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Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 83 of the second edition (1998) of Deirdre N. McCloskey’s path-breaking 1985 volume, The Rhetoric of Economics:

41xnkpPvjlL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_The opportunity cost of enchanting one’s fellow economists is alienating noneconomists.  There is no such thing as a free argument.

DBx: Yes.  We economists have a duty to speak plainly, accessibly, and engagingly to noneconomists.  (Actually, we have a duty to speak in this way also to ourselves, although the manner of academic speech does appropriately differ from that of nonacademic speech.)  This speech should never be aimed at currying the applause or approval of the powerful and the famous.  Nor, as Deirdre right warns, should it be aimed at impressing – “enchanting” – one’s fellow economists.  Rather, this speech should be aimed at conveying the eternal economic verities – yes, I’m quite convinced that these are real – to open-minded men and women who aren’t tutored in formal economics.

This speech should, above all, impress upon these men and women the importance of looking past stated intentions and immediate effects.  Anyone of ordinary intelligence and older than ten can comprehend stated intentions and discern immediate effects.  (“Oh, mommy, that man is nice!  He says he wants to help American workers, and so he’ll make it harder for the Chinese to take Americans jobs!”)  The trouble is, such childish analysis is commonplace among adults.  The competent economist has a duty to try to persuade people to reason about economic policy a bit more critically.

Just how the economist goes about fulfilling this duty varies from economist to economist.  Not everyone (heck, no one!) is Milton Friedman.  And just because, say, Steve Landsburg or Russ Roberts or Alex Tabarrok fulfill their duty each in his own unique way does not mean that Steve’s way or Russ’s way or Alex’s way is the best way for other economists to attempt to fulfill this duty.  Let tens of thousands of flowers bloom!  Some economists, when speaking to the general public, will rely more on empirical data than others; some will rely more on metaphor and analogy than will others.  Some will master the art of bringing history to bear upon current questions; others will rely more upon abstract logic.  Some will write books, others op-eds, and yet others blog posts.

Some will excel at public speaking; others not.  Some will perform well in front of cameras; others, such as myself, disappointingly not.

But all, in my opinion, must, in whatever way, attempt to convey the vital importance of asking probing questions, for it is through the habit of asking such questions that we all come to look beyond stated intentions and immediate effects.  Questions such as, for example, “If consumers are, as you say, being widely swindled by retailers, why hasn’t some profit-hungry entrepreneur stepped in to earn profits by revealing to consumers the swindling that’s now taking place and offering consumers better deals?”  “If we buy fewer imports from foreigners, won’t foreigners have less money to use to buy fewer exports from us?”  “If, as you say, it’s dangerous for strangers in South Korea to invest in businesses in Texas and Delaware, why isn’t it dangerous for strangers in South Carolina to invest in businesses in Texas and Delaware?”

Ask probing questions.  These questions need not – in fact, they will seldom be – displays of genius or of novel economic insights.  These questions will almost always be commonsensical ones.


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