Shucks, I'm Not an Economist, But...

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The Economist has a lovely letters page. They publish literate and intelligent responses to their articles, and conscientiously present the kind of dissent their ideas provoke. Because disagreement is good - there is nothing not virtuous about listening to the considered thoughts, ideas and judgements of other reasonable intelligent people.

At the same time, a little education is a dangerous thing. Because we are very smart in one area of our lives (some of us are not even that) we assume we are just generally Smart. This is not necessarily untrue. A lot of people are exactly Smart. But most people don't have that much depth of knowledge in "most" things. The Economist's Lexington not too long ago talked about it in this way:

The world is a complex place. Most people are inevitably ignorant about most things, which is why shows like "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?" are funny. Politics is no exception.

Insert rimshot here. Ba-dum-pum. The problem then is that people can often think they know more than they do. This is more a product of success than failure in many ways. People are taught that they should be critical of ideas presented to them, to interrogate them for a kind of intellectual consistency, amongst other things. Being critical of ideas is a good thing. But at some point, because we don't have depth of knowledge about all things, we have to rely not on simply trusting the correctness of specific ideas as we assimilate them, but learning to trust the correctness of specific people on specific issues on which those people are knowledgable. We begin to trust people the way we trust ideas.

Now I'm not saying we should be idiots and believe everything we see and hear on Fox News (or, at certain times, MSNBC, or CNN - yes, that means you Lou Dobbs). That is exactly what I'm not saying. But we learn to evaluate if some people talk with a depth of authority on a given issue. For instance I might not take as gospel everything that Pat Buchanan says, but as an observer of politics and the political process, he is undoubtedly a genius.

And yet we have this lovely thing called the miracle of aggregation, or "the miracle of crowds" - if people act randomly when they don't know something, the fact that some people do know what they know will mean that en masse, large crowds will vote correctly. But people do not vote in elections randomly (at which point I'm just ripping off the article I've been referring to):

First, people do not understand how the pursuit of private profits often yields public benefits: they have an anti-market bias. Second, they underestimate the benefits of interactions with foreigners: they have an anti-foreign bias. Third, they equate prosperity with employment rather than production: Mr Caplan calls this the "make-work bias". Finally, they tend to think economic conditions are worse than they are, a bias towards pessimism.

And in this way, people with their personal biases actually tend to vote for ideas and policies that systematically make them worse off. It's not difficult to understand why. The ideas above are all counter-intuitive. You wouldn't normally assume one thing would lead to another. It requires education and a deference to facts and data to persuade you that these ideas are true. But for more on that, you can refer to the article in full.

The point I'm making here is a clear and unequivocal one against the idea of the wisdom of "populism." Which brings me back to the Ecnomist's letters page, where recently an individual has made a full throated support for the tenets of populism, really accusing the Economist of libelling the populist creed:

Exactly when did "populist" enter your style guide as the preferred all-purpose pejorative (Lexington, February 9th)? Given that neither John Edwards nor Mike Huckabee have come anywhere near winning their parties' nomination, it is far from clear that they are even "popular", let alone "populist".
Even assuming that they are popular, what is the objective characteristic (with the emphasis on objective) that would transmute them from being good, wholesome popular candidates into nasty, wicked populist ones? In the absence of an objective definition, "populist" seems to be nothing more than a hollow term of abuse that The Economist hurls at anyone whose opinions are at odds with its own. May I suggest that in future you simply describe such people as "evil". It is easier to pronounce than populist and uses less ink.

Which is not an unfair criticism, since the Economist is rather fond of the term. Which does not mean that the Economist is unfair in it's usage, it simply uses the term as a shorthand, as all intelligent people do at some point to communicate a complex idea in a pithy manner. You'll also note that the Economist refers to populist instincts (to a greater or lesser extent) on both sides of the American political spectrum. Another letter writer uses an oft used Economist tactic to help ground the issue, a historical perspective:

Populism in America reached its height in the late 19th century and was embodied in the Populist Party, which proposed policies such as nationalising the railroads and enforcing limitations on private property. Since the party's decline the term "populist" generally refers to candidates who market themselves as the representative of "the common man". Such candidates are usually isolationist, desire heavier government regulation of the economy and subsidies for the poor.
Examples range from William Jennings Bryan, a Populist presidential aspirant, to Huey Long, and presently to John Edwards and Mike Huckabee. Populist candidates are antagonistic to free trade on some level and usually do not have a grasp of basic economics. It neither surprises nor perturbs me that The Economist does not like populist politicians.

So we can talk about two distinct strands in the discussion of the word populist. One is the instinct to market yourself as a populist - saying that you are for what the common man is for. The other is where you actually believe, and want to enact those ideas, regardless of whether they have any intellectual, academic or practical basis. Both are harmful.

I have no problem with politicians being Machiavellian enough to say what they need to say in order to get themselves elected. In fact I (perversely) trust it, since for me, it indicates that they are to some extent clearly working towards their own self-interest. I certainly took great joy in Hillary Clinton's vaulting ambition towards power, and remain a staunch supporter of hers. But she knows better than the rhetoric she spouts, and I have proof, evidence, a sustained record of actions, that convinces me she would not be so foolish as to enact some of the policies she might support publicly.

Those policies would be wrong, and they would work contrary to the greater good of the people on whose behalf she would eventually work. And so Hillary says it, but won't do it. Because I believed she wouldn't do it, I could understand why she would say it. But when other people say what she says, because it's not true, and not good policy, I'm less sure. And in the end, it becomes a strange kind of crying wolf - or in this case, crying the need for protectionism: where even though the wolf never shows up, people still believe it's there. 

As long as politicians continue to give credence to ideas that they know are not true, they poison the public discourse. So much so that some people end up saying such things as if they are true. To say that shipping jobs overseas is bad, even though it helps the competitive advantage of the companies that do so, preserving more jobs than those that are lost (I'm already simplifying), only makes it harder for companies to exactly preserve those jobs that can actually be preserved. The jobs that are being "sent" overseas can more accurately be described as jobs that economic conditions demand eventually be sent to places where labour is cheaper. Erecting barriers to make that more difficult just delays the pain and stores it up, so that more jobs are lost more abruptly later for having the delay.

But again, this is already a much bowlderised presentation of a complex problem - I cannot begin to express my own ignorance of how this works. But I talk about it this way because I've been told by people who know, that this is sort of how it works. I trust that people who know more than I know are accurately representing their ideas. Who would have imagined that the acme of intellectual thought would be, to some extent, trust and belief?

I'm not saying that people must speak the truth at all times and in all ways, but it does make me admire the people who do speak the truth, and who do trumpet ideas that are in line with that truth. But it's paradoxical that even though John McCain exactly does this and lionises free trade, his policy proposals have been at best anaemic so far.

Hillary's rhetoric, while unhappy and perhaps a little disappointing on the level of that honesty, did mask what I think is a firm grasp of intelligent economic policy. With the new guy, unfortunately, all we're hearing is dishonesty, dissembling and empty rhetoric - without any of the assurance that it's backed up by the will to stand up for what is right over what is popular. Or worse, it might even be he actually believes the bullshit he's spouting.

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This page contains a single entry by subtitles published on June 22, 2008 5:06 AM.

The Democrats and their Rhetoric of Fear - The Maltese Nominee was the previous entry in this blog.

"You're just a Monster" - "Did you eat my Peabody?" is the next entry in this blog.

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