Seeing the world through a realist lens

Andra Ghent

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: This week we're going to be asking three future economists a simple question: Why? What drives an otherwise bright, curious and ambitious young person to take up a discipline also called the dismal science? For Andra Ghent it's because, in a world full of idealists, economists are the hard-boiled truth-tellers.


ANDRA GHENT: The way economists see the world just makes a lot of sense to me.

Economists don't actually think that people sit down with pen and paper to figure out whether the utility of eating an apple is really higher than that of eating an orange, but as Milton Friedman once said, the world sort of behaves "as if" we performed all these calculations. And I think this view of the world has very wide-ranging implications, for everything from climate change to financial market regulation.

What sort of distinguishes economists is the way we approach these social issues. We have this distinctly realist lens that we try to stick to. Too many public policy debates start from false premises about how people behave. And no matter how well-intentioned people are, the policy outcomes are going to be lousy if you start with a view about how the world should work instead of accepting how it does.

Also, I think public policy tends to confuse the ends with the means of policy. And that's something most economists are extremely careful to avoid.

I mean, there are reasons why economists have increasingly been researching areas traditionally dominated by other social scientists -- stuff like the marriage market, education, terrorism, religion: People just find the way economists view the world, and the rigor of our analysis, refreshing.

And our insights are often quite different than those other social scientists might come up with. I think our heavy use of mathematical modeling makes our analysis really quite precise.

And at the end of the day, we can take any public policy issues -- subprime, oil prices, anything really -- and tell a thousand different stories. But it's good economic analysis that lets us distinguish between wishful thinking and what's actually going on in the world.

RYSSDAL: Andra Ghent recently completed her PhD at the University of California San Diego.

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