There are sometimes notable exceptions, where gifted presenters capture fairly complex ideas using simple analogies, word pictures, graphic illustrations, etc. But these instances are pretty rare (for example, I’ve seen only a handful TED talks that actually pull this off), and usually limited to fields of study that can be communicated in a “concrete sequential” way. Particularly dynamic or fluid areas of study with many competing or conflicting dimensions and interdisciplinary dependencies really can’t be represented well in infographics — or, when they are, those representations can end up overly abbreviated and inadequate.
Economics is one of those complex and multifaceted areas of study. It is nearly impossible to shoehorn the complex thought of many accomplished economists’ theories into a simple, easily-grasped infographic. To do so would simply be an injustice to the original ideas. And this is becoming more the case, rather than less so, because so many disciplines have come to intersect with economics. Consider attempting to summarize how Marx, Keynes, Rawls, Veblen, Schumacher, Sen, Picketty, Ostrom, and many others who have contributed to “progressive” economic theory interact with and amplify each other’s observations and proposals! It would be a daunting task…and likely a fruitless one if we attempt to keep things “easily explained.”
At the other end of the spectrum (i.e. conservative/neoliberal economics), we have the Laffer curve, drawn on a napkin in a restaurant, which had no empirical basis or application but “made intuitive sense” in the political sphere, and so became part of an easy sell for trickle-down, supply side economic theory (which has since been debunked by real-world evidence). And we have catchy phrases like “rational actors” in the Austrian School, also without empirical basis, which nonetheless folks can easily grasp and agree with. In fact the list is pretty long for neoliberal economic tropes that have broad popular appeal, but no real-world evidence to support them.
This fundamental problem — what we might call the “pop-psych dilemma,” because it results in similar pseudoscientific consequences — can be found in many different disciplines. Some complex concepts are just really difficult to understand and communicate, and as our scientific framing of the world (or a particular area of study) becomes more and more complex, the ability to effectively communicate those concepts and their supportive evidence becomes increasingly difficult…certainly for anyone who wants simple, easy answers, and doesn’t want to spend time learning the subtleties of something new.
And that’s why sound bite emotional-appeal political discussions rarely go beyond the superficial catch phrases for a given topic. A sales pitch is hardly ever substantive — and that’s really all such policy discussions in mass media, social media, and the political sphere usually are.
Do you see the problem? The minute we make an “easily digestible” explanation of a complex topic (in economics, climate science, epidemiology, etc.) we are almost certainly going to get it wrong. We are going to distort truth to shoehorn complexity into an easily appreciated talking point.
Which is of course precisely what the champions of conservative/neoliberal economic policy tend to do: they convey simple, watered down word pictures of a worldview that is persuasive and sells well, but is ultimately just misleading and false. Milton Friedman was perhaps the greatest master of this technique: he just kept lying and distorting reality — passionately and entertainingly — until a lot of folks just started to believe him and parrot his words.
With all of this said, there are a few “progressive economists” who have tried to provide simplified representations of economic theory. I’m not a tremendous fan, for the very reasons I’ve just outlined here, though I do still find them entertaining. Some examples would be Ha Joon Chang and Robert Reich. Here’s a pretty good sample:
IMO what we somehow need to do is encourage people to enjoy learning, enjoy being “intellectual,” enjoy rich and complex language and ideas — as part of our cultural norm. Then we might actually be able to make decent democratic decisions about these complex issues. Until then…well…we’re likely to just be hoodwinked by the slickest salesman.
My 2 cents.
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