argue with them, they really believe their folk remedies work, so it's best to listen to them attentively, smile and nod, and not engage.

I don't think that economists can take the approach of pleasant disengagement. A public ignorant of basic economics is vulnerable to charlatans and quacks. One often opens the newspaper or clicks on a blog and reads opinions and remedies offered with unwarranted fervor and conviction, or even worse, with insidious intention. Economists have to better inform the public of the policies that work and those that don’t. Unfortunately, economists face a real dilemma professionally. Blogging and writing for a broad audience is not rewarded and often is frowned upon. Academic research is what drives careers.


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