Boring Economics Can Bridge a Divided America

Economics may be boring, but the lack of emotion could be just what a divided nation needs to have a civil conversation about taxes, trade, savings and jobs.

Economics may be boring, but the lack of emotion could be just what a divided nation needs to have a civil conversation about taxes, trade, savings and jobs.

America is deeply and perhaps even dangerously divided. Common ground has become almost extinct. But Miles Kimball says one unsuspecting subject could bridge the partisan divide – economics.

Kimball, who is a blog-writing economist, says economics could work to bring people together because it is, for lack of a better word, boring.

Unlike health care, border walls and Russian election meddling that spark emotional debates, Kimball says economics is unemotional. Economics is so unemotional, it can put you to sleep, as evidenced daily in college classrooms across America.

Politicians, Kimball explains, may not be the best interpreters of economics. They tend to turn it into an “us versus them” narrative and campaign promises, which are either unrealistic or counterproductive.

Take, for example, the Republican call for a “border adjustment,” which would raise the price of imports and cut taxes on exports in the name of preserving US jobs, reducing the trade deficit and raising revenue. Kimball said it might do the opposite by strengthening the US dollar, which in turn may encourage imports and dampen exports.

Miles Kimball is Eaton Professor of Economics at the University of Colorado and a regular Quartz columnist and blogger.

Miles Kimball is Eaton Professor of Economics at the University of Colorado and a regular Quartz columnist and blogger.

"The trouble is that border adjustment doesn’t do much to give the rest of the world access to the US dollars it would need to buy US goods,” Kimball explains. "Border adjustment is like trying to sell cars by giving car buyers a discount, but then failing to give them any financing.”

A better idea, Kimball says, is to boost the lagging US savings rate by automatically enrolling all workers in retirement savings plans, which would provide more money to lend abroad to buy US products.

"With Americans doing more saving, the United States wouldn’t need to borrow as much from the rest of the world to build houses and factories – and the trade balance would improve,” Kimball wrote for Quartz Media. "More exports and fewer imports would, in turn, lead to more of the types of jobs that many people want. In addition to lending abroad to finance US exports, extra saving would mean more funds for investments in the United States that would also lead to better-paying jobs.”

This is clearly not an idea that has occurred to Congress, which recently voted to eviscerate a Department of Labor ruling that cleared the way for state-sponsored retirement savings plans, including one in Oregon. Thee also is discussion in the Trump administration to drop the tax deferral on money going into company-sponsored 401(k) accounts, which would be used to offset predicted revenue losses from the President’s proposed tax cut.

Kimball puts the onus on economists, teachers and journalists to find ways to make economics as interesting as economic disasters. He believes the curiosity of Americans of all political stripes can be piqued.

"It’s clear that American voters on both sides of the political divide are invested in topics like jobs, trade, retirement and the plight of the working and middle classes.” he writes. "But often, hot-button issues such as immigration come to dominate the conversation about these subjects – perhaps because most people lack a solid grasp of the real forces that have created economic problems, or the mechanisms that might be able to address them.”

To follow Kimball’s suggestion, politicians might consider scheduling town hall meetings devoted to Economics 101. They might be less raucous and more informative.