Economics for progressives: The Daniel Klein survey explains a lot

Who's smarter than a fifth grader in economics? Not the progressive left, according to pollsters and one academic economist.
Daniel Klein had a revealing must-read piece in the Wall Street Journal detailing the dearth of economics knowledge among the so-called “reality-based” community. The upshot? The people running our country probably don't understand basic supply and demand, much less the benefits of trade. Here's a slice:

Who is better informed about the policy choices facing the country—liberals, conservatives or libertarians? According to a Zogby International survey that I write about in the May issue of Econ Journal Watch, the answer is unequivocal: The left flunks Econ 101.

Zogby researcher Zeljka Buturovic and I considered the 4,835 respondents' (all American adults) answers to eight survey questions about basic economics. We also asked the respondents about their political leanings:

progressive/very liberal; liberal; moderate; conservative; very conservative; and libertarian….Consider one of the economic propositions in the December 2008 poll: “Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.” People were asked if they: 1) strongly agree; 2) somewhat agree; 3) somewhat disagree; 4) strongly disagree; 5) are not sure.

Basic economics acknowledges that whatever redeeming features a restriction may have, it increases the cost of production and exchange, making goods and services less affordable. There may be exceptions to the general case, but they would be atypical.

Therefore, we counted as incorrect responses of “somewhat disagree” and “strongly disagree.” This treatment gives leeway for those who think the question is ambiguous or half right and half wrong. They would likely answer “not sure,” which we do not count as incorrect.

In this case, percentage of conservatives answering incorrectly was 22.3%, very conservatives 17.6% and libertarians 15.7%. But the percentage of progressive/very liberals answering incorrectly was 67.6% and liberals 60.1%. The pattern was not an anomaly.

Honestly, I am a little bit surprised by this result. If I'd tried to predict the outcome, I would have said that most people who lean left are at least aware of economic realities but that ideology compels them to ignore these considerations (as often with Paul Krugman whose condition I've referred to elsewhere as Krugmania). It turns out, we can't even be that charitable. Most progressives are just plain economically illiterate – and that is not an ad hominem attack. It is an unfortunate but statistically accurate statement.

Now as it happens, this survey goes very far in explaining a lot of things — like why we get so many economically destructive policies coming out of Washington (not to mention why popular sovereignty ain't all it's cracked up to be).

These results also support Bryan Caplan's thesis that people are “rationally irrational” voters. That is, when there is no direct consequence (e.g. harm) for them to vote for an economically-challenged person or program, it may be “rational” for them to do so–particularly if they feel good when they do. For example, the overwhelming evidence is that open, cross-border trade benefits all parties involved and economies taken a whole. But people so often resist this truth during recessions.

When there are economic troubles, you get a lot of protectionist sentiment (irrational policy). But to vote for a protectionist policy doesn't always translate directly into an ostensible harm to the voter. So it's not, strictly speaking, “irrational” (i.e. counter to your well-being in the narrowest sense) to make that vote. Indeed, when you couple that with the low-cost proposition of their punching a card for “their team” and feeling like they've done something great to help 'make the world a better place,' you've got all the makings of support for fuzzy economic logic and screwy policies. 

None of this, by the way, is meant to exempt Republicans or conservatives from floating dumb economic policies themselves, much less politicians with an R by their names from running with them. It happens all the time. What I'd like to suggest is that increasing the public's knowledge base of economics might go a long way towards restoring sane, growth-enhancing (private-sector job creating) economic policies.

(For more on this subject, read about the Bone-headed Biases of voters. And just as I was wrapping this post up, another related finding came across my desk. In this one, people who study economics are more likely to vote Republican. (I assume for the moment this is correlation and not causation.))

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