The public wants us to be astrologers or heretics, not scientists

There has been a lot of recent discussion about where economists agree (micro) and where we disagree (macroeconomics.) Ryan Avent noted these findings, and then discussed a study showing that the public is skeptical of the more “scientific” aspects of our field.

I first became aware of this problem when serving on a committee creating a new MBA.  I suggested the econ course should focus on micro, which I thought would be vastly more useful to MBAs than macro.  The other committee members (from other departments) gave me a funny look.  I eventually learned that noneconomists are only interested in what economists have to say on macro questions, and have utter disdain for our views on any and all micro topics:

1. They don’t care what we think of antitrust cases, they’ve already made up their minds.  They don’t care about our views on predatory pricing, they’ve already made up their minds.

2.  They don’t care what trade theory tells us.  They just know that imports raise the unemployment rate, even when not at the zero bound.  Or that low wages are an advantage in trade.

3.  They are convinced that a firm will raise prices if its costs rise, but won’t pass lower costs on to consumers.  You can use elementary logic, you can point out that this sort of behavior would actually reduce profits, you can argue until you are blue in the face, and it will have no impact.

4.  They’ve made up their minds on carbon taxes, or any other taxes.  It’s all about who pays.

5.  They have made up their minds on product quality regulations.  You can talk about the market giving firms and incentive to produce the optimal amount of defects, and it will carry no weight.

6.  Labor unions . . .

I could go on and on.  Non-economists couldn’t care less what economists think of micro questions.  They think common sense is enough (it’s not) and hence they’ve made up their minds.  When they hear our ideas they think we are a bit kooky.

In contrast, non-economists don’t have preconceived ideas on inflation vs. NGDP targeting, or the implications of a $1.2 trillion deficit.  Just as they defer to physicists if the topic of quantum mechanics comes up at a cocktail party, they defer to economists for many macro questions (not all.)

Most of all they want us to forecast recessions.  That of course is the one thing we cannot do.  (Recall the Queen’s complaint.)  Or forecast stock prices, or interest rates.

If we insist on focusing on microeconomic topics, they will only take us seriously if we become a heretic, telling them that the rest of economists are a bunch of autistic nerds, who don’t really understand the real world.  Those heretical economists are very popular.

There was real excitement when behavioral econ burst on the scene.  It’s by far the most common question I get from non-economists when the topic of on new directions in economics comes up.  Non-economists are hoping that behavioral econ will some knock sense into all those idiotic economists, and a new model that takes into account actual human psychology will emerge.  Of course the standard model isn’t going away, but don’t tell the general public—they’ll look crestfallen when they hear the news.

So yes, the good news is that macro is the only area of econ with an almost total lack of consensus on key questions.  The bad news is that for most people this means economists cannot agree on anything useful at all.



53 Responses to “The public wants us to be astrologers or heretics, not scientists”

  1. Gravatar of Jim Glass Jim Glass
    16. January 2013 at 13:46

    Blinder’s Rule: The more economists agree on something the more they are ignored.

  2. Gravatar of Geoff Geoff
    16. January 2013 at 14:05

    Then carve out a niche by focusing more on micro issues on this blog and less on macro issues then!

    I mean yeah, Lance Armstrong complained about all the steroids in sports, but what did he do about it?

  3. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    16. January 2013 at 14:10

    And people wonder why economics is the dismal science.

  4. Gravatar of Niklas Blanchard Niklas Blanchard
    16. January 2013 at 14:19

    Speaking of the Zingales study to a (non-economist) friend, I remarked that people only really like having their biases confirmed.

    Macro (or rather, pop-macro) can always find a way to tell you your pretty.

  5. Gravatar of beamish beamish
    16. January 2013 at 14:33

    Or that low wages are an advantage in trade. In what sense are low wages not an advantage in trade?

  6. Gravatar of Petar Petar
    16. January 2013 at 14:35

    This was fantastic. You said it all!

  7. Gravatar of Matt R. Matt R.
    16. January 2013 at 14:49

    I have run into the same problem with faculty at my business school.

    They want more macro in the MBA course mostly because they don’t believe utility maximization of consumers and profit maximization by firms.

    Good luck discussing the incidence of taxation.

    Unintended consequences are not high on their list of things to teach MBA students.

  8. Gravatar of kebko kebko
    16. January 2013 at 15:03


    Capital tends to go to places where wages are increasing. It doesn’t tend to go where wages aren’t increasing.

    As with the other questions, even the CEO responsible for deploying the capital isn’t going to believe the economist because it will appear to him that it is obvious that low wages are what made the location of the investment more lucrative. Of course the question to pose to him is that, if that is the case, why doesn’t he invest in North Korea or the Congo instead of China or India.

    The reason that China and India present higher returns to capital is because improving institutions are making both capital and labor more productive than they were previously.

  9. Gravatar of marcus nunes marcus nunes
    16. January 2013 at 15:18

    Maybe for that reason (Macro is “all”) Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee wrote a Microeconomics for MBA text that “loosens up” and provides managers with the “economic way of thinking” to everyday problems (questions) they face.

  10. Gravatar of Jim Glass Jim Glass
    16. January 2013 at 15:20

    In what sense are low wages not an advantage in trade?

    If low wages were an advantage employers would be pouring into Haiti, you couldn’t keep ’em out.

    It is productivity that is the advantage in trade, the ratio of the value of what get from your workers relative to the amount of the wage you pay them.

    Country A: Wage $15/hr for production $30/hr
    Country B: Wage $2/hr for production $2.05/hr.

    Are you rushing to put your factory in Country B to take advantage of the low wages?

    If so, as the old National Lampoon album said, “Come to Haiti…”

  11. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    16. January 2013 at 15:29

    In a world in which JPM Chase sees its profitability up 50% in one year and responds by cutting its CEO’s compensation in half, what can you expect from the public that flocks to superhero movies?

  12. Gravatar of J J
    16. January 2013 at 16:27

    Richard Posner’s publication record begs to differ…

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. January 2013 at 16:44

    Niklas, Unfortunately, that’s how the world is.

    Matt, I feel your pain.

    kebko, I’d add that the average German exports FIFTEEN times as much as the average Chinese. Probably 50 or 100 times more than the average Indian.

    Marcus, Now if only we could get students to actually read the textbook . . .

    J, ??????????

  14. Gravatar of Bret Bret
    16. January 2013 at 17:00

    That was fantastic.

    I should’ve noticed that myself, but I didn’t.

    Now that you pointed that out, it’s so obvious. Thanks.

  15. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    16. January 2013 at 17:18

    Massachusetts jacking tax rates, Louisiana cutting them

    Governor Deval Patrick proposes major tax increase to fund education, transportation plans

    Governor Deval Patrick proposed a 1 percentage point increase in the state income tax in his State of the Commonwealth address tonight, from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent, but at the same time, he called for a decrease in the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 4.5 percent.

    The plan is expected to raise $1.9 billion annually to fund an ambitious and expensive new agenda for 2013.

  16. Gravatar of beamish beamish
    16. January 2013 at 17:19

    Country A: Wage $15/hr for production $30/hr
    Country B: Wage $2/hr for production $2.05/hr.

    OK, I get it, but this seems a bit unfair to the man in the street. All other things equal (that is, with absolute production rates equal), low wages are a trade advantage, right?

  17. Gravatar of joseph joseph
    16. January 2013 at 17:35

    Just a good example of what you’re saying

  18. Gravatar of Bababooey Bababooey
    16. January 2013 at 18:21

    Let me defend the laymen in two parts:

    1. What did Kahneman mean when he said “You need to have studied economics for many years before you’d be surprised by my research; it didn’t shock my mother at all”? He meant that economists make names for themselves by cleaning up after their predecessors, giving we commoners reason for skepticism over the latest scientific certainty. Public Choice theory teaches economists what the Federalists extensively hashed out. Whose theories did Hayek disparage (and Harry Hopkins/Harol Ickes implement) when criticizing central planning? Did fellow economists oppose Irving Fisher’s scientific pablum? Nope, fellow academics and intellectuals loved Fisher’s scientific argument for maximizing Nordic utility (even though he fudged the evidence). Common people opposed his rascism and anti-semitism, drawing from common religious sanctity, sense fair play, ethnic ties or what have you.

    2. It is possible to reach conclusions about the concepts you study through common sense and by discussion in common speech. Here’s John Bright, a British progressive liberal, celebrating the prosperity from repeal of protectionist Corn Laws, without resorting to jargony incantations, Nobel name-dropping, and his academic titles:

    All this has been brought about without any violence, without wronging anybody. There is not a human being in England who has a loaf less or a pound of sugar less, or any of these things less by what has been done. There was no violence, no insurrection, no bloodshed, no disorder, the people have merely become more intelligent, Parliament more intelligent, and statesmen more intelligent; and all this has been done by merely tearing up two or three foolish Acts of parliament, and allowing people their natural freedom to buy and sell where they could buy and sell to the greatest advantage.

    Speech to Rochdale Working Men’s Club, January 2, 1877 Selected Speeches of John Bright on Public Questions (1910 reprint)(That speech is filled with detailed argument and observation about prosperity and wealth). There are endless examples of these topics being discussed commonsensically before Smith elevated “economics” to a niche field in philosophy.

    Having said all that, I’m a fan. While I educate myself here, maybe you can teach your students the waypoints of classic tragedy: hubris(arrogance), ate(folly), nemesis(destruction).

  19. Gravatar of "The public wants economists to be astrologers or heretics, not scientists… I eventually learned that noneconomists are only interested in what economists have to say on macro questions, and have utter disdain for our views on any and all micro "The public wants economists to be astrologers or heretics, not scientists… I eventually learned that noneconomists are only interested in what economists have to say on macro questions, and have utter disdain for our views on any and all micro
    16. January 2013 at 19:01

    […] Source […]

  20. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    16. January 2013 at 19:41

    Well, I won’t defend every element of the non-economist, but there are elements of truth in what non-economists say.

    Product quality regulations: For example, consumers do not care about safe cars—safer cars had to be mandated, and they save tens of thousands of lives (annually, in the USA) compared to the pre-1960s models. I don’t know how many injuries are avoided.

    This still may be a bad regulation, but a lot of non-economists might think it is good, even if they understood the economics of it. We certainly have done better by safe-car regulations than by the trillions we have spent on the “Global War on Terror,” in terms of money spent vs. lives saved.

    Do product quality regulations include lowering pollution emissions, or electrical sue?

    If so, the non-economists may be right. Pollution is not captured by the price signal, and thus regulations make some sense (although I prefer taxes).

    And as for you economists: Who would invent an opaque Federal Reserve Board, FOMC meetings in secret (public not allowed), independent, when the Fed is the most important policy making biddy in a democracy?

    Actually, I agree with most of this post…but you economists gotta re-think central banks…..

  21. Gravatar of Don Don
    16. January 2013 at 20:35

    People want straight answers from experts. Some fields are disappointing. Medical science cannot seem to agree on the optimal amount of red wine to drink just like economics can’t agree on whether the multiplier for govt. spending is 0 or 3. For a field without consensus there is no shortage of opinions; many with great certainty. Unfortunately, there is probably no way to get consensus. Our ever changing world seems to provide and endless set of opportunities for people to confirm their biases.

  22. Gravatar of John Larison John Larison
    16. January 2013 at 21:04

    Okay, honest question, because my internet search skills are failing me: Assuming that the goal is to reduce CO2 emissions in an economically efficient way (that is largest reduction in CO2 emissions per reduction in economic growth), what does micro say about the best means to that end? I was under the impression that a carbon tax was decent start, from the general standpoint of tax something -> get less of it, but your post, and some quick Google-ing has made me rethink that.

  23. Gravatar of no name no name
    16. January 2013 at 21:44

    The comments section in The Economist’s article are pretty awful. Like people saw the title and read none of the article before commenting.

  24. Gravatar of Kevin Dick Kevin Dick
    16. January 2013 at 23:16

    @John Larison. IIRC, one can show that, given some reasonably standard microeconomic assumptions, a Pigouvian tax with the marginal tax equal to the marginal external cost is economically efficient.

    I believe with stronger assumptions, one can show that cap and trade is equivalent to a Pigouvian tax in terms of efficiency, though the distributional effects may be different. Certainly, there are good arguments that cap and trade is more open to regulatory capture.

    The problem of course is when you have significant uncertainty as to the true external cost, as is the case with CO2.

  25. Gravatar of afinetheorem afinetheorem
    16. January 2013 at 23:47

    John Larison,

    Scott is just implying that the burden of the tax depends on the shape of supply and demand curves, and not on who “pays” it. For instance, though both you and your employer “pay” half of your social security tax, in fact the worker is bearing almost all of the burden given our standard estimates of labor supply elasticity. For carbon taxes, for instance, the burden of the tax (on consumers, on producers, on consumers of some related good, etc.) depend again on relative elasticities and not on who legally must pay the government the tax.

    As for optimal carbon taxation, because the harm of carbon is worldwide and the tax is domestic, there is strong incentive for any one country to defect from a carbon tax agreement, hence the standard Pigou tax is unlikely to work. Bard Harstad has a paper in the Journal of Political Economy a couple years ago showing that optimal carbon policy should probably involve supply-side actions (e.g., have the government buy coal to drive up the price, then not use it for energy creation).

  26. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. January 2013 at 23:49

    In what ways would an MBA student most benefit from learning microeconomics?

    beamish, try googling “comparative advantage”, to begin to see how economists view trade.

  27. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    17. January 2013 at 03:03

    I do not see this surprising. General audience is more interested in yet unproven String Theory then in Standard Model. And the same goes down to even mundane things. If someone says that he thinks that all living organisms are connected and that we are part of this network, this person does not want to hear an answer “Yes, you are right. All living organisms have DNA and evolution theory says that in a sense all living tings – even with plants – are relatives. Isn’t this finding of the science amazing and fascinating?”.

    For some reason this message is not profound enough – everybody knows about DNA and evolution. It is more likely that they meant that all living things are connected by some spiritual energies and life-force or whatever. It is all about psychological needs. Talking about “mundane” things does not satisfy these needs in the same way that belonging to fringe group that knows the true truth does.

  28. Gravatar of John John
    17. January 2013 at 04:48


    I’m pretty sure the people I consider to be bad economists like Robert Reich, Joe Stiglitz, and, of course, Paul Krugman, wouldn’t agree with the things you said about micro. Could you picture Joe Stiglitz saying they should abolish consumer protection bureaus because the free market produces the right amount of defects? Didn’t think so.

  29. Gravatar of beamish beamish
    17. January 2013 at 05:09

    beamish, try googling “comparative advantage”, to begin to see how economists view trade.

    I asked an honest question and I got good, comprehensible, convincing replies in return. I don’t really have any further substantive questions on the topic.

  30. Gravatar of JSeydl JSeydl
    17. January 2013 at 05:51

    “Notions of fairness, opportunity, freedom, and rights are arguably of more importance in policy making than are concerns about moving individuals up their given prefer- ence rankings. Insofar as economists want to assist in the formulationof policy toward such ends, they must link eco- nomic theory to such concerns.” – Hausman and McPherson

  31. Gravatar of TheMoneyIllusion » Give that man the Bastiat Award! TheMoneyIllusion » Give that man the Bastiat Award!
    17. January 2013 at 06:26

    […] I said yesterday, the public has utter disdain for the economic way of […]

  32. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. January 2013 at 06:42

    Thanks Bret.

    Steve, Thanks, but I doubt whether either will happen.

    Bababooey, I think you have “uncommon sense.” In any case, I agree that there are many occasions where the public is right and economists are wrong. But of course that wasn’t the argument I was trying to make–I was claiming the public doesn’t want us to be scientific. And they don’t. When we behave like scientists we come up with ideas that they don’t want to hear. Whether our scientific ideas are correct is an entirely separate issue.

    No one can accuse Bastiat of offering jargony explanations–and he’s still rejected by almost all non-economists.

    Ben, I don’t think economists favor secretive central banks.

    John Larison, Yes, a carbon tax is best.

    John, Sure the studies don’t show 100% agreement on even micro questions–but the agreement tends to be much stronger–over 90% on many issues–with the public radically disagreeing.

    JSeydl, That may be true, but I was addressing a different problem. The public doesn’t even agree with our views in narrow utility terms.

  33. Gravatar of Career advice for young economists Career advice for young economists
    17. January 2013 at 06:44

    […] […]

  34. Gravatar of John John
    17. January 2013 at 09:20


    I read Bryan Caplan’s book on that subject and I agree that in general economists are,more market friendly than the general public. My question is why don’t you hear top economists like Krugman talk in a more market friendly way than the general public? To me Krugman sounds more anti-capitalist than Obama or Nancy Pelosi.

  35. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    17. January 2013 at 09:28


    It is the fake scientists controlling tenure in the economics departments who have demanded “empirical tests”, ie “predictions”.

  36. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    17. January 2013 at 09:34


    Scott writes,

    “macro is the only area of econ with an almost total lack of consensus on key questions.”

    There is ZERO consensus on how ‘micro’ works an explanatory causal science.


    And there is no prospect of resolving this problem anywhere on the horizon.

    The central key question in all of ‘micro’ is how the purely analytical math of the IE construction can possible play a role in any empirical, causal, explanatory science.

    Microeconomists have gotten no-where in answering this question and there is ZERO consensus on the issue.

    This problem is at the very heart of the problem of making sense of ‘micro’ as an empirical science.

    And the ‘science’ of economics is dead in the water on the issue, the key issue.

  37. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    17. January 2013 at 09:36

    Non-economists are hoping that economists get their pathological house in order, and are hoping that the economists will stop bamboozling us all and themselves with *fake* science.

  38. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    17. January 2013 at 09:38

    When economists try to justify themselves as producing something other than fake science, their justification is the same as the astrologists — they point to professional consensus.

    But it isn’t even true. In reality there is less consensus among economists over what makes their endeavors ‘science’ than there is among astrologists.

  39. Gravatar of Steven Kopits Steven Kopits
    17. January 2013 at 10:00

    Micro is not a theoretical matter to the typical firm. No CEO says, “We should move production to China because wages are low but rising.”

    He’s says: “Jim (his finance or strategy guy), could you run some numbers on China for me? If we put some production there, could you figure out capex costs, operating costs, logistics, risks and customer considerations? Is there enough market to sell there? About what about IP? Can we protect it? Give me a view, would you?”

    That’s how micro appears in the real world.

  40. Gravatar of Steven Kopits Steven Kopits
    17. January 2013 at 10:06

    And as for prices, no CEO says, “Our costs have just fallen. Let’s reduce our prices because that’s theoretically optimal.”

    He’ll say, “Bob (his market analyst), our costs have fallen, and maybe that’s an opportunity to take some market share. What happens if we reduce our prices? Will the competition follow suit? If so, are we just cannibalizing our own profits? Or do we gain some sort of advantage, and it so, how might it manifest itself? What will the competition do?

    And further, do you think we should reduce prices permanently, or should we just have some sort of transient special? A 2-for-1, or maybe we can have the Widgetathon. It seems to work for Toyota. Could you give me a view on the matter?”

    That’s how micro happens in reality.

  41. Gravatar of no name no name
    17. January 2013 at 11:48


    Have you CONSIDERED capitalizing more words in your comments? It really does a great job in making it SEEM like you have something IMPORTANT to say, rather than just a set OF mindless attacks against THE economics profession, AND unbackeded accusations of GROUNDLESSNESS. I REALLY enjoy it.

    There is ZERO reason not to do so! ZERO!

  42. Gravatar of Society is Catching Up With its Environment | Virtuous Society Society is Catching Up With its Environment | Virtuous Society
    17. January 2013 at 14:24

    […] the minimum wage, believing that it raises wages. Economist Scott Sumner at TheMoneyIllusion recently posted an excellent list of concepts that non-economists tend not only to misunderstand, but to ignore […]

  43. Gravatar of kebko kebko
    17. January 2013 at 14:37

    Steven Kopits,

    There is the seen and the unseen. Your first example is an example of the point, not a refutation of it. If the net effect of those factors has improved, the CEO will move production to China in order to increase their risk-adjusted returns on investment. This will increase demand for labor. In your example, improving Chinese institutions have led to capital inflows and higher wages.

  44. Gravatar of Økonomer som astrologer | Tankeløse plukk Økonomer som astrologer | Tankeløse plukk
    17. January 2013 at 14:48

    […] mener i alle fall Scott Sumner at folk flest synes vi skal være. Poenget hans er at nÃ¥r det gjelder mikroøkonomi er det en […]

  45. Gravatar of JSeydl JSeydl
    18. January 2013 at 01:52


    Because there is more to satisfying preferences than appealing to “narrow utility terms,” as approximated by income, or employment, or whatever. People also care about moral things.

    The classic blood-donation case exemplifies this. When you pay people to donate blood, they actually end up donating less. Why? Because there is a certain non-monetary aspect of donating that makes people satisfied – makes them feel like their really making a difference. When you monetize that – say, by offering donors $50 per blood bag donated – you actually devalue that satisfaction, because you’re basically saying that the donation is *only* worth X number of dollars.

    If economists want more of a say in public policy matters, they’re going to have to figure out of to account for issues of morality. Narrows utility terms isn’t enough.

  46. Gravatar of ThinkMn ThinkMn
    18. January 2013 at 05:32

    Very interesting blog and article. I especially liked the comment on this blog about labor costs (wages). Next time I hear about cutting wages as the solution I’ll point out North Korea as the solution to their wage problems.

  47. Gravatar of Tracy W Tracy W
    18. January 2013 at 06:59

    I am surprised JSeydl to hear this result about blood donation/paying. You assert it very confidently, can you please cite the supporting evidence? The most relevant thing I could find on the topic after a quick search was, which says “In studies asking for future blood donation behaviour, a crowding-out effect has not been shown.” It links to two studies where people were surveyed (as opposed to actual observation), neither of which showed the link you assert, and mentions one unpublished study, that shows “a minor crowding-out effect is present in some donor groups”).

  48. Gravatar of JSeydl JSeydl
    18. January 2013 at 07:48

    Tracy, see:

    TITMUSS, RICHARD. The gift relationship:From hu-
    man blood to social policy. NY: Random House,

  49. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    18. January 2013 at 15:02

    John, I wasn’t making the argument that economists are more market friendly. I think they are more likely (than the general public) to favor high taxes on the rich, or a big gas tax, or fiscal stimulus, or lots of other interventions. On trade, yes, they are more market friendly.

    Steven Kopits, I knew my commenters would not let me down. BTW, I do know about sticky prices, i.e. your comment on price reductions doesn’t really address anything in my post. My comment was on asymmentry.

    Jseydl, Economists are far ahead of non-economists on this issue. Lots of studines of eleasticity, etc–the bottom line is that payments would save far more lives than they would cost. Tens of thousands of Americans have died in recent decades because of the ban on paying for organ transplants. The moral philosophers who favor those bans have blood on their hands. Years ago life insurance was viewed as being unethical—“Oh, imagine wagering on the death of one’s spouse! That should never be allowed.”

    And even if you were right, it would have no bearing on my post.

  50. Gravatar of JSeydl JSeydl
    19. January 2013 at 05:41


    Even if you’re right that marketizing organ and blood transplants would lead to more donations, that still doesn’t imply that we should relinquish power to the market. There are things in moral philosophy called intrinsic values. Marketization can, in many ways, degrade values like liberty, equality, and civic virtue. This is the whole point of Sandel’s book, “What Money Can’t Buy.”

    Saying that moral philosophers have “blood on their hands” because of their acknowledgement of intrinsic values is like saying that Paterno was a hero because he brought nearly 300 wins to Penn State.

  51. Gravatar of John John
    23. September 2013 at 06:53

    Doug M,

    Thomas Carlyle called economics the dismal science because economists in the 1800s were among the first to assert that race wasn’t important to their study of society. The fact that people were attacking the notion of the superiority of the white race made Carlyle sad. It’s a very misunderstood quotation.

  52. Gravatar of John John
    23. September 2013 at 06:54


    That book is a mindless repetition of old fallacies that economists have been logically crushing for the last 150 years.

  53. Gravatar of How to… – Anthony J. Evans How to… – Anthony J. Evans
    25. February 2020 at 01:27

    […] respond to the public’s expectations of economists […]

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