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?