The Public Apparently Isn't Interested In Sound Economics

from the this-is-unfortunate dept

So I hear there's some sort of election happening this week (have you heard anything about it?). Earlier this year, we wrote about an awesome effort by the folks at NPR's Planet Money to bring together a group of five different economists, from all over the political spectrum, and see if they could find points that all of them agreed upon. They came up with a list of six things that all of them agreed would be smart ideas for a President to implement -- and what was striking about all six was that not a single one of them was anywhere near politically tenable. Every one of them would be argued down immediately.

Part of the problem, honestly, was that nearly all of them required understanding a) a little bit of economics and b) being willing to understand nuanced situations and how different moves reverberate through the economy. Those, unfortunately, are rather difficult things -- and it was seen in our comments too. We had over 200 comments, and many of them showed exactly that problem. People made broad, sweeping generalizations based on the short one-sentence versions, without understanding the details or the nuances. Also, ridiculously, many people insisted that the plans were all a nefarious plot of one particular side of the political spectrum, totally ignoring the fact that the economists came from all sides. The idea that, for example, anyone might consider economists Dean Baker or Bob Frank "right wing" is so hilarious as to defy comment.

Since then, Planet Money continued the series with some really interesting followups. First they discussed some of the ideas that the economists couldn't agree on (free heroin!). Then it got fun. They brought in some political spin-meisters to take the policy planks that everyone admitted would never get very far coming out of a real politician's mouth and see if they could spin them positively. It's a really enjoyable/scary episode, in which complex economic ideas are reduced to crowd pleasing soundbites, mostly focused on misdirecting people from reality and, well, accentuating the positive.

Finally, last week, they decided to focus group the ideas and proved what we already knew: that the ideas, when explained to everyday Americans, were immediately and sometimes caustically shot down as being horrible, horrible ideas. They then tried to take some of the spin-meister versions, and present them as commercials... and got a little budge from a few people, but that was about it. In the end, it was clear that these ideas -- no matter how good they might be -- would immediately be shot down by the public, meaning that any candidate who proposed them wouldn't have much luck.

That's somewhat depressing, but a sign of the world we live in today. I'd argue that a big part of the problem is that nearly all of the proposals involve what appears to be short-term pain for long-term benefit -- and we live in such a short-term focused society. But as someone who tends to think that we really need much more understanding of economics and its impact among the general populace, this kind of thing only confirms how weak our economics education is today.

Filed Under: economics, election, politics

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  1. icon
    silverscarcat (profile), 6 Nov 2012 @ 7:23am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Point 4: A "consumption" tax isn't practical.

    Actually, it's "pursuit of money", not "love of money". Though they often go hand in hand.

    How is money evil?

    By itself, it's not.

    But too much of a thing can become bad.

    Too much bad can become evil.

    Too much money can become evil because you realize that money is power and power corrupts.

    Thus, money is evil.

    It's simplified, but yeah.

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