Sunday, August 26, 2012

I'm Debating with Myself About Whether to Trust Drug Lords or Economists

J1: It's funny, as I research about the financial crisis, I keep seeing various arguments prefaced with "As Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist, notes . . ."

J2: What's funny about that?

J1: It's just that the phrase "Nobel Prize-winning economist" seems to be used as a debate stopper. As in, "Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist—DID I MENTION NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING ECONOMIST—said it, ergo . . . " The phrase "Nobel Prize-winning economist" is the "thus sayeth the Lord" of the modern age.

J2: I don't see it like that. People include the tag about the Nobel Prize simply to explain who Krugman is. They don't necessarily use the phrase to stop a debate.

J1: Maybe. It's just that Krugman won the Nobel Prize for his work on global trade patterns—a niche in the field—and so he might not necessarily be an expert on all economic topics, at least compared with other economists. Why bring up the Nobel Prize?

J2: Because it's a big deal. Thousands of experts nominate the prize winners. The Nobel Prize isn't granted via a game of eeny meeny miny moe.

J1: That's true. Though that is a pleasant image—a panel of Swedes skipping around a circle of economists . . .

J2: But it's not how it works. The people who get nominated for the Nobel Prize in economics generally deserve it.

J1: Oh, that's not my point. My point might be best explained by Friedrich Hayek, who said—

J2: Who won the Nobel Prize for economics.

J1: I wasn't going to say that.

J2: He did, though.

J1: Okay, but he was against the idea of a Nobel Prize for economics. He said that "the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess" and he continued with,

There is no reason why a man who has made a distinctive contribution to economic science should be omnicompetent on all problems of society . . . One is even made to feel it a public duty to pronounce on problems to which one may not have devoted special attention.
J2: That's a nice sentiment, but I'd still take the view of an economist—the view of anyone with a PhD, really—over the view of the mindless American public. At least someone with a PhD knows how to think.

J1: And the rest of the public doesn't know how to think?

J2: Many of them don't seem to. I just read an article that listed 6 policies economists almost uniformly agree would be good, and they were all policies a politician would never endorse because the public wouldn't stand for it.

J1: What policies?

J2: I won't list them all here because they're mostly wonky economic stuff, but one of them is to legalize marijuana.

J1: Yeah, that's a hard platform to win on.

J2: So these economists from all over the political spectrum agree that legalizing marijuana would be good for the country, but the mindless public disagrees. That's a problem.

J1: I'm not so sure. I mean, I think marijuana should be legalized, but the thing is, economists aren't the only experts working on that particular problem.

J2: Who else is working on it?

J1: That gets to the right question: Who is the expert? Economists, or the Drug Enforcement Agency, or prison wardens, or jail guards, or cops, or drug lords, or drug users, or the mom whose son keeps smoking marijuana against her wishes?

J2: I'd say the economist best understands the big picture.

J1: I'd say the collective best understands the big picture. Take the opinion of individual economists, who may or may not have written papers specifically on marijuana, but also take the opinion of prisoners, guards, the DEA, mothers, and so on. It's true that the average person is uninformed about economics, but when it comes to certain areas like drug deals on the street, some people—like drug lords, for instance—might be a more credible source than economists.

J2: You'd hold the opinion of a drug lord equal to the opinion of an economist?

J1: Well, maybe the opinion of a former drug lord . . .

J2: I didn't take you for a fool before, but now . . .

J1: Think of it this way. Say there's a former drug lord, someone who's been in the industry for 20 years, who understands the mind of an addict and how the drug market works. Then take an economist who has specialized in how to price interest-rate derivatives on Wall Street. Why is the economist a shoe-in for the expert on drug laws?

J2: Because a former drug lord probably doesn't have the best interests of America in mind. If he wants to legalize marijuana, it's probably just to put his former competitors out of business—not because it's the best thing to do.

J1: That may be true.

J2: And what about the collective opinion of economists versus the collective opinion of former drug lords?

J1: Regarding marijuana? In that case . . . I'd probably go with the economists. My point, though, is that, yes, the American public is mindless on lots of issues, but the American public also consists of millions of experts. Every public consists of fools and experts, every person consists of foolishness and expertise. I mean, we might not need the opinions of drug lords very often, but they're still experts on certain topics.

J2: Experts with bad motives.

J1: I don't know if any of us is ever entirely clean, even when we try to be.

J2: But some people clearly have better motives than others . . .

J1: That's true. But maybe that's a topic for another conversation?

J2: Sometimes I get the feeling you say that whenever I win the argument.

J1: Sometimes I get the feeling I say that whenever I win the argument.


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