In a comment here, I propose the creation of a new job, or jobs - professors for the public understanding of economics, analogous to the professorships at Bristol and Oxford which do the same for science.
I'm not thinking that such jobs should necessarily be part of a free market priesthood; there's more to proper economics than "Markets work, ner, ner". Instead, the role would be to try to inform the public of what economists know and don't. This would consist of at least three objectives:
- to enhance the public image of economics - for example, by demonstrating that there are rough consensuses on many issues, and by telling people at every opportunity that macroeconomic forecasting is not proper economics.
- to help people make better personal financial decisions by promoting financial literacy and by alerting people to the systematic cognitive biases that cause bad decision-making. For me, economics is not just - or even mainly - about policy, but about helping people with everyday decisions. There's tons that economists can do here.
I've no doubt that such positions are desirable. What I doubt is whether they are feasible. Even if such jobs existed, I'm not sure their holders could succeed. There are (at least) four big barriers here:
1. Incentives. The traditional "publish or perish" academic environment has incentivized new research over the public engagement I have in mind. It's not clear how far this will change with the REF's inclusion of "impact" as a factor in determining department's funding.
2. The "gee whizz" factor. Scientists have an advantage over economics in that they can highlight new discoveries or the wonders of the universe. Economics is inherently less exciting - in part because it often reminds people that there are very few free lunches and no easy road to riches.
3. Public prejudice. People - and the media - don't want to be told that the facts don't fit their prejudices. Telegraph readers won't want to hear evidence against austerity, nor Guardian readers evidence that markets sometimes work. And as Jonathan Portes knows, telling people facts about immigration is like reciting poetry to a pig.
4. Vested interests. Economic literacy would be a threat to many firms. Lobbyists for tax breaks would fall foul of the fact that the best tax systems are flat(tish) and simple; payday lenders would suffer if people knew the power of compounding; and few high-fee fund managers would survive in a world where investors knew that the efficient market hypothesis was a good working assumption.
What I'm saying here is the counterweight to what I said yesterday - as Jon Elster said, the opposite of a great truth is sometimes another great truth! Yes, there is a gulf between academic economists and the public. But the blame for this doesn't lie with academics alone.