Economists and Dentists
Bob Dole recently staked his credibility on a tax cut and a supply-side running mate, and already economists of all leanings smell blood. Representatives of the dismal science have begun barraging Americans with their often contradictory numbers and predictions. But before we dismiss economists, and certainly before we trust them, we should try to understand them.
John Maynard Keynes once compared economists to dentists. His comparison both succeeds and fails. It succeeds if interpreted the way Keynes intended it: as a comment on the humility that economists should share with tooth doctors. The comparison, however, will fail those who understand it to mean that economists and dentists share a certainty concerning problems and prescriptions. It will mislead those who believe, as many Americans do, that avoiding a recession is as straightforward as extracting a tooth.
A more popular comparison might be to physicists. People look at economics and see a hard science, a discipline obsessed with meticulous graphs and mind-bending equations. Money and employment and interest rates are measurable quantities, apparently impervious to the kind of interpretation that characterizes the study of literature and philosophy and politics.
We expect economists to furnish the facts that must precede a popular debate. Physicists invent the atomic bomb so that the rest of us can decide whether to build it, and economists explain the effects of a tax cut so that the rest of us can argue.
How frustrated we must be when economists disagree! Voters have no time to understand the atom; few Americans pull their own teeth. Why should they be expected to tackle deficit spending? …