Economists Keep Getting It Wrong Because the Media Coverup Their Mistakes

Teamsters union members hold signs that reads, 'NAFTA kills' in San Diego on Oct. 19, 2011. (Photo: Gregory Bull/AP)

Economists Keep Getting It Wrong Because the Media Coverup Their Mistakes

Most workers suffer serious consequences when they mess up on their jobs. Custodians get fired if the toilet is not clean. Dishwashers lose their job when they break too many dishes, but not all workers are held accountable for the quality of their work.

At the top of the list of people who need not be competent to keep their job are economists. Unlike workers in most occupations, when large groups of economists mess up they can count on the media covering up their mistakes and insisting it was just impossible to understand what was going on.

This is first and foremost the story of the housing bubble. While it was easy to recognize that the United States and many other countries were seeing massive bubbles that were driving their economies, which meant that their collapse would lead to major recessions, the vast majority of economists insisted there was nothing to worry about.

The bubbles did burst, leading to a financial crisis, double-digit unemployment in many countries, and costing the world tens of trillions of dollars of lost output. The media excused this extraordinary failure by insisting that no one saw the bubble and that it was impossible to prevent this sort of economic and human disaster. Almost no economists suffered any consequences to their career as a result of this failure. The "experts" who determined policy in the years after the crash were the same people who completely missed seeing the crash coming.

We are now seeing the same story with trade. The NYT has a major magazine article on the impact of trade on the living standards of workers in the United States and other wealthy countries. The subhead tells readers:

"Trade is under attack in much of the world, because economists failed to anticipate the accompanying joblessness, and governments failed to help."

Of course many economists did not anticipate the negative impact of trade, but of course many of us did. The negative impact was entirely predictable and predicted. (Here are a few from CEPR, there are many more books and papers from my friends at the Economic Policy Institute.) The argument is straightforward: trade policy has been designed to put manufacturing workers in direct competition with low paid workers in the developing world. This costs jobs and puts downward pressure on the wages of these workers. It also puts downward pressure on the wages of less-educated workers more generally, as displaced manufacturing workers seek jobs in retail and other sectors. Stagnating wages and increasing inequality are the predicted result of this pattern of trade, not a surprising outcome.

If economists were like custodians and dishwashers, the failure to recognize this obvious outcome of trade policy would have put them out on the street. Instead, we get major news outlets like the New York Times, telling us this is all a remarkable surprise. No one could have seen that trade would have bad outcomes for large segments of the workforce. Rather than lose their jobs, economists can still draw comfortable six figure salaries as they tell reporters how it was impossible for them to understand the economy.

Economic theory tells us that if economists don't face consequences for completely messing up on the job then they have no incentive to get things right. If the custodian never pays any price for not cleaning the toilet, then they won't clean the toilet. In the same way, if the media and the country always grant a "who could have known" amnesty to large chunks of the economics profession when it gets things completely wrong, then there is no reason to expect that economists will ever get things right. All they have to do is say the same things as other elite economists say, and if it turns out to be wrong, the NYT will just run major news articles explaining that no one could have known better.

There is one other important point that needs emphasis here. There was nothing inherent to trade that required growing inequality, it was the structure of trade policy that gave us this result. There are millions of very bright ambitious people in the developing world who would be very happy to study to meet U.S. standards and work as doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals in the United States. We could have designed trade agreements to facilitate this process.

The result would be massive economic gains in the form of lower cost health care, dental care, legal services and other professionals services. In the case of physicians alone, if the increased supply brought the pay of our doctors down to the levels of Western Europe and Canada, we would save close to $100 billion a year. This comes to roughly $700 a year in savings for every family in the United States. And, this would lead to a reduction in inequality.

Our elite economists have chosen not to discuss this sort of trade opening. (They also rarely discuss reducing rather than increasing protectionist barriers like patents and copyrights.) These issues are discussed in more depth in my forthcoming book, Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer (coming to a website near year in October). But the key point here is that economists should know better, and if they were doing their job, they did.

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