When Civilizations Collide: Economists and Politicians

As is often the case in the clash of civilizations, politicians and economists find each other more than strange. In fact, there are important differences between the two groups, not only in their goals and incentives, but also in such fundamental areas as how they think and speak. For example:

Logics. You might think that logic is logic. However, I characterize the logic that economists use as Aristotelian logic, that is, the classical system of logic based on syllogisms, consequences, and deductive reasoning. Politicians often do not use this logic. Instead, they use what I call political logic—what works best with voters or other politicians they negotiate with.

Language. The logic-based language that we economists use in speech and writing is often dry—sometimes barely intelligible to nonspecialists. In contrast, the language that politicians like to speak and write is often bright and in pure English. But because it’s full of ornateness, economists tend to switch off when we hear it.

Calculation. … Economists use arithmetic and, if necessary, calculus. Economic equations can be complex, but they are simple in the sense that they follow the rules that most of us are taught in math class. But political arithmetic is different – it is weighed by influence. … Imagine a policy that generates $1 million for each of 10 people and costs 10 million people $2 each. By doing simple economic calculations, we can quickly see that the policy results in $10 million in profits and $20 million in losses. Thus, we conclude that this is probably a bad idea, unless there is a good reason for it, despite the loss of wealth. But if we apply political calculation to the same figures… [t]The 10 people it helps so much will pay close attention and maybe even express their gratitude with political donations. Meanwhile, the 10 million people who lost two dollars each probably won’t even notice. Thus, politics has a political meaning.

Intelligence. Academic economists value traditional intelligence because it is defined by things like high IQ, good ideas, and the ability to express those ideas. Success in academic economics does not usually depend on people’s skills. On the other hand, successful politicians are much more dependent on their social and emotional intelligence. …

Goals. Political economists usually try to maximize social welfare. Politicians, of course, are trying to maximize their chances of being elected or re-elected, which may not correlate with the public good.

Policy evaluation. The aspect of politics that matters to economists is the content of the policy: is it really good for society? What matters in the political world is, naturally, politics and the message associated with politics. It sounds good? Needless to say that is good and what sounds the good ones don’t always match.

Concern. The main concern of economists is efficiency: we talk about it, think about it, dream about it. But efficiency isn’t much of a concern to politicians, who are much more concerned with fairness, or perceived fairness, which is a broad concept that encompasses the distribution of income, but also much more.