28 Nov 2008

Economics Is One Discipline With Low Perceived Barriers to Entry

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I know there is a much more eloquent Rothbard quote to this effect, but I want to second his observation: For some reason, many people have no hesitation in confidently offering views about economic topics even though they would be much more modest if it came to another specialty.

For example, at Thanksgiving I was talking with a perfectly pleasant and intelligent relative of my wife. We were chatting about our respective businesses. He explained that he did video editing, and I explained that I was an economist. I asked him a few questions about his line of work, and when I was explaining mine, the issue of price movements came up. I gave my standard spiel about the monetary base and prices taking off once the panic subsides. Then he confidently told me that it’s not a matter of how much money there is, but how fast it moves from person to person; it was like water moving through a pipe (I think was the simile he used).

Now his statement was fine as far as it went, but it just struck me how breezily he “corrected” my own views on monetary theory. It would be as if he told me how he knew where to stand when taping a wedding, and I said, “Well it’s not so much that, but rather that you have to ask the father of the bride where he wants you to stand, since he’s paying for it.”

To repeat, I’m not picking on this guy in particular; it’s just a recent example of something you see all the time. I think it’s partly because politics is so partisan that people don’t think there really is an objective science of economics. So since any random econ PhDs might disagree about price inflation next year–whereas two physics PhDs won’t disagree about the trajectory of the moon–people don’t take “trained professionals” seriously when they are economists.

However, I think there’s more to it than just that. I think most people have no idea how complicated an economic system actually is. And the last thing, people have a first-hand knowledge of the basic content of economics. So it really doesn’t seem hilarious for someone to pontificate about the causes of price movements, whereas that same person wouldn’t dream of “taking issue with” something a heart surgeon says about his job while passing the gravy.

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