Journalists and Five-year Olds
By Arnold Kling
can you write an economically sound answer to the question “When [i.e., why] Did Life For the Poor Get Better?” that a five-year-old could understand?
When you get an answer that works with five-year-olds, you can move on to try and explain it to journalists. For journalists, the market only exists to cause problems (it’s like Matt Ridley’s complaint that the press makes it sound as if your genes are there to cause disease.) What solves problems, in this view, is the wisdom and good will of leaders.
Reading Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, it occurs to me that the human brain is wired to see some things and to miss others. For example, we have a really hard time understanding probability. We build up our understanding based on what we can see and touch. In that world, substances are either there or they are not there. Probability is not an intuitive concept. Even Einstein, confronted with the notion that we cannot know a particle’s exact location but only a probability distribution for that location, famously resisted by arguing that “God does not play dice.”
Another element that is hard-wired into our brain is cause, effect, and intention. We see cause-and-effect in simple, immediate terms. We often impute intention, even to inanimate objects. Until Isaac Newton came along, it apparently was easier to think of objects as falling out of a desire to be closer to the earth. In fact, when one invokes God’s will, as Einstein did concerning the Uncertainty Principle, one is reverting to an unconscious model in which cause-and-effect is linked with intention.
So back to Bryan’s question. How do you explain the reduction in poverty? As the result of the willful acts of wise leaders? Or as the result of some complex process that you call “economic growth”? The brain reaches for a simple explanation that invokes intention, rather than a complex explanation involving impersonal forces.
What Bryan calls “anti-market bias” among non-economists is no mere accident. It is our natural form of cause-and-effect modeling. It is the form of cause-and-effect modeling that one finds not just among five-year-olds but in 99 percent of articles written by journalists. It is the form of cause-and-effect modeling that is at work when Congressional committees undertake investigations.
What would I say to a five year old? I might say this:
There are lots of people in the world who will give us things that we want, as long as we give them something they want in return. This is called trading. Some of the things we trade are hard to see–they are like nice thoughts. Other people keep thinking up nicer things to trade with us, and we keep thinking up nicer things to trade with them. We keep trading nicer and nicer things. Many years ago, people had not thought up all of these nice things, so they did not have as much to trade as we do. That is why people who lived back then were poor, and we are not.
Now, can anyone come up with an answer that will work for journalists?