Intro. [Recording date: November 8, 2018.]
Russ Roberts: Before introducing today's guest, I want to correct an error I made in a recent episode. At the end of the episode with Alan Lightman, I read a quote from Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia. And in the middle of that quote Stoppard's character quotes from the poem "She Walks in Beauty": 'She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that's best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes'. Four beautiful lines. I pointed out incorrectly that that poet of those lines was Shelley. In fact, it's Lord Byron. They overlapped almost exactly in their lifespan; but that's an inexcusable error, though. I apologize to Lord Byron. And it's a particularly bad mistake because Byron, while not an onstage character in Arcadia, he does get discussed a lot. So he feels like a character. I want to thank listener Larry Guthrie for pointing out my misattribution. We've corrected it in the Highlights.
Russ Roberts: And now on to today's guest. She is Maeve Cohen, the director of Rethinking Economics, an organization working to reform how economics is taught and understood. And, that reform is our topic for today.... So, how did Rethinking Economics get started?
Maeve Cohen: So, I went to university in 2012--so, quite soon after the global Financial Crisis. And I was also studying politics and philosophy. And it was quite astounding to me, the way that I was being taught these different subjects. So, politics and philosophy was looking at different ways that you could view these things, and drawing on different value bases that you could have and really exploring the discipline like that. Whereas economics was taught as this one way of thinking about economics as if it's fact, with no [?] critical analysis of anything that was happening. And, notably, no mention of the financial crash that had just happened and was affecting a lot of our lives. And so, me, and some fellow students, a group called Post-Crash Economics at the U. of Manchester, to try and reform the curriculum at Manchester. And, at the same time there were groups doing this--we found out after the fact--all across Europe, and now it's all across the world--who were similarly very discontent with the economics that they were learning and wanted to campaign for curriculum reform. So, now we are 53 groups in 25 different countries of students at universities campaigning for curriculum reform.
Russ Roberts: And, you were at Manchester, in England. I don't think your experience would be that much different from a student in the United States. I don't think that the Financial Crisis had much of an impact on how economics is taught in the United States, either. Which I, like you--I find it somewhat surprising. I'm not as shocked by it. I think I'm probably somewhat equally disturbed by that fact as you are, but maybe for different reasons, that we'll explore later on. But, I think what has happened--if I had to guess, and I'm not an expert on this, but if I had to guess--I think most textbooks have responded to it by, say, adding a chapter. They certainly haven't re-thought anything fundamental about the way the curriculum is approached. And, so, I don't think it's much different in the United States than it is there. I think it's the same problem. And, of course, part of the problem is the fact that when you become a professor of economics, as I was for 30 years, you aren't trained in how to teach. You are trained in the ideas of economics. So, the way most of us teach is we go back to our graduate notes, from our notes in the graduate classes we took--because we didn't save our undergrad ones or didn't take very good notes, most of the time--and then we try to dumb those down and match some textbook that we've adopted. I usually didn't have a textbook, didn't use a textbook. But I certainly was heavily influenced by my professors in what I thought was appropriate to teach. And I think that's probably true pretty much everywhere.
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. Yes. So, as a thing, contrast to the other disciplines that I was learning, in politics in particular we were giving reading lists, [?] on philosophy. Reading lists of lots of different thinkers exploring different ideas from different viewpoints. Whereas in economics, there's no reading list. You just get the Mankiw textbook and [?]--that's what makes up your class. And it doesn't encourage any sort of critical thought of it. It's just presented to you as this value-free science: that, this is what economics is; this is what economics always has been. Which--yeah--we feel doesn't produce the critical thinkers that we need. And when we are facing such stark economic crises like the global Financial Crash or like the ecological crises that we face, the [?] massive wealth and income inequality--yeah, this lack of ability to think critically about economics is, we feel, perpetuated in these problems.
Russ Roberts: I think most economists like to think of themselves as like physicists, but applying their tools to human beings instead of, say, atoms. And so, in physics, there would be no reason to read Newton. And so, similarly--because it's all subsumed. Everything that was right in Newton, we still teach; and everything that was wrong, we've dropped; obviously, there were things that were wrong but not capturing what we now know is a richer story. And we try to do that in economics as well. We say, 'Well, we don't have to read Adam Smith any more, because what was good in Adam Smith we've kept, and what was bad or wrong, we've rejected.' As if economics advances like physics does, through empirical testing and rejection of things that don't match the data. But, as I think you are arguing, that's really not what economics is doing.
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. So, economics is a social science, and it's impossible to get rid of the complexity of it. It's impossible to strip it down to, like, a linear equation or to say that this is what happens--so, this model works in the United Kingdom therefore it will work absolutely everywhere. It's just not possible to do that. And, obviously, economics has developed from there, and there's loads of really interesting and nuanced work going on in the world of economics; but the problem is, we do not teach that to our undergraduates. And undergraduates are incredibly influential. Like, most people who study undergraduate economics will not go on to do a Master's or a Ph.D. They will go on to work in a bank or lead a big business or work in the media--
Russ Roberts: or vote--
Maeve Cohen: or work around a policy table. And yeah, yeah, yeah. And they have this really basic knowledge of economics. It's not representative of the world, and isn't particularly helpful in a lot of really important scenarios. And it creates this sort of economic common sense within society which is actually not helping us address some of the most pressing problems of our time.
Russ Roberts: It raises an interesting question--and this is a side-note. But, you make me think about the fact that Psychology, which is a very popular undergraduate major in the United States and I think elsewhere--I wonder how, the way academic undergraduate psychology is taught in universities affects our daily lives through people believing certain things about how the world works that--might be true, but might not be. How we see ourselves. It's a really interesting, I think not fully-explored question about how undergraduate curriculum issues get transferred into daily life.
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. Definitely. And I think particularly with the discipline of economics. Because, economics is such an influential force within society. And, for example, if you are arguing for a policy--you've just had mid-term elections--you are arguing for a policy--most of these policies have to be backed up with economic reasoning. So, we have to be like, 'Yeah, but is it good for the economy?' And, so, what the sort of economic common sense is, within society, is really important. Because it allows, em, basically allows politicians to wield--and this is solved; maybe it's a different point about how economics is inaccessible and how a lot of the population are unable to engage with economics, so they have to sort of take this, this, this version of economics as given, because they are not encouraged to think about these things or it's not spoken about in a language that people can relate to or understand or relate to their lived experiences. But it creates this huge, hugely powerful discipline that's incredibly opaque. And that in turn can create massive democratic deficits. Which is another huge problem. So, I think: Yes, there is a problem, I'm sure in so many disciplines. Definitely Psychology; and that's really interesting. I hadn't thought of that. But because economics is such a powerful force in the world, I think it's particularly dangerous within[?] an economic curricula.
Russ Roberts: And I agree. I think--even though we probably, you are going to see--we disagree on a lot of things; but so many we do agree on, which is I think extremely interesting. I want to summarize what I think are two of the key points that you've made so far that I think capture what I see as the approach that you are pushing. And again, I'm not--I'm totally in agreement with these. One is to make people aware that there are other schools of economic thought. In history. So, the history of economic thought, seems, should matter, as well as the diversity of thought in the current day. And then, secondly, the implication that it's value-free. Not--I think some of it is value-free, in the following sense. I think there are fundamental principles of human behavior that are agreed on by people on the Left and the Right. Even though they might disagree about what the implications of those fundamentals are, or how they get discussed in policy. So, for example, I think no matter what kind of flavor of economist you are, you might accept the fact that people respond to incentives. You might disagree about what the incentives are--
Maeve Cohen: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: You might disagree about the importance of monetary versus non-monetary incentives. I think economics of different political stripes can agree that much of what we see in the world we see around us is emergent rather than designed from the top down. Although there's, I think a lot of--there is some nuance there that people do disagree on. But the aggregation of behavior into what economics call markets is a shorthand for, um, how we interact, is useful. Now, we might disagree about how well they work. We might disagree about whether they should be left alone and what that actually means. But, to me, those are the two cornerstones of economics of any flavor. Which is: People respond to incentives. Which also implies that there is cost to action. There is foregone opportunities. Those two things, I think are undeniable. They have nothing to do with whether you are Marxist or neo-Keynesian or an Austrian. And then that--when we act, together, things happen that aren't just the sum of our individual actions. That there's a complexity that makes policy design challenging. And that we see all around us, that's hard to fully grasp without thinking about it in some depth. So: Do we agree on those things?
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. For sure. I think on the sort of complexity issue, yeah, I completely agree with you. I think that that is another issue that is not translated as well as it could be, in undergraduate curricula. Just, you are given a lot of, like, simple--well, not simple--they are quite complicated--but you're given a lot of problems that's, models, that don't really take complexity as the issue as well--yeah, they don't explain that as well as they could, I think. But, yes, I do agree with you.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, on that point, I once gave a talk to a group of Ph.D. economists--a high level, well-trained group of people. And I was talking about emergent order. And they were bored out of their minds. They said, 'Oh, look, we know all this: markets work.' And that wasn't my point at all. It turned out. But the way we have been trained as economists to think about complexity is: 'Oh, it's supply and demand, and we know how that works.' As if that stark, blackboard model--which I love, by the way: I have a lot of affection for supply and demand; I think it's a powerful, simplifying tool. But it is only a tool. It is only a simplification. It doesn't capture the richness of how our interactions actually work in the real world. It's a crude attempt to get at something that's important. But I think most economists think, 'Well, that is how--that's actually the real world.' And that's a terrible error.
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. No. Well, I definitely agree. Like, supply and demand, and the market, and all of these things are incredibly useful. And using these tools have helped economies. And--yeah--helped people achieve great things. And done a lot of good in the world. But, yeah, the point that I try and make and the point that we're about is that it's not the only tool that you can use and actually in some circumstances and for some problems it's really not useful at all. And if we are wanting economists, of people who are economically literate, to be creating a better world for us all, they need to know more than just that sort of--yeah, that simplistic model.
Russ Roberts: So, two of the things that are behind "Rethinking Economics," your organization, are, you call democratizing economics and economic pluralism. What do you mean by those terms, and why are they important?
Maeve Cohen: So, by 'pluralism,' we mean, um, yeah--exposing students to the different schools of thought that are out there. And that's--that's--yeah--looking at first Keynesianism, looking at feminist economics, looking at ecological economics. And, and, and looking at the values that underpin each, em, as well as looking at the values that underpin mainstream economics. And then, yeah, being able to engage with these schools of thought--where they've come from and where they've got to, why they think the way that they think. And what that means for policy implications. Em, and then for democratizing economics. So, this is something--em--I touched on earlier about how we have a whole population of people that aren't included in these economic discussions. So, they don't--economics is so jargon-laden and elitist that a lot of people aren't able to engage with it. And then we get all these policy recommendations, policy proposals backed up by economic reasoning[?], and people don't understand the reasoning, so they are voting for policies that they don't understand. And that creates this massive democratic deficit. On the democratizing economics point, we have actually, so, an assisted charity called--because we realized it's basically impossible to reform university curricula--and democratize economics at the same time. So, we have assisted charity now called 'Economy' who make--they are just based in the United Kingdom, but they do a lot of work on making economics accessible. And crash courses for adults. They do a lot of work in schools. And they have website that sort of de-jargons the news. So, we've stepped away from that a bit now because it was too big a task to do--
Russ Roberts: Well, let's talk about the curriculum. Because, I think--again, ironically, when you listed those, some of things, approaches, that people aren't exposed to--my first thought is: 'But those are wrong!' and of course, you look at some things I'd like to see more; and I think, 'But those are wrong.' And I think, one of the lessons--
Maeve Cohen: But in a way that's not really the point--
Russ Roberts: It's not--
Maeve Cohen: Like, you don't have to be a feminist economist to benefit from the fact that actually, by understanding by that theory works and how it gets to the conclusions that it gets to--that in itself is an exercise that is useful, that is an exercise that helps you think critically and think more creatively. It's not just learning something by rote. It's engaging with the core of what that theory is. So, we--yeah--so, for example, we champion, like, teaching students feminist economics, for example. But then we also champion teaching students Austrian economics. Which is like, on the political spectrum, the opposite side.
Russ Roberts: Yeah--
Maeve Cohen: Because, there's a lot can be gained from these insights. And a lot can be gained from just doing the exercise of just actually trying to understand, why, when you hold these assumptions to be true, that we get these outcomes. Compared to holding these assumptions to be true and getting these outcomes. They are exercised, in and of itself, will create better, more thoughtful economists, we feel.
Russ Roberts: Well, I agree with that. When I was saying, 'That's the wrong kind,' I was being a bit facetious--
Maeve Cohen: --yeah. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: satirical. But I think, you know, one of the lessons here is humility: that you, one, me, person, does not have access to The Truth. And I just say, as an aside: When listeners write me and say, 'You have to interview so-and-so, because he or she has this model of how the world works that's correct.' And I always want to say, 'Well, I always think'--there's no one model that's exactly right. And people who are going to around saying--you learn some things sometimes from those people. But, they are also a little bit dangerous, because--
Maeve Cohen: Mmmhmm--
Russ Roberts: they are evangelists. And evangelism has value, as long as you are aware that you are evangelist. I think a lot of evangelists don't realize that. In economics, anyway. I don't know--leave aside the religious piece of that. But--
Russ Roberts: So, I think it's extremely helpful to be aware that you don't have a monopoly on the truth, whatever your value system is. And, in principle, your organization has the opportunity to do that. But you do have, also, a direct--you are trying to build a curriculum, I understand, that would be the richer or different than the current standard one: you mentioned Mankiw, whose textbook--and it is very good textbook for describing a particular kind of economics. Greg [Mankiw] would disagree with that, I think. He would say, 'No, it's just the truth.' But, I'm sympathetic to your approach. What is your organization doing in the area of curriculum, design, or implementation?
Maeve Cohen: So, we do--so, as I say, we were born of--well we are a student movement. And we are working in different ways. So, we try and produce research that shows that there is a problem. So, we produced a book called the Econocracy that was looking at 7 different universities in the United Kingdom and examining their curricula. And then we have student groups in different countries that have done the same. Their universities--the groups in the Netherlands have done it; Norwegians have done it--there's individual universities have done it as well. The Danes are doing it. The [?] which are exciting. So we are trying to do that. And we try and create alternatives. So, we produced a reader--an introduction to pluralist economics that was edited by our students. So, that looked at 11 different schools of thought and that--the point of that was, because of this problem of a lack of reading lists, that could be something that could complement economic courses and could quite an easy win for professors: it's just like, 'This is in the university library. Explore these different ways of thinking about university--about economics--sorry.' And then the students can also learn that as a tool for learning about new schools of thought. But, with regards to creating a curricula--this is--we are not really prescriptive. We don't want to say, like--like you say, we don't want to be the people saying that this is the way that you've got to do it. Every single university is different. We are in 25 different countries, as I say; and different--different models and different ways of thinking of the economy, more suitable for different countries. So, we haven't created a curriculum. Firstly, because we don't have the capacity, the amount of time and effort and knowledge and all of those things that take--we are a compending[?] organization, so we don't have those resources. And we only have 5 members of staff, even though we have hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. But, all of us, our groups are autonomous groups. And some of them are working on developing curriculas at their own universities. And it's more of creating sort of broader strokes: these are the things that you need to include; these are, it's just like the starting point if you are going to teach undergraduates economics. Yeah, for example, History of Economic Thought is an essential part of that economic history, is an essential part of the--em. So, we haven't, and we aren't going to create a template curriculum for people, because we don't really think that that's the way to go. It's more of encouraging our students to compare[?] at their own universities and do the projects that they feel would be most beneficial to them. So, some of them will be creating curricula. And some of our students are currently teaching curricula at universities that they've created and off the back of their love of pluralism. But, yeah--it's not a sort of over-arching thing that we're creating.
Russ Roberts: So, you mentioned two things. One, very quickly, in passing I just want to emphasize the distinction and their individual importance, which is History of Economic Thought and Economic History--
Maeve Cohen: yeah--
Russ Roberts: It's remarkable how uninformed we all around about economic history. Certainly--I got my Ph.D. in 1981. And I think I was one of the last--I don't think it's true any more, but--this was at the University of Chicago--and we were required to take, I think two economic history classes. I doubt that's true any more. It's certainly not true at most universities, and maybe almost at none. And that's a shame. Although, it's certainly more important I think for undergraduates, and for, as you say, sort of everyday people who have a, who've absorbed some kind of economic worldview, either from their coursework or their, just the air around them, the zeitgeist, to have some understanding of economic history. And, one of the things I find depressing about the United States--I don't think it's--well, you'll tell me if it's true in the United Kingdom and elsewhere--but we have this, um, this thing called the Advanced Placement Exam where high school students can get credit for college level classes by taking an exam; and then they don't have to--in theory don't have to take a class, if they get a high enough score, when they get to college. And, those--I don't think I would do very well in those exams. Which is either--I don't know if it says something about me or the exam or both. But, you know, my kids took them. And they would come and ask me questions, you know, in practicing for those. And I--some of them, [?] I would just say, 'I have no idea.' And I would give the answer; and they would say, 'Well, that's wrong. It turns out it's 3. It's c, not b.' And I'd say, 'Beats me.' So, one of the--that's a problem. That's a little strange. But the point I want to make that's, beside that fact that it treats economics as like it's just a set of facts and results, like physics, is it's extremely free of any context or economic history or complexity about the point you made earlier: that something might work in this country; it might not work elsewhere. It treats everything as if, like, the law of gravity: that it will work in Pisa, Italy as well as Manhattan. And that's just not true. And it's a terrible encouragement to, I think, wrong thinking.
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. Yeah. I completely agree with all of that. The instance of multiple choice exams is--truly shocking. So, I was a [?] student. I left school at 16, and I didn't go to university until I was 25. And I had this idea of what university would be like: And university was going to be this place where everybody was talking openly with each other and examining their disciplines, and, like, bouncing ideas off each other--
Russ Roberts: [?] and dmahhhom[?], dmahhhom[?]
Maeve Cohen: And I got there and Econ 101, multiple choice exam was like--
Russ Roberts: [?]dmahhhom[?]
Maeve Cohen: this is nuts. This is not what I thought university would be. And it's quite depressing, really.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's a side-problem, I would say. Which is the focus on results rather than ways of thinking.
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. And it's really difficult--
Russ Roberts: And that's what multiple choice does.
Maeve Cohen: It's really difficult. So, particularly in the United Kingdom, well, now, now that we've got--tuition fees have risen dramatically in the last few years. And that's the main source of revenue for universities, so that they--they have huge amounts of students coming to study these courses. So, in my Econ 101, there was like 600 students. And it's a real, real problem. Like, how do you critically engage with 600 students? Like, how do you examine that amount of students? So, this is where the multiple choice exams have come from--
Russ Roberts: Yep--
Maeve Cohen: and I can completely understand the constraints on academics; and it must be--it's really hard to square the circle. But, I mean, but it's essential if you want a functioning society, I think.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I taught Principles of Economics at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] to 350 people, and I--I made a few decisions at the beginning of the class. One was I would not use a microphone. Which was challenging. But it kept my energy level up. When you are going to talk in a room with 350 people, you better have a high energy level.
Maeve Cohen: Well, [?], yeah, yeah.
Russ Roberts: Because otherwise you start mumbling in front of the room; and 310 of 350 are sleeping. But the other thing I tried to do, which--I don't know if it worked or not but I think this is extremely important--is that I tried to have conversation about the questions we were looking at with those 350 students. Of course, you can't let every person participate. And most of them don't want to. But there were probably 30-50 of those students who would interact with me in one--30 or so in any one class. Or 20. And then, it wouldn't always be the same, every class. But it's not so much that only 20 people got to talk. Three hundred fifty people got to hear a conversation, just like we're having right now. And I think it's the exchange of ideas and the way of thinking like an economist which is so much more important than what's the ratio of the, what's the marginal rate, definition of the marginal rate of substitution, today, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. And so, giving over--you know, when I was a teacher, the thing that used to bother me the most, the parallel I would make was to astronomy. So, in astronomy you have this unbelievable, magical, awesome, wondrous poetry of the nighttime sky. But that's not what you learn in astronomy. What you learn in undergraduate astronomy when I took it is the dumbed-down version of graduate astronomy. Which is a bunch of results which I could just spit back on an exam. Whereas, the life-changing classes in any field, or the ones that get you to see the world through a different lens--and that's what I think economics should be and often isn't. Which is tragic.
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. Exactly. And it really depresses me. I don't--I'm sure you've experienced this in your day, your apply[?] your whatever, and somebody asks you what you do, and you are like, 'Oh, I work in economics.' And they just go blank. And they are not interested. And there is this sense in society that economics is boring. People understand it's really important, but they also think it's boring. And it's like, 'Oh, my God, it's just not boring at all!' And then you talk to them a bit more in depth about it, and people are always engaged by--usually pretty engaged and excited. And it is--society has done this incredibly good job of making this incredibly dynamic and exciting discipline seem super-boring. And, that's--yeah--quite depressing for people like us, I'm sure.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. My favorite is, a woman was next to me on a plane, and she asked me what I was going to do, and I said to her I was an economist, and she said, 'That's too bad. My husband isn't here. He loves the stock market.'--
Maeve Cohen: oh, no--
Russ Roberts: And I wanted to say 'Well, that wouldn't have helped. I don't know much about the stock market.' And, but that's what people think. The other one I like is 'That must be handy around tax time.' Well, I hate filling out my taxes. And I'm not good at it. And that's what accountants and tax preparers do. Not economists. But, yeah....
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. I'm terrible at money--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Exactly. Terrible--
Maeve Cohen: People always say to me, 'Oh, that's really funny because you're an economist'--
Russ Roberts: 'An economist'--
Maeve Cohen: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: It's not--yeah. I tried for a while to give a different answer. And I think I have forgotten: There was a period in my life where I would just, instead of saying I was an economist, I would, I would say something like--I forget what it was, but it might have been something like: 'Oh, what do you do?' 'Well, I'm interested in how things work from the bottom up rather than the top down, and how things emerge that are the product of our actions together but not any one person.' 'Oh, well, that's interesting. What does that mean?' Whereas, if you say you're an economist, it's over. Usually.
Maeve Cohen: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: It's usually the end of the conversation.
Russ Roberts: One of the things that gives me hope, and I don't know how you feel about it, and your organization, but certainly with the existence of the web today, people have access to so much more than what they are spoon-fed or force-fed by their professors. So, isn't that some cause for celebration?
Maeve Cohen: Oh, for sure. I mean, we wouldn't exist as a company--in fact, there's been iterations of companies doing similar stuff since the 1970s. I think one of the reasons why we've had such staying power is, yeah, because of the Internet. And because there is so much--when people get in touch with those, we can point them in the direction of loads of different resources. And we're talking [?] about exploring economics, which is, there's a network of, if German groups doing this same thing, and that this is one of their projects, and they have this website called 'Exploring Economics,' which has loads of online courses looking at different schools of thought, loads of different resources that we can point our students in the direction of; and yet it's, it's incredible. And we can communicate online. We can have a little reading group, discussion things, that are happening online. Yeah. It's--yeah--very grateful for the Internet.
Russ Roberts: And people can listen to EconTalk. Which--
Maeve Cohen: Exactly.
Russ Roberts: Hearing our voices right now is certainly taking advantage of the Internet. Almost certainly.
Russ Roberts: Before we leave some of these issues, I want to just go back to something you mentioned at the very beginning. You talked about how the genesis of your interest in these topics was in the aftermath of the financial crisis and that you were involved in something--the post-crash something--what was it?
Maeve Cohen: The Economic Society.
Russ Roberts: So, what do you feel, and what did you sense from people who were passionate about that at the time? What do you think was the mistake that was made, post-Crash? What was the opportunity that was missed, and certainly in the teaching of economics?
Maeve Cohen: Well, I think that after the Crash, lots of people went to study economics because it was so abundantly apparent that economics was super-important and was having a massive impact on people's lives. So, this is so, a perception of economics students that they--yeah, into the stock market and they just want to go and work in the city. But, actually, I don't think that that's true in general, but particularly at this time there was lots of people, and there are still lots of people going on to study economics because they want to do some social good. And, because of the way that it was taught to us as just this sort of abstract theory, that was completely detached from people and society, it lost a lot of those people along the way. Those people either became, em--they sort of forgot the reason they got involved in the first place. Or they dropped out or changed their major or whatever it is that they did. But I think the big mistake that was made after the Crash with economics education and the big mistake that's still being made is that there are lots of people that are--both the students are really thirsty for knowledge and want to do social good. And by detaching economics from people, which is how it is presented in most undergraduates, it's doing those people a disservice. And therefore doing society a disservice.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. There was an enormous interest, certainly here in the United States, I think after the Crisis. Because, we had had this prolonged period of economic--I would call it stability, slow or pretty good growth for a while--the recessions that we'd had were relatively small. Of course, people were affected by them. I didn't[?] they were small. But, for the economy as a whole, most individuals did pretty well. And there was nothing like this in our lifetime. And so, a lot of people I think did get a wake-up call. You know, one of them was John Papola, the filmmaker who contacted me, and we made the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. Really, those happened because--
Maeve Cohen: Hah, hah, hah, hah? Did you make that?
Russ Roberts: I did. With John.
Maeve Cohen: Oh, my God. That's great.
Russ Roberts: Thank you. But John--that wouldn't have happened without this film-maker--I was working in television at the time, started reading and thinking, 'I've got to figure out what's going on. Like, this is weird, this stuff.' So, I think a lot of people got galvanized. And if it hadn't been for the Internet, you know, they would have pulled out some not-so-exciting book called "Economics" that they found in a library. Would have put it down pretty quickly because it's not very accessible, as you've been saying. But for me--
Maeve Cohen: But yet this--Sorry to go on--
Russ Roberts: No, I just say, for me, and EconTalk, one of the reasons, one of the silver linings of the Crisis, was it did get a lot of people interested in what economics is. They struggled to gain access to it. As you pointed out. But, it does cause--it was a wake-up call for a lot of folks who weren't academics. Who weren't university students. Just say. And I want to know what happened. I want to understand it. In contrast to, say, the Great Depression, which was a similar event--much worse. But, at that time, if you think about being an individual in 1933, when unemployment I think was about 25% in the United States, or just absolutely horrific: What would you do if you want to understand it? You know, there was nothing to do. And here, we live in this time--doesn't mean everything's great--but at least we live in a time when people can explore things in unimagined ways compared to the past.
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. Definitely. And: Academics can use this stuff to educate the students. And I think this is a real shame, itself, the structure of academia, is there's so much weight is put on research and producing good research that the teaching, like you were saying: You don't get proper training to be a teacher. And that sort of how you engage students. I mean, I had a few professors who were incredible and obviously really passionate about how they input so much thought into it. But they are few and far between. And if you have got all these pressures on you as an academic to produce research, you've got all of this, this bureaucracy that you've got to do with these students, then actually creating a course that's engaging and using things like, [?], which seems really obvious, is--you just don't have the time to do that. And so you do end up just teaching the same slides[?] you've been teaching for the last 10 years. They are just not engaging or interesting at all. And that's a real shame.
Russ Roberts: The other point is that--and I brought this up again; I bring it up as often as I can, I guess--in a recent episode with Anat Admati we were talking about the Crisis. And, unfortunately, many economics benefit either explicitly or implicitly from the status quo. They either hope to work for the Federal Reserve; they maybe consult on Wall Street. And so, they are somewhat compromised. And, we think of ourselves, economists, as these detached observers of the human scene. But, of course, we have our own self-interest. And I referenced then and will mention again now a conversation with Luigi Zingales, who makes this point, I think very eloquently, many, many times, and it can't be emphasized enough: Economists act like they are just these doctors who come in to repair and heal the economy. And, of course, we're not. We're something like doctors, but more like doctors who--you know, I have imperfect knowledge of how the body works, and who benefit, as sometimes doctors do, too, from certain types of treatment as opposed to others. So, I think it's just really valuable to be aware of that when you are listening to people give policy advice and other things.
Maeve Cohen: Yeah, and it's also a matter of the lack of diversity within the discipline. I mean, the vast majority of economists are middle class white men; and their lived experience is significantly different to the lived experiences of massive swathes of society. And so we can't hope for those people in those sections of society to be representative in policy decisions. So, this whole point of democratizing economics, that whole branch of what we do, one of the main driving forces behind our--is because we want to make economics relevant to people's lives and show them how exciting it is, and encourage them to out and study economics so that we can get a more diverse set of voices around the policy table. Which I think is--yeah, I mean, that's a huge task. But yeah--speaks to what you were saying of it.
Russ Roberts: Now, why do you say, 'Economics is detached from people?' That's a theme on your website, various versions of that. What does that mean to you? What do you mean by that phrase?
Maeve Cohen: So, we talk about individual agents maximizing utility, in a market. And there's no people in that. So, we look at the rational agent. And I'm certainly not rational. So, my--does that agent represent me? There's no talk of humans, really. It's--yeah. It seems that we're looking at the math and the theory and we are forgetting that actually these are people doing what people do, a massively complex dance. And, by not talking about the people within it, we make it less relayable and less human, and less embedded in the world.
Russ Roberts: But I think it's more than that. It's not just that it's not so relatable. And, we have to concede--you know, there has been a growth in Behavioral Economics, which does try to introduce some more complexity into individual choice, at least. I don't know how much of it has made it into mainstream curriculum. Do you have a feel about that?
Maeve Cohen: Yeah; I mean, it's getting there. There are aspects of progress with Behavioral Economics, for sure.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I just don't know--I don't think it's--it's not embedded in teaching. It's sort of an aside. Like, 'Oh, by the way, this isn't complete--'
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. Not like a whole curricula. Yeah--
Russ Roberts: It's not obvious you can do that. But, I guess the issue for me, to take your critique about agents, rational agents, I think there's two things that bother me about that. It's not so much the behavioral part. It's not so much that I occasionally make mistakes--which, of course, I do; and we all do. We're all human. I think it's the--when you teach that model over and over again, that, it's basically--I want to give your critique its full due. It's basically saying that, you know, people are like programmable robots; we just have to get the incentives right. And I'm sympathetic to that point. Incentives matter a lot, as I said earlier. But I think once you start thinking of people like robots, you tend to start thinking of--or as programmable or as influenceable, which of course they are--you start to then start thinking that, 'Oh, yeah; and therefore I can make society better off by doing X. Because I can see--I know how people respond, and then I'll get this aggregated impact; and I can just add up all that utility or happiness or whatever we call it.' And I think that's a fundamental misunderstanding of the human enterprise. It's particularly materialistic. It particularly emphasizes stuff over how we experience life. You know, one of the things that, in last 2 or 3 years I've started thinking about a lot is the communal part of our lives, what I call our longing to belong. That our desire to connect with other human beings. It's totally absent from economic modeling other than in the corners of, you know, Gary Becker's work or others who are doing what has been called Economic Sociology. And, that seems to be missing out on like an enormous part of human wellbeing. And by focusing on the measurable stuff-which is--I understand the desire--we're missing an enormous part of the human experience.
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. And I would--yeah. I totally agree with that. And I would go further than that. Like, I think what is happening to our environment is a consequence of that. Because, it's not quantifiable. You can't put--you can't put a number on the environment. And that means we've not been able to accurately analyze the issues, accurately understand or provide solutions to the issues that we are creating. Because it's just--yeah. It's outside of the [?] of the tools that we are using. And to do that effectively--and of course, you can doctor the tools you are using and try and fit bits in here and there. But [?] would be that, fundamentally that way of looking at the world is not the best way to look at our environmental problems. There are other tools we should be and can be using.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to stretch myself here, and try to critique my usual view of things. And get your reaction. So, in the United States we have this phenomenon--I'm sure you have it there as well in the United Kingdom, but I think it's more pervasive here. Which is, what are called Big Box stores. So, we have these enormous retailers, like WalMart, Home Depot, Lowes. And I love them. I love them all. I confess. I really do love them--in some dimension, anyway. I enjoy shopping there. They are phenomenal places, just to be walking around in. They are brightly lit, and their stuff is cheap, and there's a ton of stuff. Yeah--I'll never forget; I think I've told this story before, about I showed up late for--my plane was delayed and I had to give a speech somewhere, and instead of getting picked up at 7pm I got picked up at midnight; and my bag was lost, so I had no clothes. And the person who picked me up said, 'Do you want to go--do you want to get something to eat?' And I said, 'No, I need to get something to wear.' And so we went to a Super-Wal-Mart. I'd never been in one. That was about 10 years ago; and I still haven't been in one since, because they don't them--we don't let them happen around here, outside Washington, D.C. much. But it was an extraordinary experience. It was 1 o'clock in the morning. It looked like daytime, because it was lit like--it looked like I was near the surface of the sun. And they had everything I needed. And it was cheap. I bought a shaver. And I bought underwear. And I bought a shirt. And I was fine. And it was a glorious, capitalist experience. But--so that's the romance about, in favor. Let's do the romance against, on the other side. The romance against it on the other side is that, you know, small towns that used to have lots of other small retailers now have one giant retailer. It's far away. It's out in the suburb, or it's the wrong side of town where it's cheaper to build a large building. And the texture of daily life is different. Now, I don't romanticize the small-town daily life. Because the stores were not so clean and they didn't have much selection; it was really expensive; there wasn't much competition. There were a lot of negatives, too. But something has been lost by the move toward the larger suburban or exurban retailers. And, as an economist, my first impulse is to say, 'Well, people want to shop at those big stores; we should let them.' And there's issues of subsidies: put those aside for the moment. But, we generally believe in America, and certainly my economics training tells me, that if people choose it, it's for the good. But, something is lost. And the thing--the point I want to make, that I think I have to concede--and people like me, politically, ideologically have to concede--is that, it's not free, that cheap stuff. It changes the texture of daily life. And that, we don't measure. And so, I'm not saying it was a mistake that people make those choices. I'm just saying that the full picture isn't obvious. And I think that's not so good.
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. I mean--yeah. The price mechanism doesn't really work for things like that, because you can't put a price on it. And-yeah. I totally agree. I think that capitalism has brought such wonderful things and increased our living standards to such a great extent--but yeah, this stuff isn't free. And we are creating damage--we are damaging people by always being able to consume things so easily and so cheaply. We are creating pain in other areas of life. And yeah, so Rethinking Economics, I guess that's fundamentally what it's about, is looking at what the damage that currently isn't being measured, is; and how do we begin to incorporate that in our understanding of economics and how do we try and mitigate against some of the worst excesses of that. It's not throwing capitalism out. It's not saying, 'This is a terrible model and it's destroying the world.' It's saying that, 'Yes, some of this stuff is amazing and it's improved our lives massively, but actually there are some huge, gaping flaws here that we need to come look at again.'
Russ Roberts: So, I want to try and push this Walmart example a little bit. And again, I'm ignoring the fact that Wal-mart gets subsidized sometimes by tax breaks. Of course, other things get subsidized, too. It's really a messy, complicated thing to try to measure those kind of artificial encouragements and discouragements. I just want to think about the following. So, I really love--there's two things I love. I love Amazon. And I love a good book store. And I recognize that Amazon is destroying--has destroyed--lots of bookstores. And, even though I love the fact that I have a zillion books in my house, because of Amazon, and a bunch more on my Kindle, and that I bought those books because they were so inexpensive and easy to get into my house because of the web, I also like occasionally to wander into a physical bookstore and pick up the books and touch them and look at them. And, we all have a temptation to go into those physical bookstores, fondle the books, put them back down, and go home and order from Amazon. And, we would all say, most people would say, 'Well, that's fair. Because that's what markets are about. You make your choices.' But I think we could have a culture, we could have a social norm that says, it's not enough to say, 'I hope everybody else buys their books at the little book store on the corner, because that way I can wander in there every once in a while,' but I'll be buying most of my books at Amazon. But it seems to me we could have a norm that says--again, I don't want to penalize Amazon artificially. I don't want to give them an advantage artificially, either. But I do think we could have a social norm that says, 'If you value that bookstore on the corner, you might want to sacrifice some of your standard of living to shop there, because if you only follow the narrowest of self-interest, it won't be there any more.'
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. And I think that people do. We still have vinyl shops [record stores--Econlib Ed.] in Manchester. Like, we sell at vinyl shops across the world.
Russ Roberts: You'd better explain what those are, Maeve, because most people in America don't know what those--first of all, that's a U.K. word; but it's also out of date. So, explain what that is.
Maeve Cohen: Records--music records. Those big, black disks. We still have--we call them 'vinyls' here; we still have vinyl stores, in the United Kingdom, because people have chosen that--there's other things that they value about listening to music that go beyond just downloading it on Spotify. It's going into the shop, flipping through all the little records; taking out this huge disk with this beautiful cover and they're the things that they value. And I think that there is a huge counterculture and all different aspects. So, in the suburb that I live in, there's this vegan cooperative grocery store--this big store--that is thriving. Like, it does incredibly well. Yeah. Yeah. There's a Morrison's there, which is a big supermarket chain in the United Kingdom: there's a Morrison's next door. So many people go and shop in this vegan cooperative even though it's more expensive, because they value the--they share the same values that this store does. So, I think that, yeah, people do do that. If we could--I think that encouraging those sorts of things is an important part of getting this right; but obviously there are huge systemic barriers to this, so it's not just about individual choice. Like you are saying about Amazon. The ease of it all: there's a lot of things in place that make it far more difficult to do the shopping in the little book store, that we could make some of these things easier for people. I guess.
Russ Roberts: Yeah: it's a challenge. Because, if you are not careful, you end up supporting legislation that penalizes Amazon; and it's really done to destroy the ability to compete with those smaller players. And, I don't think we ought to do that. I think that's a mistake. I think we shouldn't be artificially helping or hindering anyone. I'm a big fan of creative destruction--despite what I just said. Which is the challenge, I think, of squaring my circle: which is, that I love the idea that the world is dynamic, and I don't want to slow it down too much. But I don't mind if we slow it down through our own choices. We are recording this in the middle of November. And every year, one of the things I absolutely have intellectual problems with is the Christmas holiday shopping argument that we 'need it for the economy.' And, of course, if people decided they wanted to spend more time sitting in front of the fireplace and less time working, and more time with their families, and the economy got a little bit smaller, that would be wonderful if that's what people wanted. If they want to work really have and have lots of--crap--they're entitled, we're entitled; I do plenty of that, too. I'm not being--but this idea that somehow we need it for the economy, it's just absurd. It's just a horrible--
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. It is really dangerous. Obviously, I am sure that you--we disagree on the whole--I don't think I would use the term 'penalizing' Amazon. Penalizing these huge monopolies that have an insane amount of market power. And I do believe in regulation and government intervention to stop that from happening. Particularly with regard to tax, and taxing them fairly. But I think--yeah, this obsession that we have with growth; and a lot of this is born of undergraduate economics education, that a good economy is an economy that grows, is complete fallacy. Yeah. We could actually stand to lose a little growth. We could stand to not--like, the amount of tat, you see at Christmas--the amount of gifts that I get--I'm just like, 'Why would you ever buy this for me?' I don't want this; I don't need this. But it's--yeah--it's good for the economy, so people have got jobs creating this tat; but people have got really badly paid jobs creating stuff that people don't want just so that people can buy more stuff just so the economy can grow. And it is completely backwards, and really destructive on people's livelihoods and just on the state of my livingroom, and yeah, on the environment.
Russ Roberts: Did you say 'tat'?
Maeve Cohen: Tat.
Russ Roberts: How do you spell that?
Maeve Cohen: T-a-t.
Russ Roberts: And how would you translate that, for those who don't speak English? Who only speak American? Junk? Is it junk?
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. Yeah. Just like rubbish. Just like little bits that you don't need.
Russ Roberts: Okay. Glad to get that straight. Love that word. It's like twee--another one of my favorite British words. Which means, I think, adorably, unbearably cute. At least that's what I [?]
Maeve Cohen: Yeah. And like, very traditional--
Russ Roberts: It's like a tchotchke. That would be the Yiddish version of twee. Well, it's a combination. A tchotchke is tat that's twee. That's our linguistic lesson for the day.
Russ Roberts: So, let's close with the fact that--where I think we don't agree, and try to get some understanding of why. So, we're having a great conversation, and I'm enjoying it. It reminds me of some things that I feel very strongly about that I sometimes forget about. It stretches me a little bit to think about where I might have my own burdens of my education that I don't think about that I carry around unconsciously. But, we don't agree--I think are on the more interventionist side of things, I would guess--
Maeve Cohen: Yes--
Russ Roberts: than I am. I would guess. So, the question is: I wonder why that is. Given that we both don't like many of the things about economics--I wonder what is the underlying cause of our disagreement. I don't know the answer; but I want to see what you can say.
Maeve Cohen: I've got a guess.
Russ Roberts: Go ahead.
Maeve Cohen: I think this is something that--when you were coming of age and when you were becoming an economist, economics was like on the up and in its heyday; and stuff was going well. And this science-cum-religion of economics was really in its ascendency. I had a completely different experience. And this is what we say--I'm slightly older than most of our students, so it works--I'll do the one that we say for our students, and then I'll talk about myself. But, our students were coming of age when economics was just collapsing down around our ears. So, they don't have the same, like, deference towards--not that I'm saying you have a deference towards; obviously you are very critical--but a lot of our professors, a lot of people that we argue with--and deference is probably far too strong a word. But they have this respect for economics that students, that the generation just below mine I would say just don't have. So they just aren't--they aren't as convinced. They start off a hell of a lot more critical than a lot of their professors do. Me, personally: I'm from the northeast of England, which was a huge mining community; and all of them, in 1984-85, there was a massive miners' strike, and the miners lost; and all the mines were shut down. And basically the northeast of England is one of the most deprived areas in England/Europe now. Because they did nothing. So, this was an economic decision that was made in Westminster, and they did nothing to try and rebuild those economies. So, the deprivation and the consequences of the miner's strike that I grew up around made it very--I started off very critical of economics, because I was like, 'Well, that was an economic decision and it done in the economic good, and it's destroyed my neighborhood.' And so, yeah: students definitely, students today are much more critical of economics, just because they never saw it when it was in its heyday.
Russ Roberts: I think that's potentially correct. I don't--I don't like the idea that my views, of course, came out of my personal experience--that, I have my views 'because they are true.' But, of course, we know better. And you, too. But we know better. I'd say the other difference between us, and I think this is generally true in ideological conversations--obviously there are underlying beliefs that are below the surface, often, that are pushing us in certain directions. But, I think, if I had to justify my tolerance of things that you wouldn't tolerate, I would say that I'm very worried about the concentration of political power. At least, that's the way I would explain it after the fact. I don't know if that's the real reason I believe it. But, I would justify my views by saying, for example, that I don't want Amazon to get an extra benefit or a penalty from government policy, because I don't want firms to be focused on influencing that. And I worry that government will only help its friends and not do what you and I would like it to do. And that's the way I would justify it, at least after the fact. I don't know if that's the real reason I hold the views I do. It could just be because of my personal experience; and, to be even harsher on me, it could be because I do pretty well in the current system; and it's possible that I--I recognize that could strongly color the way I look at it. But, I do think a lot of people who are pro-interventionist underestimate the dangers of concentration of power in Westminster. Or Washington.
Maeve Cohen: But there's huge concentrations--but definitely, there's huge concentrations of power in business as well that holds incredible sway over our political systems. And that's in no way democratic. At least there's a semblance of democracy within our political systems. So, I would far rather be beholden to democratic governments than I would be to these massive, monster monopolies that are currently dictating my life. Yeah. So, I think--I do agree with you that it's massive concentrations of power that are undeserved and dangerous; but that--both they're in business and in politics, and both of these huge institutions have an astronomical amount of sway over our day-to-day lives.