Of the organized belief systems in America today, economics is surely among the strangest – and economists themselves are even stranger. How such agile and ambitious minds could drift so far out of touch with daily reality, is a question which merits the attentions of our most astute psychologists. The profession is like a cult of the highly IQd, and I’ve always wondered about the strange rites and rituals that could enable their beliefs to persist.
So last winter, when I heard that the American Economic Association was holding its annual meeting around the corner from my office, I felt a little like an anthropologist who finds an encampment of aborigines in his back yard. Would anyone raise questions about basic premises, as opposed to the arcane mathematics of hypothetical markets and pecuniary gain? Would they talk about the actual experience of ordinary Americans, or only abstractions like “productivity” and “growth?” I never imagined they’d be talking about me. Several months before, the Atlantic Monthly had published an article by myself and two colleagues, Cliff Cobb and Ted Halstead, called “If the economy is up, why is America down?” The article explored the paradox that had befuddled the nation’s policy establishment during the 1992 Congressional campaigns. The economy was doing well, by the conventional reckonings – the GDP was up: people were supposed to be happy and fulfilled.