52 – Thinking like an economist 16: Weaknesses of economists

As part of a survey of policy makers and policy advisers in 2002 I asked, “In your view, what are the common weaknesses of economists in their attempts to influence policy?” The responses should be helpful to economists who want to make a difference.

There were two strong themes in the responses. The first relates to the narrowness of the economics paradigm and of the advice its practitioners provide. There were so many responses around this theme that it ought to focus economists’ attention firmly onto this issue.

Too isolated from other disciplines. (Gary Stoneham, DNRE Victoria).

A tendency to be too academic rather than pragmatic. They may be seen as not in touch with the real world. (Mark Altus, Department of Treasury and Finance, Western Australia).

Too often economic advice is one-dimensional. [Economists] try to promote a “pure” economic thesis and do not readily try to deal with non-quantitative information or intangibles. This usually results in a narrow range of options. (Graeme Robertson, Department of Agriculture Western Australia).

The inability of many economists to understand and well explain the diversity of values and issues which can be taken into account within a micro reform framework. For example, too often we hear that economists are not interested in certain non-monetary values i.e. lifestyle, welfare, equity, environment, ethics, etc. (Scott Davenport, NSW Agriculture).

They take for granted the liberal foundations of at least micro-economics. (John Hyde, former member of Federal Parliament).

Their reform suggestions, if they get to Boards of Management, can be seen as being narrowly defined. (Don McFarlane, Water and Rivers Commission, Western Australia).

A belief that efficiency is a necessary precondition rather than something that can be traded off against other objectives. (Mike Young, CSIRO Land and Water).

They think “economics” is self evident and sufficient in itself. (Roger Payne, Director General, Water and Rivers Commission, Western Australia).

Tendency to under-emphasise non-quantitative information. (Phil Connolly, NSW Treasury).

Too little attention to private and public transaction costs. (Ian Wills, Monash University).

The call for a broad perspective does not imply that economists should attempt to dominate the intellectual high ground. Modesty in claims for the discipline is important; we are only once source of information contributing to a broad decision process.

The second large set of responses related to the quality of economists’ communication. In summary, respondents felt that economists tend to use too much jargon, and to communicate in ways that are too elaborate and technical for non-economists

They argue for other economists. (John Hyde, former member of Federal Parliament).

[They should] avoid using jargon. (Mike Young, CSIRO Land and Water).

Make sure they are talking to the audience and not their colleagues over the heads of the audience. (Alistair Watson, Freelance Economist).

What sounds perfectly acceptable to a fellow economist might be incomprehensible or even offensive to a policy maker with a different background. Therefore, it is essential that economists develop their ability to describe their proposals in a manner that is comprehensible to economists and non-economists alike. (Phil Connolly, NSW Treasury).

I would say that economists are not the only discipline to sin in these ways in communication. Sociologists are possibly the worst offenders with jargon, and some highly technical sciences are not much better. I don’t believe it is that hard to avoid. Mostly it is a habit of speech that one can break with a little care and effort.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Pannell, D.J. (2004). Effectively communicating economics to policy makers. Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 48(3): 535-555. full paper from journal (138K pdf) also available via the Journal homepage: