3 Kinds of Economic Ignorance..

Steven Horwitz of St. Lawrence University has a must read piece on economic ignorance. The attack is on politicians who are not just ignorant about economics but ignorant about their own ignorance. A bigger problem is pretence of knowledge.

The focus is on US politicians and policymakers but applies universally:

Nothing gets me going more than overt economic ignorance.

I know I’m not alone. Consider the justified roasting that Bernie Sanders got on social media for wondering why student loans come with interest rates of 6 or 8 or 10 percent while a mortgage can be taken out for only 3 percent. (The answer, of course, is that a mortgage has collateral in the form of a house, so it is a lower-risk loan to the lender than a student loan, which has no collateral and therefore requires a higher interest rate to cover the higher risk.)

When it comes to economic ignorance, libertarians are quick to repeat Murray Rothbard’s famous observation on the subject:

It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a “dismal science.” But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.

Economic ignorance comes in different forms, and some types of economic ignorance are less excusable than others. But the most important implication of Rothbard’s point is that the worst sort of economic ignorance is ignorance about your economic ignorance. There are varying degrees of blameworthiness for not knowing certain things about economics, but what is always unacceptable is not to recognize that you may not know enough to be speaking with authority, nor to understand the limits of economic knowledge.

He says there are 3 kinds of ignorance – ignoring known economic ideas, know how of data and knowing schools of thought. The first one is not excusable, second is a little excusable and third most excusable:

1. What Isn’t Debated: Let’s start with the least excusable type of economic ignorance: not knowing agreed-upon theories or results in economics. There may not be a lot of these, but there are more than nonspecialists sometimes believe….

2. Interpreting the Data: A second type of economic ignorance that is, in my view, less blameworthy is ignorance of economic data. As Rothbard observed, economics is a specialized discipline, and nonspecialists can’t be expected to know all the relevant theories and facts. There are a lot of economic data out there to be searched through, and often those data require careful statistical interpretation to be easily applied to questions of public policy. Economic data sources also requiretheoretical interpretation. Data do not speak for themselves — they must be integrated into a story of cause and effect through the framework of economic theory. That said, in the world of the Internet, a lot of basic economic data are available and not that hard to find. The problem is that many people believe that certain empirical facts are true and don’t see the need to verify them by actually checking the data….

3. Different Schools of Thought: The third type of economic ignorance, and the least blameworthy, is ignorance of the multiple perspectives within the discipline of economics. There are multiple schools of thought in economics, and many empirical questions and historical facts have a variety of explanations. So a movie like The Big Short that clearly suggests that the financial crisis and Great Recession were caused by a lack of regulation might be persuasive to people who have never heard analternative explanation that blames the combination of Federal Reserve policy and misguided government intervention in the housing market for the problems. One can make similar points about the Great Depression and the difference between Hayekian and Keynesian explanations of business cycles more generally.

However, ignorance mixed with arrogance is where things get the worst:

What is missing from all of these types of economic ignorance — and what is often missing from knowledgeable economists themselves — is what we might call “epistemic humility,” or a willingness to admit how little we know. Noneconomists are often unable to recognize how little they know about economics, and economists are often unable to admit how little they know about the economy.

Real economic “expertise” is not just mastery of theories and facts. It is a deeper understanding of the variety of interpretations of those theories and facts and humility in the face of our limits in applying that knowledge in attempting to manage an economy. The smartest economists are the ones who know the limits of economic expertise.

Commentators with opinions on economic matters, whether presidential candidates or Facebook friends, could, at the very least, indicate that they may have biases or blind spots that lead to uses of data or interpretive frameworks with which experts might disagree.

Most econs behave just the opposite. The problem is the incentives where we are made to hide ignorance and just go full on. Actually, reading economics and doing research makes you realise that one should be really careful of his/her views. They come with so many assumptions which may not be understood by most. But we just do the opposite and make others believe how we know so much economics and can economically uplift all the people.



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