Trust in economists

The troubled relationship between economists and the public

Since economic policies shape the lives of each and every one of us, it seems right to discuss them in the public space. But in this space, an important component is often left out — a base in economic realities. Non-experts need not and should not approach economics as an empty canvas when thinking about public policy. Instead, the general public should treat economics like other professional fields, such as medicine, and apply their values to options laid out by economists as feasible.

It takes minimal effort to find members of the general public with baseless economic beliefs. A recent study conducted by Duke University tested how the general public’s views aligned with the consensus opinions of economists on five issues ranging from the gold standard to high-skill immigration. Disconcertingly, the study found that the majority of members of the general public who expressed opinions disagreed with the consensus on every single issue presented.

This problem is amplified through politics, since the general public elects the members of Congress who draft the legislation to address these issues and the executives who implement the legislation. Even if those politicians are knowledgeable, they have an obligation to cater to the mistaken beliefs of their constituencies.

One of the most current examples of this political dynamic concerns free trade, for which economic consensus is clearly in favor. A University of Chicago poll showed that 91 percent of economists believed “past major trade deals have benefited most Americans.” Despite the fact these agreements lead to massive economic gains for all nations involved, the currently-debated Trans-Pacific Partnership might not pass through Congress. Political figures from Senator Elizabeth Warren to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who helped craft the deal as secretary of state, have voiced opposition to it. It does not matter that the very people most vehemently opposed to the deal, American factory workers, have the most to gain from it (due to increased exports), or that every single chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers since the Ford administration signed an open letter in support of the agreement. Since the weakly informed general public opposes the deal, it is not gaining widespread political support.

One might argue that if the case for free trade were so compelling, then it could be explained to the public. Although education schemes are certainly laudable, they would not address the underlying issue: engagement between economists and the public is fundamentally flawed.

As with any professional field, a significant amount of education and time is required to form well-grounded opinions on economic issues. However, unlike in many other such fields, the public is often disinclined to accept the opinions of professional economists. For example, many people recognize the harm that may come from a baseless belief in the medical sciences, such as the measles epidemic that has broken out from the scientifically unfounded conviction that vaccines cause autism. In contrast, many will accept the opinion of a member of the general public who argues against free trade, and they will not recognize the harm that could come from accepting such a belief: the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars in economic value.

A change in the nature of the public’s relationship with economics needs to occur. Society must treat economics more like other professional fields and recognize that expert consensus opinions deserve much more weight in policymaking. This is not to say that members of the public should be excluded from engagement with economic issues. After all, economic policy affects the general public in profound ways, just as a medical procedure can profoundly affect the life of a patient. Both deserve a say. However, the general public should be using its values not to create new economic “theory,” just as it is not productive for people without medical training to propose new medical procedures. Rather, members of the public can most effectively use their values to choose among the often-difficult choices that economic realities present. This same maxim applies to politicians as well. Rather than espousing claims that align with popular beliefs, such as the common claim among some conservatives like Rand Paul that a gold standard will increase monetary stability, politicians should focus on serious solutions to real economic problems. For example, economists may conclude that there is a trade-off between income equality and growth. After accepting this fact, members of the public and the politicians that represent them could use their value systems to determine what they believe is the most appropriate trade-off.

Bringing about this change in the relationship between economists and the general public will require substantial effort in both the political and public sphere. The general public has only limited trust in economists. The aforementioned Duke paper showed that less than 1 percent of the general public trust economists “a great deal” and a mere 59 percent express any confidence in them at all. This compares to a Pew study showing that 17 percent of the public trusts the medical establishment “a great deal” and that 97 percent of the public has at least some confidence in it. Economics affects individuals personally and often dramatically, yet it too is a professional discipline. Treating it as such, and thoughtfully applying our personal values to options laid out by experts, is the only way to reach policy that accounts for all who have a stake.

Daniel Perry is a member of the Class of 2019.

Charlie about 8 years ago

Interesting viewpoint, Daniel.

What you fail to recognize, I think, is why public trust in economists is so low. Despite the attempts of economists to define their subject as a science, backed up by complex math and incomprehensible formulae, the idea of the economics profession coming to a "conclusion" about anything is laughable. Think back to the financial crisis - how many economists saw that coming? And how many would have definitive policy prescriptions were they to go back in time to try to prevent it now?

A related problem is that economics is too often stuck in the macro, rather than the micro. As you say, "economics affects individuals personally and often dramatically". Yet real problems affecting real people are reduced to airy statements about "trickle down" and "rising tides". An economist may conclude that free trade and migration has been beneficial to global GDP, but that hasn't made life any easier for a factory worker in Detroit, a coal miner in Wales or a sweatshop employee in Bangladesh.

You dismiss concerns about trade deals like the TPP as being down to misinformation and poor education. But rather than it being an issue of the general public dismissing the teachings of professional economists, have you considered that the real problem is that professional economists are too quick to dismiss the concerns of the general public?

David about 8 years ago

Watch this documentary about the Financial Crisis and then tell me you trust leading economists. https://archive.org/details/cpb20120505a

There's a whole part of the film that outlines the corrupt biases and shameless lack of moral compass of many of these fools.