Two economics professors, Russell Roberts and William Polley, debate economic literacy, and what can be done about it here (the link will expire tomorrow).
Maybe we need a new name for what we do when we talk about tradeoffs and unintended consequences, emergent prices, market forces and the seen and the unseen — the whole range of creative ways that economics helps you see the world. When people hear the word “economics,” they think of either the stock market or someone talking about the Fed’s latest move. Those things are related to economics, yes, but if that’s all people think we think about, it’s like hearing the word football and assuming it’s about the ball of your foot. It leaves out the most interesting stuff.
“The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” on the other hand, is a treatise on temperance. It is a study of propriety, sympathy, and justice. Sadly, many people don’t even know the book exists or that it was written by the man who is sometimes called the “father of capitalism.” Ignorance of Smith’s other major work leads people to think that economics is only about greed, self-interest, and rational maximization. As a result, many intelligent people who would be quite capable of becoming economically literate are turned off to economics because they see it as promoting a “greed is good” mentality that doesn’t square with their world view. Unfortunately, this perception is so well embedded in the pop culture view of economics and economists that it may be very difficult to reverse.