Monday, April 24, 2006

The Optimal Use of Economists' Time

I received this email over the weekend:

Hi Professor Mankiw,

I am from Ireland and have an economics degree. We had to study your economics books 'Principles of Economics' and the intermediate level 'Macroeconomics' throughout the course, and I found them not only very insightful, but also incredibly well written. I have been reading your blog a lot as well, and find it equally well written.

At the moment I think that there is a dearth of 'popular' economics books, the exception being Tim Harford's 'Undercover Economist'. Popular books are endlessly written on science (which has entire sections of bookshops devoted to it) politics, philosophy etc, but almost none on popular economics. This is, in my opinion, a serious problem as there is a considerable degree of economic illiteracy among non-economics graduates. I put the question 'why is ireland rich and africa poor?' to many of my friends recently, who study law, science and even business (but not economics), and their response was depressing. The main answer was that Africa was 'dominated by western multinational companies', with variations on it being that ireland stole goods from the third world or conducted 'unfair' trading practices, to the alarming 'ireland is rich because it has a minimum wage'.

In light of this I think that you should write a popular economics textbook. The first lesson in opportunity cost I had was from Ben Bernanke's own 'Principles of Economics' where he asked the question (p 50) 'should Greg Mankiw mow his own lawn?'. He pointed out that even though you could mow the lawn quicker than someone you might hire to do so, that it still did not pay to do it, as in that time you could be writing an economics textbook and making millions. I think you should apply that logic to writing a popular economics book - you could make millions. Also, as an economist, you can exploit a 'gap' in the market, and as Tim Harford has shown, there is demand for it.

Think about it, in the time it has taken to read this email (if you have, of course) you could be writing a popular economics book, each extra minute costs you money. What are you waiting for? You would not only make a lot of money, but you would do the world a favour. The positive externalities resulting from its publication, showing people how the world really works, or, as Harford puts it showing 'why poor countries are poor' would be enormous. Write write write!

[name withheld]

PS If you do write it, try and organise it to be dropped on France, for free, and in large quantities. You would be doing Europe, and in particular my own country (whom France is repeatedly trying to bring into line with the nightmare 'European Social Model' through the EU, regarding us as a neoliberal trojan horse), a favour.

The email alludes to a pervasive phenomenon: A relatively small percentage of professional economists' time is devoted to educating the broad public. (I am not counting educating students in the classroom or through textbooks). Occassionally, there are some big hits, such as Freakonomics, but they are few and far between, and even Freakonomics emphasized off-beat facts rather than economic fundamentals.

Most top economists spend most of their time writing for each other rather than for non-specialists. Having spent much of my time writing for those obscure scholarly journals, I won't be too hard on the activity. However, I have often wondered whether our profession has misallocated resources, given the pervasiveness of economic ignorance.

I am always delighted when good young economists (such as Alan Krueger, Tyler Cowen, and Austan Goolsbee) venture outside the Ivory Tower to write for broader audiences. They are following in the footsteps of some great economists before them: Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman, for example, wrote for Newsweek for many years. I remember reading those columns when I was a student. They certainly helped inspire me to enter the field.

I tried my hand as a columnist for Fortune magazine some years ago. You can find my old columns here. Maybe I will try a book for the general public at some point. Right now, this blog is scratching that itch.

Why don't we see more economists writing for broad audiences? The answer is that economists, like other people, respond to incentives. The email writer is wrong: Economists writing this kind of thing don't "make millions." Freakonomics may be the only exception in my lifetime. Moreover, writing for the general public is not rewarded very much by university deans and hiring committees, who are more interested in articles in scholarly journals than in op-eds in the Wall Street Journal or books on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Perhaps it would be good if the economics profession rewarded this kind of activity more highly. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “It seems to me that at this time we need education in the obvious more than the investigation of the obscure.”