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Trusting economists has never been harder

Economics, A Very Short Introduction by Partha Dasgupta discusses Trust in only the second chapter. Given that this book was my first introduction to the field and I did not know what to expect, I believe I may be forgiven for having questioned the worth of naming the entire chapter ‘Trust’.

However, one of the things I now know is that economists say that trust is crucial in societies. Economics tells us that nations in which people trust one another are more open with stronger institutions, involving less corruption, and they inherently grow faster.

It may just be time that economists begin to appreciate that – as much as politicians may need to work on their image – the trust that society puts in economists is itself at risk.

One of the recent examples where the advice of economists was arguably ignored is Brexit

To give you one of the recent examples where the advice of economists was arguably ignored is Brexit. Nine out of 10 of the country’s top economists working across academia, the City, industry, small businesses and the public sector believed that Brexit will be harmful to the British economy, according to the biggest survey of its kind ever conducted in 2016. Nevertheless, we saw the UK voting to leave.

You may not instantly form a direct link between the outcome of the 2016 Brexit Referendum and how much the British society trusts economists in general. But separate polling by YouGov in 2016 showed that 63 per cent of the remain voters in 2016 trusted the economists and 57 per cent of the leave voters distrusted economists. This means that people who voted leave were more likely to distrust economists, albeit other factors also play a role here. Now that is a link.

Economists have failed to build the nations they talk about, the markets they study […] and the societies their jargon dares to encourage everyday people to dream of

I am not going into the Leave vs Remain battle of Brexit here. This is an article about economists and to put it in the simplest way possible, people seem to have had enough of them. And why not? Economists discuss households and firms, ideal markets and allocation of resources. To me, these sound like just the topics one wants the governments to focus on and fix and yet economists have failed to build the nations they talk about, the markets they study and teach and the societies their jargon dares to encourage everyday people to dream of. It is not just a matter of them, perhaps inadvertently but nevertheless, selling fantasy to society as facts but also failing to explain why such theories are not realised.

Economics is a very young and popular field. It was the publication of a book by Adam Smith in 1776 that effectively marked the birth of Economics as a distinct field. The popularity of economics stems from the fact that it is the study of the societies we live in and the goods and services we rely on for everything. It is this general curiosity in people to learn about the social world around us that the economists have failed to appease. Their convoluted sentences and jargon alienates the rest of society from their approaches and when they exclude the ‘social’ aspect from the social science that economics is, economists cease to be good social scientists. Perhaps like we have science communication to bring science to general members of the public, it is time economists find the time to do something similar so that people know what economics tells us and can rightfully judge who to blame when they feel they have been let-down – be it the politicians, media or the economists.

Seeing the unexpected happening should always be expected and this is something often not stated in addition to the statistics that ultimately reach the people

Not only do they fail to explain to people why things don’t work out, but also don’t openly admit mistakes and how they were made. This particularly applies to the understated degree of uncertainty that is intrinsic in their field. Economics is not a science but a social science. It is a study of societies and humans are simply not that rational. Seeing the unexpected happening should always be expected and this is something often not stated in addition to the statistics that ultimately reach the people.

Going back to Brexit, there were statistics thrown at people by both the Leave and the Remain campaign and it was confusing to see economics saying two different things; or at least that is how it seemed. Politics and economics may go well together but they are two distinct fields. Economists should ensure that, while they have their personal political opinions, they do not let their field seem as though it gives different results based on whether the numbers put in are by the leavers or remainers, the left-wing or right-wing supporters or republicans or democrats. There is no perceived sense of unity in economics when it is viewed by an outsider, perhaps because the personal interpretation of economists counts too, but there should regardless be greater emphasis by economists to ensure and explain to people that the neutrality of their field isn’t compromised with for the sake of achieving results that support their personal views.

Economists should not only be careful themselves but guard the integrity of their field from external manipulation. Be it a single statistic or an entire policy, if they see any lies being stated in the media or by politicians in the name of economics, they should see it as a responsibility to point it out and correct it and inform the public of their findings.

For these reasons, we are seeing a shift in public trust in economists. While in this article I have discussed how economists are losing trust because of their own slip-ups, I do urge you to study economics before you judge it. Reading the book I mentioned at the start may just serve as the beginning and I’ll leave you with a quote from that book to finish off: “Just as circles can’t be squared, ideal voting rules don’t exist, ideal markets as a pleasant myth, and ideal governments can’t be conjured up because governments are run by people. If all this feels overly depressing, let us acknowledge that the human losses we see round us aren’t due to any of these analytical difficulties [in economics] …They happen because humans have yet to learn how to live with one another.”

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