Thursday, July 12, 2007

Stranger in a strange town 

I think Dan Drezner is correct: Journalists seem to run articles like this every summer. "Those free market boys in economics are getting taken to the woodshed by their own kind, and they try to marginalize them in return." Alex Tabarrok points out correctly that the average economist is no Milton Friedman. Greg Mankiw points out that many such "heretics" end up with Nobels. Though I'd argue the taste of the Nobel committee deviates from a free-market view. Better to look at the Clark Medal winners ... where we find Krugman and Card. No matter what, you tend to end up with a bunch of moderate Democrats, as Bryan Caplan points out.

OK, so the world misperceives us. I don't really care too much, but I am bothered by the question Drezner asks:

What's of interest to me is that this kind of scattershot critique of standard economic theory -- in which a whole bunch of disparate, even contradictory critiques are lumped together -- seems to be a common trope among journalists. My question is, why?

There's a Freakonomics-style question to be asked here -- are journalists who wash out of Ph.D. programs more or less likely to do this? What about journalists with overt ideological biases? And why the hell hasn't The New Republic written its standard, contrarian, "the neoclassical model does better than you think" kind of piece?

If you think I have an answer for this, guess again. Though for part of it the answer has to be how one writes articles. 'Balance' -- the bitch-goddess of journalism -- requires you to find two economists on, say, foreign trade sanctions who disagree on whether sanctions are good or bad, and report them. Now there's a whole lot of economists who are moderate Democrats who are against sanctions. But to get that person against the economist who might favor sanctions doesn't give you enough balance or contrast. So you pose them against a conservative economist.

Over time, as you learn that most economists are against sanctions on foreign trade, you associate that with the Republican stand and conclude that "all economists who oppose sanctions on foreign trade are Republicans." This is simply not true, but you can see how one gets that perception as the journalist tries to gain labels to demonstrate balance.

Get enough of these lumps, and it's not too hard to find enough economists with one issue that don't agree with the orthodoxy, and you get articles like this.

UPDATE: I really like the point Don Boudreaux makes,
I would say that I have no "faith" in free trade; rather, the evidence and the theory of free trade are powerful enough to convince me that it is practically superior to any form of protectionism if the goal is widespread prosperity. Faith is required when neither evidence nor theory support whatever proposition you choose to (or happen to) believe.
I think, for instance, the data on trade openness and its connection to real GDP is fairly clear-cut, but what makes trade open is still a matter of some debate.

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