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In my latest Pittsburgh Tribune-Review column I argue that the economist’s most important task, by far, is to ask (mostly) simple, straightforward, yet probing questions that the typical non-economist fails to ask.  A slice:

The license plate on my colleague Robin Hanson’s car reads “ASQWHY.” “Ask why” is good advice for everyone, but especially for economists – and, indeed, for anyone who ponders economic policy.

The older I get, the more convinced I become that the greatest service my fellow economists and I can offer is to ask questions that otherwise go unasked. Not predicting this year’s inflation rate, designing a more efficient tax system or measuring the monopoly power that infects the market for petroleum or popcorn. Such endeavors’ importance pales beside the simple task of constantly asking probing questions.

The reason such questioning is so vital is captured in a line from Paul Simon’s song “The Boxer:” “A man hears what he wants to hear/And disregards the rest.” Yet if that man is then pressed with probing questions, he’s less likely to disregard useful, if presently unwelcome, knowledge.

A politician promises to create more jobs by building more infrastructure. Sounds good. But let’s ask: Where do the inputs – steel, concrete, bulldozers, land – for more infrastructure come from? What is sacrificed to build more infrastructure? Does the value of the new infrastructure exceed the value of what is sacrificed? How do you know?

And will more jobs really be created? Of course more people will work on infrastructure projects, but where does the money come from to fund these projects? Isn’t it possible that when government spends more on infrastructure, taxpayers spend less on housing, automobiles and medical care for themselves and their pets? And isn’t it possible that reduced spending in these other sectors causes job losses there that offset the increased number of infrastructure-construction jobs?