Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Communication skills and economics

Peter Boettke writes at Coordination problem that
Dan [Stastny] concludes this wonderful book [The Economics of Economics] by informing his readers that for economics to be respected and to have its teachings heeded, "it may not only needs its Samuelsons, Friedmans or Hayeks, but also its Cobdens, Brights, and Bastiats. When economists figure this out, there will be a better chance that they may at last become as important as garbagemen, at least in the eyes of those who consider handling of ideas as momentous as handling of garbage."
While Stastny is right about the importance of communicating economic ideas to the general public, I'm not sure that its the job of economists, as such, to do it. Specialisation and the division of labour suggests to me that there are advantages to people doing whatever is their comparative advantage. In general it seems to me that there gains to be exploited when economists write for their peers, while economic journalists write for the general public. Would we really have gained anything if Ronald Coase had spent his time explaining his "The Nature of the Firm" paper to the general public rather than writing "The Problem of Social Cost" or Henry Hazlitt had written journal articles on mechanism design rather than "Economics in One Lesson"? We have to ask, What is the opportunity cost of having economists try to communicate directly with all of their "scientific peers, students, policy makers, and the general public", as Boettke suggests. Trying to create people with a comparative advantage in all four areas defies the economic logic behind specialisation. You can't have a comparative advantage in everything.

1 comment:

Eric Crampton said...

We already have that division of labour among economists. You'd be wasting Walter Williams's talents if you commanded that he spend no time on communication to broader audiences and all his time trying to get something into the AER.

Instead of looking at Coase, think about the median member of the AEA. Does he do more good trying to prove new truths, or in trying to help broadcast what we already know?