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Economic Education

Brad DeLong is worried about the quality about the quality of economics in the public sphere:

Economists are losing the battle for mindshare in public debates and discussions about the economy. Too much of what we economists write meets the technical canons of modern economics, but reaches a very small audience (if it reaches any audience at all). Too much of the rest of what we write is murdered by being forced into the Procrustean bed of the 700-word op-ed: a space too small to make any but the most pathetic and oversimplified excuse for an argument. The result is that public understanding of the economy is abysmal, and the intellectual level of the public debate is far too low.

Here is Arnold Kling’s take.

DeLong is right about the general level of economic understanding. Here’s his solution:

We–that is, Joe Stiglitz, Aaron Edlin, and I–aim to start an online publication, The Economists’ Voice, to be “published” by Berkeley Electronic Press, to try to remedy this situation. The two youngest of us are confident that we have a very good chance of succeeding. Our confidence is based on one fact: Joe Stiglitz thinks that this will work, and his judgment in this area is very good, as is shown by the remarkable success of the Journal of Economic Perspectives which has greatly increased the flow of information across the subfields of economics, and done a remarkable job of welding the American Economic Association into a stronger intellectual community.

The Economists’ Voice will aim for pieces longer than an op-ed and shorter than (and much more readable than) a piece for a standard journal. We thus avoid the op-ed problem–the problem that op-ed space is too short for an argument, and only provides space to be shrill. But we also hope to stay short enough to be readable, and understandable. And we will aim for quick turnaround–days rather than the years of journals.

I’m not too excited. Joe Stiglitz has convinced a large number of people that free trade is a sucker’s game for the poor nations of the world so relying on him for good education may not turn out so well. But the bigger point, I think, is that there has never been a time in human history when it is easier to learn good economics. An intelligent person can become remarkably well-versed in basic economic concepts by reading Econlog, Marginal Revolution and Brad Delong. And there are ten more out there that you could add to the list if you wanted to spend more time at it and learn some more.

The challenge isn’t the 700 word op-ed limitation. The challenge is making economics sufficiently interesting to make it worth reading and studying. The blogosphere helps with that too, by linking and using exuberant language that newspapers might not tolerate.

A perfect example is today’s Washington Post story on the shrinking middle class.

Arnold Kling points out that the recent it’s shrinking is that more people are being squeezed into the upper classes:

The article emphasizes that the middle has shrunk, from 22.3 percent of households to 15.0 percent. What it does not point out is that the two categories below the middle also have shrunk, from 52.8 percent of households to 40.9 percent. Adjusting for inflation, the percentage of households with incomes over $50,000 has climbed from 24.9 percent in 1967 to 44.1 percent in 2003.

The article’s claim that it has become harder to stay in the income range of $35,000 to $50,000 is correct, if what you mean by “harder to stay” is that it has become difficult to avoid being squeezed up into a higher category.

He has a nice chart, too, to help you see it.

I’ll add that anytime you see a discussion of what has happened to household income over time, you should remember that the number of households has changed dramatically since 1973 or so as the divorce rate surged.

The single best analysis of income inequality over time and what’s wrong with looking at quintiles is by Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation. You can find it here.

The Post article does make one good point. It’s tough to be successful in America with a high school education or less.


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