This week’s Economist contains some sad figures about my home country, the United States. Only one third of Americans believe free-trade agreements are good for the economy, the lowest figure in the developed world. On the other hand, a famous study in 1992 by Alston, Kearl and Vaughan (google: “Is There a Consensus Among Economists in the 1990's?") found that 93% of economists support free trade. Why is there such a discrepancy, not just in America, but worldwide?
Economics, in general, is not exactly intuitive. Most people don’t naturally come to the same conclusions that Ricardo and Smith came to without instruction and explanation. It is much easier to comprehend, "We should have tariffs because if we don’t, people will buy sugar from Jamaica instead of America. Plus — it could be contaminated since it comes from a developing nation."
The problem is that most people never really learn economics. Some high schools offer one course as an elective class, but most students go through high school knowing nothing of supply and demand and absolutely nothing of comparative advantage. In university, students generally only take economics if it is a required course — meaning many students graduate college without ever studying economics — even those who aspire to be high school teachers. If high schools did start to offer economics, who would be qualified to teach it?
The general lack of understanding carries grave implications. If voters oppose free-trade agreements, then politicians will certainly pander to fill their need. The doors open wide for demagoguery —meaning free-trade advocates are portrayed as insensitive and greedy.
It could be people never learn because they don’t have the opportunity. Perhaps though, it’s just because the OK! Magazine special of Wayne Rooney’s wedding is just so much more interesting than The Economist…