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The Making of an Economist, Redux
Princeton University Press, 2007
280 pp., $29.95
by Robert Whaples
More About Less
For generations people have hated economists, who seem to smile when delivering the bad news that there's no such thing as a free lunch. If you increase the minimum wage by X percent, they warn, Y percent of teen workers will lose their jobs. If you expand government subsidies to families without health insurance, like Scrooge they caution that millions will stop buying health insurance on their own and let taxpayers pick up the tab. If you cut interest rates to spur investment, you're liable to unleash the beast of inflation, they admonish.
At the same time many people stand in awe of economists. If a slew of economists sign a petition saying that some public policy will have a host of dire side effects, the media and even politicians are likely to pay attention. If sociologists, anthropologists or even psychologists were to do the same, it's possible that no one would take note. (The U.S. President has a Council of Economic Advisors but not a Council of Sociological Advisors.) If a survey says four out of five economists recommend a policy, it's almost like hearing that four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum to their patients who chew gum.
Why do people pay attention to economists so much? Perhaps it's because economists deal with big, important things that people really care about—money, for instance—or because economists seem so analytical, unswayed by passion, letting empirical evidence and formal models answer questions for them. Rather than relying on gut feelings or using a lot of fuzzy adjectives, they tend to give precise magnitudes when they offer advice—and their tools seem to be pretty good at plausibly isolating cause and effect. Perhaps people pay attention simply because most economists are extremely smart. To receive a Ph.D. in economics you've got to earn a stratospherically high score on your gres, learn a lot of advanced math and statistics, and endure a gauntlet of grueling graduate courses. The hurdles to entering the ...