Concept guy

Thomas Cargill

Photo By David Robert

To much of the public, economics is arcane at best, unintelligible at worst. Economist Thomas Cargill puts in more effort at explaining the economy to the public than most economists, and he is particularly useful to journalists because he speaks English.

You do a lot of public outreach, talking to reporters and so forth. Is it difficult getting economic concepts across to a generalized audience?

Yes. It’s frustrating. I’m a good teacher, so I know how to explain complicated concepts. And you spend the time to explain things. Whenever, you know, I’m interviewed, I try to provide background information and so forth, and then you see what comes out. Sometimes the quote that’s in the news media or on TV is accurate, but a lot of times it doesn’t get across the point you were trying to make. There’s a tendency to sensationalize, to sort of go for something that’s emotional, something that’s catchy, that sort of thing. So it’s really frustrating.

How about when you’re talking to community groups, service clubs or whatever? Do their eyes tend to glaze over?

No. Then I don’t have near the problem because I’m communicating personally to the recipient of the information, whereas in the news media, you’re going through the print. And on TV, 30 seconds just goes like a snap of the fingers. You just don’t have enough time to say anything. But when you’re giving a talk—body language, you can sort of pick up the body language of the audience, where you can see things are slipping, and you interject something to bring them up.

Do you think some economists make the problem worse by talking in jargon?

Yes, of course. If you listen to some of the talking heads on CNN or Fox News, they sometimes use that jargon. But I stay away from it because I know the audience, they’re not familiar with that jargon. For example, I don’t say the “federal funds rate;” I talk about short term interest rates.

There’s a character on The West Wing who said economists were put on this earth to make astrologers look good.

That’s a pretty condescending remark, and economists are the butt of a lot of jokes for that reason, and I think what it is, it reflects the [discomfort] of people who do the interviewing because they don’t really have much economic background, and they know it’s a technical area. So for lack of knowledge on their part, it’s easier to make fun of the person. … Alan Greenspan, there’s a story—I don’t know if it’s true. He was famous for saying a lot but not saying anything, and one time he gave congressional testimony, and a congressman said, “Governor Greenspan, thank you for your testimony, it was very, very clear.” And Greenspan said, “If it was clear to you, then you didn’t understand what I was saying.”

How should the public respond if economist A says a year from now things are going to be great and economist B says it’s going to be an economic disaster?

Generally, you don’t get that extreme of a view, but let’s say you did. What the public has to understand is economics is not an exact science. In fact, most economists don’t like to do forecasting. The only reason we do it is because people ask us to do it or pay us to do it.

One of our columnists this week is writing about economists in the mid-1800s experimenting with measuring happiness [see page 8].

Actually, it was 1789—Jeremy Bentham. I can’t remember the exact title of his book [Principles of Morals and Legislation]. … He developed what he called a felicific calculus—the calculus of happiness. It was an effort to measure pain and pleasure. … Economists by and large have rejected that. … There is a legal concept called Hedonic damages, where certain people claim they can measure the value of life. But the bottom line is, it’s junk science, and the only people who push it are plaintiff economists trying to get big numbers in the courtroom because you’re walking in there claiming you can do something that most economists say you can’t do. The underlying model is unreliable.