This week marks the completion of 10 full years of this column.
Some 520 columns and roughly 300,000 total words have been written over the decade, and the column is now syndicated across more than 25 news outlets.
The column gives me a useful outlet to speak to economic issues, or matters that bear on the economics of the moment. This has been an exciting and tumultuous time to write about economic policy, and along the way I’ve learned quite a few things.
The first thing is that the real world holds an abundance of useful economic ideas. Whether it is describing supply and demand using Silly Bands as my example, exploring the incentive effects of taxation using Halloween candy or thinking through the role of public school quality on household location decisions, the simple elements of life provide endless examples. Economics is happily all around us.
The second thing I’ve learned is the breadth of economic research that is readily available to the public. Nearly every column I write requires the reading of more than one study. This forces me to read far more broadly than my research work would demand, which has given me insights I would not have otherwise gained.
For all the good this column has done me, I am also disheartened by some of the experience. Economics is a required class in high schools, and the internet is old enough that everyone should be able to find the facts about which I write. Still, the overall level of knowledge on economic facts troubles me. And to be clear, I don’t mean disagreements, but factual ignorance. Let me explain.
I think that the minimum wage is a poor public policy, and suggest we should use other tools, like a universal basic income or EITC to mitigate poverty. Others disagree, and many offer compelling, reasoned arguments. However, a civil and informed discussion requires both sides know what a minimum wage is, how many folks work at the minimum wage and something about how labor markets set wages. The first two of these are simple facts, readily found in any library or online. The latter point requires some economic education, but not much beyond high school. Yet pure wrongness on such simple matters is common.
My surprise comes not in discovering that there are folks who don’t know some particulars of an economic issue. I suffer from that a lot. Rather, the surprise comes in the likelihood that someone will post online comments or write a letter to the editor when they have nothing true or useful to say about a topic. I suspect the newness of online media lends itself to this sort of low-quality discussion. Still, I often feel like a physicist trying to explain Newton’s Laws to someone whose highest intellectual exposure to the law of gravity came from a Roadrunner cartoon.
I cannot talk about writing publicly without noting the vileness and vitriol of online discussion. Many folks have commented on this, but having spent more than a decade as an infantry soldier, my tolerance level for rough talk is legendary. Still, I am often shocked at what now passes as acceptable in online posts, and I discourage my family from reading them. Culturally, we are going to have to get better at this or face some dire consequences.
Finally, I should say that the hardest part of writing a column lies in keeping it brief. The 500-600-word threshold is modest for even one important idea. That’s especially true for a professor, who is literally trained to profess. The limits of space mean that I have to address a few facts, and rarely more than one piece of analysis. Where my point has been actually misunderstood, I think I’ll blame the limits of space and my own limitations as a writer.
That said, I plan on offering up at least another decade of this column and hope it is as rewarding as the last 10 years.
Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected].