by the Sandwichman
In the 1940s, the RJ Reynolds tobacco company conducted an ad campaign featuring the slogan, "More Doctors Smoke Camels than any other Cigarette." I would like to suggest a thought exercise that focuses on the peculiarities and strategems of that slogan. We could call this game "more economists smoke free enterprise than any other paradigm."
What can be learned from playing such a game? First, the importance of distinguishing between number, fact, truth, authority, image, assumption and innuendo. Second, the difficulty of criticizing a discourse that glides heedlessly from one kind of claim to another. The discourse in question isnt "medicine" or "economics" per se -- it just plays one on TV. Finally, I would like to offer the observation that it is precisely the agility of the pseudo-economic discourse in evading such a decisive critique -- rather than any specific error -- that marks economics itself as "unscientific".
In the Camels ad campaign, it was claimed that a nationwide survey of 113,597 doctors asked, "what cigarette do you smoke, Doctor?" The number is audacious -- as if it would not be enough to say "more than 100,000 doctors." Ah, if measurement be the food of science, count on the unrounded sum to be an unquestionable scientific fact indeed. According to Jackler and Proctor at Stanford School of Medicine, though, RJ Reynolds's surveyors handed out cartons of Camels at AMA conventions and then asked recipients what brand of cigarettes they smoked. Based on such a deliberate sample bias, the resulting number doesn't constitute a credible "fact".
But that's beside the point. What if more doctors did indeed smoke Camels? So what? The ad isn't just reporting a concocted fact. It is trading on the popular image of the medical doctor as a scientific, but at the same time, sympathetic and avuncular authority figure to produce the innuendo that if HE smokes Camels (in the iconography of the ads, doctors are almost exclusively male) then it must be GOOD FOR YOU.
The corresponding swindle relating to economics takes place outside of economic theory proper. When economists use theoretical abstractions in constructing their models, such as a perfectly competitive market, they are not necessarily claiming any such thing exists (or ever could exist) in the real world. Apologists for economic privilege, however, like to pretend that establishing free markets is a simple matter of "government getting out of the way." Left unsaid is that such magic inevitably requires that government first construct the very way that it is then supposed to get out of. The only thing in common between the economists' abstraction and the political propagandists' holy grail is the name "free market". Economics doesn't necessarily confuse the two. But all too often economists themselves and the economics profession as a whole honour those who do conflate glib apologetics with economic theory and marginalize those who criticize such obfuscation.
It is as if doctors and the medical profession were to smile benignly on the Camel ads, damnable innuendo and all... which, in effect, they did. According to Jackler and Proctor, the Camel ads appeared regularly in medical journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association. R.J. Reynolds conducted its bogus surveys from booths at AMA conventions. Presumably, the medical profession didn't strenuosly object to the Camel ad campaign because the ads presented a flattering image of doctors as scientists and humanitarians. In the end, though, it was medical researchers and doctors who established the undeniable link between smoking and cancer. The Stanford Medical School hosts a fascinating and enlightening exhibit, "Not a cough in a carload: images from the tobacco industry campaign to hide the hazards of smoking."
Meanwhile, the economics profession continues to sanction or tolerate images and innuendo about economics that are not only at odds with "the facts" but are patently false, misleading and toxic. When a critic points out some glaring discrepancy of method or assumption, it is always possible to find a counter example. Not all economists, for that matter, "smoke free enterprise". But enough of them do to send up a toxic cloud of confusion and complacency.
Is it accidental that the most enthusiastic "smokers" among economists are often high-profile public personalities? One might even suspect they rise to prominence because they espouse a well-funded ideological position -- poster boys and girls for the "scientific credentials" of their sponsor's political slant on economics. "Doctors smoking Camels" tarnished the integrity of a medical establishment that condoned the fraudulent use of their professional image. "Economists smoking free enterprise" is no less worthy of ridicule.