Bjorn Lomborg, a famous "climate change skeptic", is publishing a new book where he identifies climate change as one of the biggest problems facing the human race, which should be addressed by a carbon tax and billions invested in addressing the problem (HT - Tyler Cowen). All very shocking stuff, right? This pronouncement by Lomborg is going to electrify the environmentalist community and it will be presented as a major coup.
The problem is, as far as I can tell Lomborg isn't really saying anything new. He's always asserted that climate change is real and a problem, and he has always (like a huge portion of economists) identified a carbon tax as the solution.
I think the public's view of economists is driven by the weird way that economists think and interact (relative to everyone else at least). For example, economists are very good at compartmentalizing different parts of a problem, and they are also good at thinking speculatively. Thus, in Superfreakonomics, you have the authors speculating about the relationship between time preference and the mitigation of climate change. They set aside the question of whether we should do anything about the problem (let's say, for the sake of argument, that we should) and ask "what should we do?". It may be more efficient to wait until climate change is actually a problem and cheaply pump sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere to cool down the Earth, compared to the impoverishing impact of reducing our carbon consumption. Like it or not, this is a serious thing to consider: do we do painful remedies now when we are relatively technologically unadvanced, or do we do cheap remedies later when we'll have greater technical know-how anyway. Normal people don't think in terms of these time preferences and trade-offs... but economists are not normal people.
Lomborg is the same way - he's severely criticized Al Gore and other alarmists for hyping extreme scenarios and misleading the public about the reality of climate change. Normal people assume this means that Lomborg is somehow unconcerned about climate change. After all, Al Gore seems to have good intentions. Anyone criticizing Al Gore must not take climate change seriously. This is not the case at all.
Generally speaking, natural scientists approach natural science objectively and social issues subjectively and emotionally. The general public often approaches both natural and social science issues somewhat subjectively and emotionally. Economists tend to approach social questions quite objectively. You can't assume that because an economist opposes cap-and-trade he is unconcerned about climate change. You can't assume that because an economist opposes the minimum wage he is unconcerned about low-income families. You can't assume that because an economist supports large budget deficits they are unconcerned about fiscal responsibility. They may be unconcerned about those things, but not necessarily. They view these questions objectively, as scientific questions, whereas the general public sees them as moral questions. If you come out against any proposed climate change policy it is assumed that you don't care about climate change. If you come out against any policy purported by elected officials to help the poor or to bring responsibility to Washington, it is assumed that you don't care about those things.
Of course, part of "thinking like an economists" is laughing it off when people assume you're a monster... in retrospect this probably isn't very conducive to straightening things out.
Another important element of "thinking like an economists" is amicable arguing. Criticism among economists is famously vicious, but professional. This catches a lot of non-economists off guard, which is why I think Lomborg has been branded as an opponent of dealing with climate change (and actually - Lomborg is not an economist, although he is a social scientist and he does "think like an economist"). I've run into concern about this "amicable arguing" at Cafe Hayek a lot. People there have accused me of "disrespecting" Don Boudreaux and Russ Roberts. That's because most people argue with people they don't like and try to smooth out disagreements with people they like. Economists aren't like that, as anyone who has been to an academic workshop in economics can tell you. This is what I tried on several occasions to tell people commenting on Cafe Hayek - I'm just raising what I see as concerns with Don and Russ's argument. Patting them on the back for good points seems unnecessary and unproductive. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Don and Russ both get the same kind of scrutiny in their own workshops at GMU (just take a look at the Youtube debate between Bryan Caplan and Peter Boettke - amicable argument is the norm within economics departments).
Normal people don't generally act like this. Vigorous disagreement and disputation are taken as signs of opposition. Normal people try to cushion criticisms of friends, and let themselves go in criticisms of enemies. I've never seen that tendancy in economists. You don't do your friends any favors by indulging inaccuracy, and as Keynes said "There is no harm in being sometimes wrong- especially if one is promptly found out".
When you add all these things together: an eagerness to speculate, an ability to compartmentalize, objectivity on questions of social import (we can also think of this as a well tuned ability to distinguish between "is" and "ought" or positive and normative points), and an argumentative nature (even with friends), what you get is a group of people who can easily be mistaken as supporting something they actually oppose or opposing something they actually support. But that's not because we're being unclear about it - it's because you normal people are.
Liberty and Equality in Political Economy
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