Why are there so few economists in elected office?

Matthew Kahn asks, “Why are there so few economists in elected office?” (link from Arnold Kling). He states that 45% of Congressmembers are lawyers (which seems a bit much, I must say!) but only some small number of economists (Matthew names two).

I was curious about this so I looked up some statistics–not on Congress but on the workforce. According to the 1001 Statistical Abstract of the United States (within arms reach of my computer, of course!), there were 139,000 economists employed in the United States, which reprsented 0.1% of the employed population. 1% of 535 is about 1/2, so with at least two economists in Congress, the profession is hardly unrepresented.

139,000 is a crude estimate because it presumably represents the people whose job title is “economist” (and thus wouldn’t include, for example, Matt himself, whose job title is “professor”). But, even throwing in all these economics professors and various other practicing economists, I still don’t think it would add up to the half-million that would be necessary to reach 2/535 of the employed population.

This is not to debate the merits of Matt’s argument–perhaps Congress would indeed be better if it included more economists–but rather to note that people with this sort of job are a small minority in the U.S. (In contrast, there were 720,000 physicians, 170,000 dentists, and 2.1 million nurses, and 1.7 million health technicans in the U.S.)

To put it another way, without reference to economists (or to the 2.1 million “mathematical and computer scientists” out there): the Statistical Abstract has 260,000 psychologists. Certainly Congress would be better off with a few psychologists, who might understand how citizens might be expected to react to various policies. (Matt’s written a bit on disaster mitigation, and there’s been lots of psychological research on this topic, both on how people perceive risk, how they react to good and bad news, and how they can be helped following severe stress.)

As I said, I’m willing to believe that the country’s 890,000 lawyers are being overrepresented, but what about the 114,000 biologists? A few of these in Congress might advance the understanding of public health. And then there are the 290,000 civil engineers–I’d like to have a few of them around also. I’d also like some of the 280,000 child care workers and 620,000 pre-K and kindegarten teachers to give their insight on deliberations on family policy. And the 1.1 million police officers and 340,000 prison guards will have their own perspectives on justice issues.

So I think that representation is a tricky issue. Most of us would probably like more “people like us” in Congress, but that’s tough with only 535 seats to go around, and given that there are a lot of politicians already out there (many of whom are lawyers) who you’d be competing with.

4 thoughts on “Why are there so few economists in elected office?

  1. Well, there's Phil Gramm. Not a good start. That guy was a creep.

    If we lived in a world where voters cared about reality, economists would make great politicians. The economists I have known have a low tolerance for bullshit.

    How about President Bartlett? He's got a Nobel Prize! (I'm talking about the West Wing on TV).

  2. C,

    Matt actually mentioned Phil Gramm as one of his two examples in his post. My point was really twofold: first, to point out the relatively small proportion of "professionals" in the population, so that 2/535 actually is more-than-proportional representation of economists; and second, to note that economists offer one set of perspectives, but other professions such as nurse, biologist, psychologist, computer scientist, child care worker, and police officer offer other perspectives that are also relevant to government functions. This was not to disagree with Matt's post but rather to try to put it in a larger "statistical" perspective.

  3. I think it is important to define the term "economist." Is someone who majored in economics an economist even though that person today may be a stay-at-home mom or a computer programmer? To me being an economist is more a way of thinking & analyzing things than whether or not one is running Tobit models daily. And as far as having Congress look like us, I am definitely against that — who wants alcoholics, rapists, and murderers representing us (oops, perhaps we already do)?

  4. I think the valid part of the Matts post is actually that public office is a public policy related field, i.e. the persons who works in it should be trained/ have studied/ have years of experience in it. As such, we would expect lawyers, political scientists, criminologists, public planners, and "captains of industry" to be the likely candidates for public office.

    The point about representative samples is somewhat silly – I don't want an economist doing my dental work any more than I want a dentist calculating my marginal taxation rate, mostly because they self-select into those roles. They very well might be able to advise one another (a crown is more cost-effective than a denture), but representative proportions imply a random sample, which public office definitely is not.

    That said, I think the point is interesting, but economists are actually doing what they do best in public service – running numbers, doing analysis, and advising politicians. The politicians who are the compromising and decision making people then use the information.

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