Thursday, June 12, 2014

Cab Drivers, Preachers, and Economists' Wives

Lately I have been working on a Great Depression-era economic history paper to constitute one chapter of my dissertation. The practice of writing a history paper is highly enjoyable. It can send you deep into the (thankfully in my case mostly digital) archives. For younger scholars, it is one of the best ways to learn about and reflect on your chosen profession. This can sometimes be quite humorous.

Irving Fisher was a Yale professor and one of the best-known economists of the early 20th century. His weekly Business Page, the closest thing to an economics blog of the time, was widely syndicated in newspapers across the country. His modern day counterpart greatly praises his debt deflation theory, and deservedly so. In addition to good insights, Fisher had many good lines.

The best came at a meeting of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences in November 1933. Picture Fisher at the podium about to make the closing remarks for the meeting. He begins,
"It is more than fair of the presiding officer to give me not only the first word, but the last word."
(One of the other speakers was a United States Senator, by the way.) Maybe it doesn't take an economist to think this way, but it takes one to speak this way. This is just some relatively benign self-aggrandizement, and a good ego is always good for a good laugh. Another quote, from the 1971 Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking, also made me laugh, but seemed less benign.
"Who among us [economists] has not listened politely to the bizarre theories of the Great Depression as proffered by cab drivers, preachers, and (worst of all) economists' wives? One simply learns to avoid cabs, churches, and home each time the Grapes of Wrath makes one of the film festivals or books by Studs Terkel about Huey P. Long make the best-seller lists."
Fisher only asserts his superiority to other economists and politicians, whereas this economist asserts economists' intellectual superiority to the public at large, or at least its female and service professional components. "Isn't it cute when our wives try to understand the economy? Aren't we great for being so polite to the poor dolts?"

Now, the vast majority of economists I know today have the utmost respect for their spouses' intellects. What we should avoid at all costs is a "polite" disregard of the intellect of the general public. Economists shouldn't "avoid cabs, churches, and home." Cabs, churches and home are the economy. (And I can think of one particular preacher whose vision of economics will not be ignored.) Economic policy would function more smoothly if more people understood it. In a democracy, people deserve the chance to understand the economy and economic policies that affect their lives. This is put really well by Alan Blinder and coauthors (2009), regarding monetary policy:
"It may be time to pay some attention to communication with the general public...In the end, it is the general public that gives central banks their democratic legitimacy, and hence their independence."
This is also why I really respect efforts like those of Annamaria Lusardi to teach economic and financial literacy to the public under the assumption that everyone is capable of understanding, so long as they are given the opportunity to learn.

7 comments:

  1. Oh, come on. It's irritating to read something like "this economist;" it says that you're in the know and I'm not. If you're not willing to name names then don't mention the issue in the first place.

    Besides, it took about one minute with Google to find the name of this clown:
    J. Ronnie Davis.

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  2. I just hope Akerlof's wife knows what she's talking about.

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