Sunday, September 11, 2005

Why are there so Few Economists in Elected Office?

The typical Senator or Representative is a lawyer. “Nearly half the members reviewed were lawyers (44.6 percent). Individuals from the business sector (13.6 percent), public service (9.9 percent) and education (7.4 percent) represented the next largest groups in Congress. Physicians were tied for ninth place, behind professionals from military, banking/insurance, and media/entertainment backgrounds.” (see

The economists Phil Graham and Richard Armey seem to be in the minority. With the exception of Senator Paul Douglas (think Cobb-Douglas!) I cannot name another economist who became a Senator. Shouldn’t Joe Stiglitz take John Corzine’s seat in New Jersey? I would also hope that Tom Sargent could defeat Hilary Clinton in New York in 2006! How much would you pay to see Robert Barro debate Ted Kennedy in a fight for an eastern senate seat?

The Hopkins piece notes that doctors are vastly under-represented in the Congress; “The politically savvy may be aware that just eight of the current 535 members and four delegates of the 108th Congress are physicians. But a detailed statistical and biographical analysis of Congressional records by Johns Hopkins researchers reveals that since 1960, a total of only 25 physicians have served in either the U.S. House of Representatives or the Senate, just 1.1 percent of 2,196 members whose records were reviewed.”

I’d like to believe that “better” policies would be enacted by Congress if 44.6% of its members were economists but can this hypothesis be tested? Can academic economists improve public policy simply by advising politicians? Few of us believe that politicians are benevolent pareto planners but leading economists continue to go to Washington to advise. Is that puzzling?

If economists would be such a useful addition to Congress as we remind our colleagues that there are “no free lunches” and that all actions have unintended consequences, why have we made so few inroads here? Is it supply or demand? Do voters not like us because we are loud and arrogant? Are we too gutless to stomach the long campaign? Does academic economics self select people who are “unelectable”? If there was campaign reform such that politicians debated each other on PBS, people watched the televised debates and then voted, would more economists try?


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JohnG said...

Simple, really. Economists are too principled.

Mr. Econotarian said...

I wonder though if Phil Graham or Dick Amery are what we'd really call economists. Does anyone have information about their research work?

Armey authored a book titled "Price theory: A policy-welfare approach," but I can't find out much about it online. Which implies it was probably useless and not cited in other work.

Anonymous said...

I'd be happy if they just listened to economists. Or understood economics as taught at an undergraduate level.

Anonymous said...

Messrs. Gramm and Armey may not be the best representatives of Economics and neither is currently serving in Congress. It appears that most economists with political leanings (Kudlow, Krugman) are happier with critiquing policy than shaping it.

Anonymous said...

Most economists probably couldn't get elected.

A good article I read (and I know it's bad principle to quote something and not name its source, but I forgot where I read it) said that the two reasons people vote for a particular politician over another are--does that person believe what I believe? But more importantly--does that person understand me, does he/she empathize with my beliefs/needs/etc. (even if he or she doesn't completely believe in what I believe in)?

We would benefit from more economists in government if more economists were a little more practiced at "people skills," like actively listening/expressive empathy/etc.. Most people are emotional beings (and I think all are, at some level), and need to have ther emotions/beliefs recognized. Economists, for a variety of reasons--the affects of their training, natural inclination towards analytical thinking, probably also a natural inclination towards introversion--probably aren't the best at making other people feel like they're being understood. People usually won't elect someone unless they feel like that person understands them, and most economists probably aren't too great at making people feel like they're understood.