The Consensus of Economists

Something that made the rounds a couple weeks ago was a survey of the views of professional economists. I thought the survey was interesting. It reminded me of the introduction to Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics, one of my favorite economics books. Sowell started off with what every economist of every political and theoretical persuasion could agree upon. I'd be interested to re-read the book now, to see whether I felt quite the same way about the list of items in that book as I did about the list of items in the survey.

I suppose the survey is more narrowly focused upon policy, while Sowell was trying to get at the basic science of economics, but for a number of items on the list that the surveyed economists overwhelming supported, I have to wonder whether these are really good ideas. For example:

  • 77.2 percent agree that "the best way to deal with Social Security's long-term funding gap is to increase the normal retirement age."

This would in fact solve the funding problem, but is it really good to ask those who have been working for 40 or more years to work even longer? Granted that people are living longer, and being healthy longer, this seems like trouble.


  • 87.5 percent agree that "the U.S. should eliminate remaining tariffs and other barriers to trade."

I understand this argument too, but I still have my doubts. In a very technical sense, allowing free trade is an economic optimum, but I suspect that it is an unstable optimum. For example, outsourcing a great deal of our consumer goods to China and other Far Eastern locales has resulted in cheaper goods, but at the same time few of those countries have especially stellar environmental monitoring, or even worker safety programs. It is not clear to me that the benefits and costs of this whole enterprise are well-distributed. Especially since in America the problem with being poor is not a lack of stuff. Everyone has loads of stuff.

Perhaps my disquiet comes from the fact that economists have advanced their science by focusing on quantifiable measures and mathematical models, but they have lost sight of the common good. If an economist writes a book about what economics is, I'm OK with the consensus of economists, but I'm less likely to acquiesce when we need to decide what we all need to do. I get a vote too.