Economist gives Obama ‘F,’ Romney ‘D-minus’ for economic literacy

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

Donald J. Boudreaux is on a mission to correct economic nonsense.

A professor of economics at George Mason University and a blogger at Cafe, Boudreaux has been writing letters to the editor of various American publications for years in an attempt to correct economic fallacies promoted in articles he read. He has compiled the best of his letters in a new book, “Hypocrites & Half-Wits: A Daily Dose of Sanity from Cafe Hayek.”

While Boudreaux says the “typical American is quite uninformed about economics,” he doesn’t rate the current major presidential contenders much higher on that score.

“Neither man gives much reason to believe that he is economically literate,” he said. “Judging only by what they say, though, I give the edge to Romney. He’d likely earn a D- in my Intro econ class; Obama likely would earn an F.”

Boudreaux doesn’t shower scorn on every member of the media or politician for being economically ill informed, however. He praises Fox Business Network’s John Stossel, the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady and conservative Washington Post columnist George Will for their grasp of economic issues. As for politicians, he suggests Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash are the best of the lot.

Why did you write the book?

My passion is to convey basic economic insights to non-economists. Professional economists – with too few exceptions, such as the late Milton Friedman – have failed to convey to the general public the basic insights that we’ve gained over the past 240 years. Having to compress an economic point into no more than 150 or 200 words aimed at an audience of non-economists is a wonderful way to learn to write succinctly and without jargon.

How ignorant do you think the average American is about economics?

The typical American is quite uninformed about economics. Again, blame for this problem lies mostly with my fellow economists, who’ve failed to communicate adequately with the general public. Some blame, however, should be reserved also for the mainstream media for so uncritically repeating several economic myths – myths that have become self-regenerating memes.

Is there a person or a group of people in the media who seem to get things wrong more consistently than others?

Politicians. But this fact is due simply to the reality that politicians seek votes rather than truth or understanding. Seeking (and expressing) the latter is too rarely consistent with the former.

Who do you consider the most economic literate person in politics or the media?

The most economically literate person in the electronic media today is John Stossel (although the print media do have several quite economically literate people – for example, the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady and the Washington Post’s George Will).

In politics it’s more difficult to say, as politicians are less likely to say what they really believe. If forced to single out a national-level politician, I would commend Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and freshman U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) as most economically literate.

Is there a common error that you see continually repeated?

Many. Perhaps the worst – or the one that I find to be most annoying – is the assumption that the benefits of international trade are found in how much we export and the costs of such trade are found in how much we import. In fact, exports are an unambiguous cost and imports an unambiguous benefit. Exports are what we pay for imports.

Between President Obama and Gov. Romney, do you think one is more economically literate than the other?

Neither man gives much reason to believe that he is economically literate. Judging only by what they say, though, I give the edge to Romney. He’d likely earn a D- in my Intro econ class; Obama likely would earn an F.

I generally prefer GOP economic commentary to Democratic commentary, but (1) that preference is only slight, and (2) I never suspect that any such commentary reflects anything other than each party’s best effort to say that which it believes will win it most votes.

What would you do — or not do — to get us out of our current economic morass?

A believable, long-term commitment to lower marginal tax rates; repealing – or at least a pause in imposing more – burdensome regulations such as Dodd-Frank; and a significant toning-down of the rhetoric from Washington (especially today from the Oval Office) about how people who succeed (especially succeed spectacularly) in the private market are very likely to be free-loaders or otherwise gaming the system unjustly. (Much such cronyism does exist, and it is as shameful as it is harmful. Most of our economy, though, remains honest and industrious.)

What are some of the dumbest economic policies being proposed on the campaign trail?

Proposals to slap more taxes on Americans who buy Chinese-made goods and services. Dumb as dirt – but it seems to be a political winner.

Any plans to write another book? If so, about what?

My next book is tentatively titled “Cleaned by Capitalism.” Its theme is that the standard narrative about capitalism and pollution is mistaken. Contrary to making our world more polluted, capitalism has always, and does so still, make our world cleaner and less polluted. It does so in ways that go unnoticed. For example, the automobile has cleansed our streets of horse and oxen manure (and the attendant flies); the market distribution of antibiotics cleanses our bodies of deadly bacteria; inexpensive kitchen appliances and detergents enable us to keep our clothing cleaner – and to do so in a much less hazardous way – than was true 100 years ago. In countless ways, the personal environments inhabited by each denizen of modern capitalist society is immeasurably, astonishingly, and still increasingly cleaner and healthier than it was in the past.

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