The perils of studying economics

By | June 16, 2010

I think that basic economics, the way it is taught today, tends to give people reflexive pro-free market, anti-government positions — positions that arenot held by people with a deeper exposure to economic thinking. When your understanding of government finances is based on reading the newspaper, it’s somewhat eye-opening to come to college and learn that free markets lead to maximum societal welfare and taxes impose a deadweight loss on society — the pictures are so simple and compelling. That’s why a little bit of economics makes you more likely to be a Republican.

But when you learn more about principal-agent problems, information asymmetries, and so on, you learn that those simple pictures are simplistic to the point of being misleading. That’s why Joseph Stiglitz argues in Freefall that understanding economics is crucial to understanding why free markets often lead to suboptimal outcomes. The problem isn’t knowledge per se; it’s a little bit of knowledge.

The morals of this? If you want to be an economist make sure you stay and get a PhD in it.

From The Baseline Scenario.

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