Thursday, May 8, 2008

In Defense of Economists

Okay, Hillary, let me get this straight.

You’re calling me an elitist.

Me. The Shamanic Economist. An elitist. Along with all other economists in the history of the world. Elitists all.

Well, that’s what you said.

This all started when you were being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos, not exactly a tough interviewer if you had to pick someone in the news media to talk to, and he asked you to explain the economic basis for your proposals. Instead of answering the question, you responded with a two-minute rant in which you basically implied that economists were to blame for the problems in the United States’ political system.

Really? Economists? You don’t think that you could find a politician or two who could share in the blame for the things that have gone wrong in Washington? Maybe a senator who voted for one bill or another that maybe, in retrospect, she shouldn’t have?

Now, one interview could be misinterpreted. You might have gotten flustered and said something you didn’t really mean. But in the days since, you’ve expanded your attack on economists. You came right out and said we’re elitists.

And what makes me, as an economist, an elitist, in your opinion?

Well, apparently, it’s something about me sitting at a desk. Reading the news. And trying to follow what is going on in the world.

I can’t say I understand that. How does having a desk make a person an elitist? I understand you have several desks. Does that make you a multi-elitist? Am I missing something here?

You said I’m out of touch with the problems of the working people of the United States.

You would never say that if you actually looked at the way I work. And I don’t even earn a salary. There is no guarantee that I will make any money at all. In a bad month I might work 300 hours and bring in $800. And then the government takes all of it — every dollar of it — in taxes. It’s really pretty scary to see how that works.

So I don’t think it makes any sense for you to suggest that I’m out of touch with the way ordinary people relate to money. I am one of the ordinary people you are talking about.

I think you think economists are a safe group for you to attack because there aren’t so many of us, and we don’t tend to vote.

Even if that were true, though, it isn’t a smart thing for you to declare yourself the enemy of all economists.

To begin with, economists are popular. We know where money comes from. We can explain why prices go up, and why they go down. These are things people care about. And many of us have some skill at predicting the future. Oh, I know, it looks bad because our predictions always disagree, but we still get things about right most of the time, and all my friends think that’s pretty impressive.

Economists are popular because we have skills, and if you want to be more popular, these are qualities that you would do well to imitate, not denigrate.

And because economists are popular, and everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows an economist, when you attack economists, you are indirectly attacking the very people who you are asking to vote for you. Politically, that just doesn’t work as a strategy.

Look at what happened to that other presidential candidate who said something that seemed to criticize Pennsylvania voters. And he apologized for his remarks. You are still on the attack. The word apology hasn’t even crossed your mind.

And there is a more fundamental issue. It is not really about the economists. It is the principles of economics that bother you.

Hearing you and your political friends say how bad economists are is a lot like hearing someone say that psychiatrists are all buggerheads. A person who says that doesn’t really hate psychiatrists. What they hate is the idea of mental health.

Well, in the same way, when people hear you say that economists are all elitists, everyone knows that you are about to do something stupid with your money. Or in this case, with their money. Something as stupid as giving away billions of dollars to the big oil companies. Laying off 100,000 people who keep our highways and bridges working. For no reason at all.

You want to do something that anyone can tell, if they look at it systematically or scientifically, is going to make things worse.

You are proposing to do something that is self-destructive.

So instead of going around railing against economists as a class, maybe you should look in the mirror and ask yourself why you want to do something that is self-destructive. Why you want to advocate something that doesn’t make any sense. Why, when you had just gotten yourself back into the fight, you would go and do something like this to put yourself back on the ropes.

It’s something I hate to see, because the truth is, you would make a fine president. But no one can tell it when you go around doing things like this.