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An Interview with James Heckman

The June 2005 issue of the Minneapolis Fed’s publication The Region features this interview with one of the University of Chicago’s many Nobel economists, James Heckman.

It’s worth a careful read.

Here are just some of the things Heckman says that deserve careful attention:

– Heckman argues that the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s “definitely" reduced racial discrimination.  And Heckman explains, quite plausibly, why he believes that this legislation was more of a cause (especially in the south) of greater integration of blacks and whites than an effect of changing attitudes about race.  Heckman says about this issue: “Markets do many useful things, but they did not solve the problem of race.  Not in America."

I’ll not argue with Heckman; he knows the data far better than I do.  But from what I know of the advent in America of insidious Jim Crow legislation (reaching an apogee, I believe, in the 1890s), markets did not cause racial segregation.  In fact, markets resisted such segregation.  This resistance broke down only because racial segregation was institutionalized by government command.  I do wish that the interviewer would have asked Heckman about the research along these lines by Robert Higgs and, later, Jennifer Roback-Morse.

– Heckman says that “The family is the major source of human inequality in American society.”  He draws this conclusion from much research built on an insight that he repeats again and again (justifiably): skills come in two types – cognitive and noncognitive.  The former include book learning and IQ; the latter include “motivation, self-control and forward-lookingness.”

Heckman scolds economists for focusing too much on the former relative to the latter.

– Heckman on communicating economics to general audiences:

I completely understand the risk [of communicating economic ideas confusedly]. In some sense economists help create the risk by using a jargon that’s dense and by not trying to communicate. Many ideas in economics are fundamentally simple ideas. Of course, there’s a danger that they’ll be oversimplified. When you come to empirical estimates, inevitably there is a technical discussion if one is careful. But the main ideas can be said pretty clearly without a lot of jargon.

The training that professional economists have often leads us to speak a private language. Private languages can be productive in communicating subtle ideas. But simple, clear language can be understood. We should recognize the fundamental intelligence of most people. Some people are smarter than others, of course, but there’s such a thing as common sense, and common sense often prevails. If you can appeal to that common sense, you’ve done your job as a communicator.


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