20 June 2015

Herbal Economics: Economic Policy in Modern Democracies

About half of Americans believe at least one medical conspiracy theory. The most popular belief is that the FDA is "deliberately preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases because of pressure from drug companies."

What we know about medicine now is incomplete but it is based on studies. I have worked with drug companies and while they are interested in profits, the people in these companies really do want to create products that improve lives. And they can't just make up data. After a variety of animal and human studies, they have to prove the efficacy of their drug over a three year window. It is not enough to have a story or two to illustrate this. They need data. From a lot of people.

The standard of proof for FDA studies is high. The guy selling bee pollen for your cold is telling you a story. It may well be that bee pollen shortens colds by 3 days for 80% of the people who take it. There are no studies to prove that. Instead, the guy selling this product tells you a story. It's not scientific but it is appealing. No dangerous side effects. All natural. And it'll cure you.

It's a beautiful thing that people can buy bee pollen even though it hasn't met with FDA approval as a remedy for colds. But of course bee pollen isn't covered by medicare. Unless you are talking about boycotting vaccines and thus putting the population around you at risk, your medical choices are individual choices. Popular opinion is not binding on medical experts.

Which brings me to economic policy.

In a modern democracy, economic policy is ultimately the product of popular opinion. Sort of. Voters respond to candidates' stories and either vote for them or not. The candidates who get in are the ones who help to shape economic policy. And while doctors don't shape their advice to align with popular misconceptions; politicians who hope to get elected must.

And this is the problem. "Bee pollen," is easier to understand than, "based on the protocol defined by our doctors in conjunction with our institutional advisory boards, we saw an improvement of 53% of the people in our clinical study, as opposed to an improvement in 28% who took the placebo ..."

When it comes to economic policy, "we should run the government like a household," is easier to understand than, "the multiplier for government spending during a recession is somewhere between 0.9 and 1.7."

It's a wonderful thing that we have a democracy. It does mean, though, that we're subject to herbal economics, home remedies that make for appealing stories even in the absence of actual studies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think people forget that even in a democracy there are experts with specialist knowledge. And that if we're not a specialist in a particular area, we know less than someone who is an expert, whose expertise is based on relevant scholarship and not on anecdotal evidence. Alas, all opinions are not equal. And it's a good thing we don't vote on what a cold remedy should be. A few other things probably shouldn't be determined by popular vote too ...

Enjoyed this piece.

Betty S.