The Perils of Being “Clearer than Truth”

In his new book (see here for a post about it by Robin Hanson), Bryan Caplan argues that economists weaken the impact of what they say by  surrounding their main messages with a bunch of caveats that are intended to make their answers more complete but that in fact serve only to ensure that they will be ignored.

Of course Bryan has a point here, no doubt effective communication is important, and some of that involves strategic simplification, but I don’t think the point is as strong as Bryan does.  The main thing that Bryan would like to see economists stress is the virtues of markets, which Bryan has convincingly argued people tend to systematically underestimate.  But would it be an improvement if everyone who took an introductory economics course just learned that markets are great?  This would have some good effects; support for things like free trade and Pigouvian pollution/congestion taxes would probably go up.  But it would also have the effect of convincing students (more than is already the case) that economic interventions of the kinds supported by lots and lots of mainstream economists, whether for correcting market failures, for redistribution, or for paternalism, must somehow necessarily be a bad idea.  Of course Bryan doesn’t favor most of those interventions anyway, so this is not much of a cost for him.  But would the total package be an improvement from the point of view of, say, the median economist?

I can think of two other problems with Bryan’s suggestion, both of which apply to educators in any field, not just to economists.  First, educators should have a pretty big thumb on the scale in favor of the unvarnished truth, partly because truth is a value in itself, partly becuase even the most well-meaning strategic spin is bad habit for a thinker to get into, and partly because it will cause real thinkers to lose credibility when the spin is uncovered.  Second, there are a bunch of people out there with a personality type such that they love to think of themselves are bold iconoclasts who courageously buck the conventional wisdom that the establishment had tried to cram down their throats.  When such people stumble across an instance where what they had been taught is not quite right, they will congratulate themselves that they have made a big transgressive discovery that those ivory tower eggheads have got it all wrong, and they will trumpet that discovery to the heavens, which the media will help them do because stories like that are popular.

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  • http://yorkshire-ranter.blogspot.com Alex

    But would it be an improvement if everyone who took an introductory economics course just learned that markets are great?

    Having taken an introductory economics course, I can’t see how this differs from current practice.

  • Pat Tehan

    I think Caplan’s proposal relies too much on memorization. What good is it for people to be pounded over the head with “markets… good…” if they’re not taught to think through the caveats?

    Teach people to enjoy thinking about complex problems and they’ll come to rational conclusions about markets. if people find no utility in thinking and coming to rational conclusions, it doesn’t matter how much economics teachers simplify it for them.

  • http://lavincolindo.net/ Chris Meyer

    Although it is inevitable that most education should rely on accepting authority as a basis for arguments, the sort of simplification argued for here would not only reinforce but mask that what is being taught is an interpretation. Would Caplan argue in favor of those who in the past taught Keynesian economics as fundamentally true with only the details up for debate?

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Certainly it is better if one wants to succeed in communicating. It is well known that if you are an economist and you want to be on TV a lot, you are more likely to get there and stay there if you hand out simplistic pap as “the definite answer to inflation!” or whatever. “I have the answer and here it is, no caveats!” Of course some of these shows like duelling economists, so A says “Oil companies are gouging us!” and B says “Let the free market in oil work!” But in either case, you do not get on unless you have a definite and unnuanced argument.

    Given the level of public information and all that, maybe we can do no better, but I for one continue to idealistically hope that we could do better and get at least somewhat closer to the truth, rather than that indelible entity of “truthiness.”

  • Nick Tarleton

    Second, there are a bunch of people out there with a personality type such that they love to think of themselves are bold iconoclasts who courageously buck the conventional wisdom that the establishment had tried to cram down their throats. When such people stumble across an instance where what they had been taught is not quite right, they will congratulate themselves that they have made a big transgressive discovery that those ivory tower eggheads have got it all wrong

    Now I see why anti-drug advertisements that overstate the risks of drugs are less effective than more honest ones. I’m sure there are many similar examples.

  • http://www.baseballprospectus.com guy in the veal calf office

    I would hope that economics courses propagandize the good in Markets. Some voice needs to combat the persistent focus on market failures among politicians, mainstream media, entertainment media and non-science courses in schools and universities. In May 2006, Clive Crook wrote in The Atlantic,

    “Capitalism is not much loved, even in the parts of the world it has served best. If only one country were to dote on free enterprise, America surely ought to be it. … But no. American enterprise has its spokesmen, brasher than most, just as it has its critics, as fierce as any. In the main, however, when intelligent Americans with no axes to grind contemplate the market economy, they are neither angry nor adoring, just wary and distrustful. It was ever thus.

    Seen a movie lately? Watched television or read a newspaper? The culture that speaks to Americans, and hence to the Western world, radiates suspicion of free enterprise—cordial and restrained, as a rule, but dubious nonetheless. ….

    As viewed from Hollywood, workers are usually downtrodden, bosses are usually grasping, consumers are usually gulled, and shadowy global finance is always calling the geopolitical shots. We manage to prosper, most of us, but this system of ours is not very noble.

    ….

    How about a movie in which a firm prospers under threat of competition by selling things that people want at an affordable price, paying its workers the market wage, and breaking no laws, thereby advancing the common good? Well, you see the problem”

    So, have at it economists of the world, preach and, as Al Gore says, fudge the facts because the cause is urgent.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    I would hope that economics courses propagandize the good in Markets.

    Harping on the good of markets sounds like a very bad idea. The public and journalists don’t need to look far to find examples of market failure; if fed a diet of “markets are divine” from economists, then their rational conclusion will be that economists are wrong (I had that same problem myself, before finding papers by Rob Stavins that clarified the uses and limits of markets, and thus made me realise that markets were sensible tools, not ideological positions. I haven’t looked back since).

    But since we have to have the caveats, let’s keep them simple. The message that economists should proclaim at every opportunity is:
    1) Markets are a source of great prosperity, and are the best choice in the majority of cases.
    2) Market failures do exist, but it is rare to find one where the cure is better than the disease.
    3) If we do find such a failure, economists will not object to the cure; our commitment to markets is pragmatic, not ideological.

    as Al Gore says, fudge the facts because the cause is urgent.
    And what happens when a journalist or a fellow economist reveals that the facts are indeed fudged? It’ll be suicidal to do so for something about which most of the public are already “wary and distrustful”.

  • http://www.robert.scarth.net Robert Scarth

    Stuart Armstrong said “[economists’] commitment to markets is pragmatic, not ideological.”

    I don’t think this is true for Bryan Caplan; its certainly not true for me.

    For me the argument for markets stems from my ideological commitment to individual liberty. Markets (broadly understood as any free exchange between individuals) are the best way to organize to a free society.

    I also disagree that markets are tools. In fact I think the “markets are tools” idea leads to a great deal of dissatisfaction with markets. A tool is something that is used to achieve a purpose. So for example someone wants to own a house, but for some reason they are unable to buy one that is suitable, the “markets are tools” idea would lead them to think that as the tool has failed to help them get what they want, it must be broken – ie there must be a market failure.