Should Economists Go to Finishing School?
By Bryan Caplan
People don’t like economists, and they don’t listen to us. Economists who want to influence public opinion often connect the two problems. Maybe if we had tact, manners, and warmth, we wouldn’t turn off our audience. And if we didn’t turn off our audience, it would listen to us. All this time, we thought economics was a tough sell. But the only thing we really need to make the world listen is a diploma from finishing school.
There is something here. Few economists radiate the compassion of the Dalai Lama. Those who do get a better reaction from the general public. By speaking with humility, and showing that they care, they reach their audience in ways that uncouth economists like me never do.
This is an interesting hypothesis, but it’s probably false where it counts. The problem I’ve noticed with the well-groomed approach to economic education is that it makes the audience like you more, but understand you less. If you refrain from bluntly stating economic truisms, you make more friends. But they are your friends because they don’t grasp that you are defending socially unacceptable conclusions.
There is no nice way to tell people they talk too much. Similarly, there is no nice way to tell people that the minimum wage causes unemployment. If a normal person is still smiling after you make your point, he probably didn’t get it, because the conclusion is inherently unsettling.
One of my favorite examples: I gave a ninety minute lecture on the minimum wage to my intro econ class. It seemed to go over well, but afterwards, I felt a little guilty. “Big man, brow-beating a captive audience of freshmen,” I thought. Then I gave the midterm, and found that only 2 out of 25 understood the basic point of my lecture. Barely five even realized that my lecture on the minimum wage had been critical!
How could I have communicated more effectively? Should I have made my initial lecture more genteel? Negative – then no one would have understood me. The solution, rather, was to be more blunt. I was, and by the final exam only two or three still didn’t get it.
But what good does it do if the public understands you without liking you? Only a little. But if economic education is your goal, it is far worse if the public likes you without understanding you. Once people know your position, there is at least a chance that they will start wondering if you’re right.
The people who want to send economists to finishing school have their hearts in the right place. Economists do need to communicate more effectively with broader audiences. But I think their diagnosis is wrong. The main reason the public doesn’t listen to us is not that we are boorish, but that we are BORING.
Think about the typical economist on TV. Why do your parents change the channel? It is not because he offends them, but because he puts them to sleep.
And this is good news, because it means that economists are currently below their communication possibilities frontier. By being blunt, economists can bore less and teach more. In other words: We can increase both the amount that people listen to us and their likelihood of grasping our point.
Better still, it’s a fine line between blunt and funny. If you speak your mind plainly, people often laugh. That means:
1. They aren’t bored.
2. They know what you mean.
and, best of all:
3. They start to lose a great impediment to understanding economics and the world: The gut-level feeling that popular opinion is sacred.