Today I discovered a book the old fashioned way: while browsing the stacks at a brick-and-mortar library.
Published in 2010, Better Living Through Economics is a collection of essays that documents the impact of basic economic research on improving public policies. The collection is edited by John J. Siegfried, who is Professor of Economics at Vanderbilt University and the Secretary-Treasurer of the American Economic Association. All the contributors to the volume are top economists in the profession.
Better Living has a very direct connection to Madmen and our ongoing project, including this blog. As John Siegfried writes in the introduction to Better Living:
“Contributions to human welfare in the biological, medical, engineering, and electronics fields usually move from research to consumers through private-sector initiatives. Those contributions tend to be well documented through either our system of patents or academic endeavors to document systematically the history of science. In contrast, contributions to human welfare in economics often, but not always, move from research results to consumers through government policy decisions, and the steps from innovation to the adoption of economics to policy decisions remain a mystery. ” (p.2, my emphasis)
Solving that mystery is what Madmen and our ongoing project is all about. Of course new ideas can have beneficial consequences through the chain of events just described. But no idea has ever written itself down, and no idea has ever fought for itself in the public discourse or the halls of Washington. It takes people to make ideas matter. It takes political entrepreneurs, as we define it. That’s because in order for a different idea to take hold, it must first overcome the forces of the status quo. Vast areas of public policy remain wasteful and unjust because proponents of better ideas have yet to overcome the two main forces protecting the status quo: vested interests and prevailing belief systems.
It is one thing to trace beneficial policy changes back to the academic scribblers who first penned the ideas. It is a richer, more general task to explain why certain ideas have consequences but others do not—why certain bad policies get repealed and replaced while others endure. This is the motivation behind the framework that Wayne and I are building. By reminding us that the top of the economics profession is silent on this question, Better Living Through Economics shows just how ripe the time is to fill this niche.
Our answer, ultimately, is that basic research in economics plays a foundational role in political change. But economic ideas must be understood within a richer, more general understanding of political change. We need to go further than Better Living Through Economics. We need to extend to “Better Living Through Political Entrepreneurship.”
Note: Better Living seems to have gotten zero attention in the blogosphere until now. However, interested readers should definitely consume Ohio University economist Richard Vedder’s review at the Economic History Association. In a mere 1,000 words, Vedder conveys “the good, the bad, and, unfortunately, the ugly” with this book. Hint: some economists are rent seekers too!