This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with economist Brian Albrecht, the co-author of the Substack newsletter Economic Forces, about the utility of economic theory, the reasons to be skeptical about sweeping policy reforms, and lessons for young economists about using social media to present their ideas, engage experts, and learn.
You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.
SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Brian Albrecht, the chief economist at the International Centre for Law and Economics, a U.S.-based policy research organization, as well as an assistant professor of economics at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and has published extensively in academic journals and popular outlets, including the Boston Globe and City Journal.
Brian has also cultivated a larger audience for his weekly economics newsletter on Substack, which he co-publishes with Ole Miss Economics Professor Josh Hendrickson, called Economic Forces. Hub listeners should definitely sign up. The newsletter is a reliable source of thought-provoking topics, interesting takes, and lots of data, theory, and evidence. I’m grateful to speak with him about a wonky set of topics such as his views on big tech and non-compete agreements, all rooted in the process of translating economic analysis into public policy.
Brian, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
BRIAN ALBRECHT: Hey, thanks for having me. Really excited. I always want to talk about economics.
SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with the underlying premise of your Substack newsletter. In your initial post in September 2020, you and your co-author, Josh Hendrickson, wrote that you were dedicating the newsletter to price theory because, as you put it, “economic theory, especially the price theoretical approach, is still a valuable tool.” Let me ask a two-part question. First, what is the idea or problem that you were initially aiming to address? And second, for our listeners without economics training, what is price theory and why do you think it’s important?
BRIAN ALBRECHT: So our Substack’s a little weird in that it’s really geared towards students, professors, people in the weeds of economics. There are some policy angles, but it’s really meant for us to try to convey to other economists, other econ-adjacent intellectuals, how we think about the world. And one thing that we, Josh and I, really put forward as central to our thinking is what we call price theory, which is an approach to economic theory.
It is economic theory about the systematic chains of cause and effect. Prices adjust in ways that we can predict, in ways that we can understand rooted in supply and demand. And that theory is really important to how we understand the world.
Now, you have to understand a little bit about where we’re coming from in the economics profession. Theory is not the big game in town like it used to be. There is a lot of reduced form. Economics is now data-heavy or looking for natural experiments type of analysis, and theory has taken a backseat. And we think that that’s not ideal for the profession, not ideal for economic research, but also not ideal for the broader policy discussion.
A lot of people have in the back of their mind some implicit theory. But we can actually be explicit about it. And it doesn’t need to be a ton of math. It doesn’t need to be overly complicated, but we should be explicit that [when say] what we’re talking about is a demand shift. Or we’re talking about supply changing. All the things that an econ 101 class would’ve heard about, but now we’re going to push it to the floor and get as much out of it as we can.
SEAN SPEER: You observe in the newsletter that that approach to economics would’ve been taught at places like the University of Chicago and UCLA in the past. But as you just said, Brian, it’s less present today. What happened? Why do you think it’s seen its place in economics decline?
BRIAN ALBRECHT: That’s a really good question and requires someone who knows more about the history of the field than I do. But I have a few conjectures. One is that one of the things that research in general pushes is for new innovative statements. You need to find the latest data. You need to have the newest clever theory. And so in economic theory, what that resulted in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, is just a proliferation of new theories, particularly around game theory.
One of the wonderful things about game theory is you can move pieces all you want to explain every new phenomenon; you can write down a new game for this company interacting with that company, and you can continually come up with new results. And so the research side is all about coming up with new models.
But we think that on the just general thinking side, there’s stuff rooted in the classics in what we teach in 101, in intermediate micro. The things we think all economists should know they’re still valuable, but just the nature of doing academic research, that’s not what is rewarded. You want to come up with something new and fresh. You can’t just say, “Hey, look, it’s just supply and demand.” I’m an economic theorist. If I tried to publish a paper that just said, “It’s supply and demand,” it would never get published. I’ve tried to, but people think it’s the most trivial thing ever. And so that’s the theory side.
There’s also been a move for other reasons towards a more data-heavy side, which is a story that has legitimate and I think more sinister reasons, but it’s another push that the profession as a whole has moved away from theory, partially in response to this idea that now what theory means around 1990 and 1995, is make up any story you want. And if that’s the case, well, we better ground a lot of things in data to sort out what’s a good theory and what’s a bad theory.
I’d say, “No, let’s go back.” Let’s not allow our theory to say anything. Let’s think about supply and demand, and therefore we’re constrained. Today’s newsletter actually was about thinking about inflation and thinking about how let’s not base our explanation on greed or market power or something. It’s just supply and demand. And then we can think through where inflation came from.
SEAN SPEER: As I alluded, the newsletter covers a breadth of topics that will be interesting to economists and non-economists, especially if the latter is interested in ideas and public policy.
Let me give an example. I really liked your July 2022 post on market failures. You write: “When we say that there are no market failures in an economy, we are also saying that the economy is efficient. It’s efficient in the strongest sense of the word. Surplus is maximized, and God couldn’t come down, move goods around, and make anyone better off. Wow, that’s a high bar.”
Why do you think we’ve come to see market failures virtually everywhere? And what’s the risk for policymakers who have come to see their role as correcting for them as opposed to accepting that they’re somewhat inevitable and that markets can often work them out on their own?
BRIAN ALBRECHT: That’s a great question. It’s a high bar that economic theory sets for itself in what’s traditionally called the First Welfare Theorem. That as competitive markets are efficient, they maximize welfare; they maximize surplus. It’s like, literally, I can’t imagine a better situation. Everything is going perfectly. Now, when we look to the world, it’s obvious that that’s not the world we live in. There are all sorts of problems. But problems only relative to this benchmark of God himself or herself, whatever your perspective is. I use that for dramatic effect. No way to imagine a better world. And so it’s this idea that you’re comparing it against or you’re making what Harold Demsetz called the nirvana fallacy. You’re comparing it to nirvana, to perfection.
And so I think I have a different post on biases and economic theory which gets at this. If you just say that this market works, economic theory and publishing is never going to think that that’s an interesting result. We’ve already known the formal results about when markets are efficient. They go back a long time. They go back in the most formal terms, to the ’60s and ’70s. Now it’s all about finding slightly different ways that things are inefficient in a way that you maybe didn’t expect and trying to be clever there. So you’re trying to find problems, and that’s the nature of intellectual life. I think the world is going great, but there’s a big push of intellectual effort towards finding all the problems in the world. And that’s what we need to advance as a society. So I’m not saying we shouldn’t do that, but there is a bias within academia to find a problem because when there’s a problem, there’s a solution. And therefore, you can come in with a clever policy trick in your model, in your paper, that fixes this sort of thing.
Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s no room for improving the world, constantly improving the world. I think economics can help us improve the world, okay? But we should be a little bit more humble about: I have a model. I look at the world; the world doesn’t look like my model. Well, there are two things that could be wrong. One is that the world is wrong and it should look more like my model. The other is my model could be wrong, okay? And we’re going to talk about non-competes later, and in my post on non-competes, I make this point. It’s like, let’s take a second to believe that maybe I wrote down the wrong model. I thought that the labour market was the simple version of supply and demand where workers show up every day and say that, “I’m going to work for you for eight hours. How much you’re going to pay me? Okay, I’ll work for you. No, I won’t work for you.” In reality, the labour market is much more complex. These relationships are long-term. Firms make big investments upfront, and maybe make a return at the end. And so if we think that the labour market looks like “buying and selling corn,” we have the wrong model. And so we should be willing to accept that and think about what that means for policy.
SEAN SPEER: As you say, Brian, we’ll come to this subject of non-compete agreements, in which you’ve been a catalyst for a debate amongst economists about conventional thinking on the subject. But before we get there, I want to take up your thinking and writing on the subject of big tech and recent calls to use antitrust laws to either block them from getting bigger or even to break them up altogether.
Late last year, for instance, you wrote an article for The Dispatch about an ongoing case involving Meta, formally Facebook’s, efforts to purchase a fitness app that has received scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission. In it, you wrote, “It’s as if one looked at the market power wielded by Yahoo or Ask Jeeves in the early days of internet search and decided the U.S. needed antitrust enforcement to break them up.”
What do you think explains the tendency for many of us, including, of course, politicians, to underestimate the market’s ability to eventually produce dynamic competition? What is it that gets us to focus on a static view of Facebook’s market power at any given moment rather than Ask Jeeves’ fleeting time as an online powerhouse?
BRIAN ALBRECHT: There are so many good photos, good news headlines: “Nokia’s monopoly. Who can ever take down Nokia?” And then a month later the iPhone comes out, right? I think there’s a myopia of it. Everyone’s just thinking about now. We need this to get through life. We need to forget the bad stuff that happened. We need to forget the past in some sense. And so we’re so focused on the here and now. We can’t imagine the world being different in the past than it is today. And so there’s a big emphasis on viewing the world as it is right now.
And I think this ties back to our other point about market failures. We look at the market as it is right now, but we don’t think about it over time, evolving, responding to different changes, and things like that. So that’s not a unique aspect of big tech. That’s just, we think about the big issues right now. And that’s—we think about inflation right now when it’s a thing. Even though two years ago we wouldn’t have thought about it, we forget that we can go back to that world, so on and so forth.
Now, Big Tech, why is Big Tech a good scapegoat? One is everyone knows about it. It’s in everyone’s lives. It gets much more attention than its GDP footprints. The amount of money generated by the Facebook of the world is minuscule compared to other, say like, manufacturing, which gets way fewer headlines. So one thing is it’s right in everyone’s face, and that means it’s valuable as a talking point for politicians and for people who benefit from attention. Whether that means people in bureaucracy, people that are academics trying to get attention, I mean, myself included. I write about it much more than its GDP footprint. So it’s right in front of everyone. Everyone can relate to it. When you talk about Meta, when you talk about Google, everyone knows what that is. If you start digging into this health-care company, whether it can merge with that health-care company, no one knows that outside the particular geographic region.
So it’s a big point that everyone can latch onto. And then there’s stuff that people don’t like about it. It’s one of these things of a big change. People don’t like change, even though they sometimes are—yes, I like that I’m on Facebook; I use it all the time, but there are these spillover effects that I maybe don’t like. We hear these stories about teen mental health. There are loneliness stories, things like that. And so there are lots of other problems that are connected to Big Tech, in particular social media, interactions with politics, and things like that. And so then we think, okay, they’re bad; therefore, everything they do is bad. I think that that’s a very common perception, at least in the policy sphere. And so they’re useful scapegoats in the same way that any other time that something makes a news story we can point to them as that’s causing the problem. Let’s do something about it. Again, pointing back to art, we got find a problem, we got to find a solution. And it just so happens to be that, oh, “I, the politician, the FTC chairperson, get to be the solution.” How convenient is that?
SEAN SPEER: We’ve talked about it a bit. Let’s take up the subject of non-compete agreements now. You recently wrote a post challenging the growing consensus in favour of a government ban on non-compete agreements between employers and employees. There’s a large movement for such perform on the grounds that it impedes worker choice and produces market distortions. The Ontario government here, for instance, has recently moved in this direction, but you’re not so sure it’s a good idea. Why?
BRIAN ALBRECHT: A funny thing about that post is I sense that there was a growing consensus that people, at least online, were against non-competes and thought that this band was a good idea. The moment I pushed publish, right after I sent it, someone sent me a survey from a few hours earlier, it was posted a few hours earlier, of top economists done by Chicago Booth. And that survey, which is the closest thing we have to a regular survey of economists (it’s not all economists, it’s very selected, top of tier), showed a lot more skepticism a lot more uncertainty, more in line with what I believe, than people that are really vocal online saying, “We know non-competes are bad, therefore it’s justified to ban them.” So I would start with that there’s uncertainty. Some people are very sure that what the policy sphere or what the policy impact will be. I’m a little bit less sure. And I think that that’s actually where the modal economist is.
Part of that difference as I get into it in my newsletter is I think that there are good theoretical reasons, even if we don’t get the best measurement of what happens, there are good theoretical reasons that we would expect these sorts of non-competes. And I lay out the traditional one, although there are a few different ones. You hire someone today; you need to train them for them to be valuable to you. Well, you don’t want them to, the moment you train them for them to leave to another competitor, otherwise, you’re not going to get a return on your investment. And so you need to have ways to tie that relationship up. Sometimes companies do it through bonuses in the future or vested stock options, things like that. But going back to our point about it’s not just hiring today like buying corn on the commodity trade, that there’s this longer-term contract that we should think of these as being part of a longer-term relationship between workers and employers.
Now, against that standard theory, there have been really good papers digging into what happens to wages when states ban these non-competes, and they find rises in wages after the ban goes into effect, which means that, implicitly, the non-competes were holding down wages. But these are relatively new papers. I think this is one of the reasons that most economists really express a lot of uncertainty about this. There are a few papers, they’re really well done, but relative to other policy debates like around what’s the effect of incentives on R&D, or what’s the effect of the minimum wage? The literature on non-competes is very, very small. And I think there are a lot of things to be worked out in the technical literature, which I don’t contribute to that. I don’t claim to be an expert on non-competes and not an expert on labour markets more generally. But I am someone who comes with, I think, a healthy skepticism to the growing consensus on a lot of dimensions.
SEAN SPEER: Your post on non-competes is one of my favourite on the site because it’s not merely an economic analysis of a particular issue. It’s also, as you put it, “a meta post about policy and how I think about moving from the science of economics to the art of policy.” What’s the broader point you’re making here, Brian? And what’s your theory about the translation of economics into policymaking?
BRIAN ALBRECHT: You’ll see in a lot of our posts, there’s this more meta point about how we think about—there’s a narrow topic we want to talk about, but then we think it has implications for how we think about how we talk about other things. And so this was the extreme example where I’m upfront saying, “This is actually a meta post.” I’m going to give you a little bit of detail of the literature on non-competes, but it’s really about, I’m not debating that, I’m saying, “Let’s take that, and then what does that mean for policy?” and it’s a tough thing. It’s this going back to our point about the model and the world not lining up. And is it the model that’s wrong? Is it me who’s wrong? Is the world wrong? How do we sort out which one it is? How do we find improvements?
In a naive, just-keep-testing-theory in high school science, you just generate a hypothesis, test the theory, then you’ll find the right theory. And in that sort of a world, this isn’t a problem. But in real science, in the social sciences especially, but even in the biological sciences and the physical sciences where I came from, it’s not that neat. And it takes more of an art to go from generating theory and then thinking about how that plays over to policy.
So I stressed in that newsletter two aspects of my thinking. One is that, circling back, I think economic theory gives us a lot of insight. I think it’s proven useful in situation after situation that we try to explain in our newsletter. But it is more just like it’s an internal feeling I have based on spending the last decade-plus really devoting my life’s work to economics. So I think theory is important and it helps us think through things and think through where we’re missing measurements maybe, what could be going wrong with our—just go out and measure it. Just go out and find the experiment and measure it. Well, there are lots of things that we need to think about in theory that can help us sort through that.
So, relative to other economists, I put more weight on the theory. It could be disproven, but the idea from economic theory that people sign these because it’s beneficial and not because they’re being exploited. I think that we should start with a point that if people continually do something, that there’s some value to it. The other thing that is a corollary of that is I think if policies are in place over a long enough time. And there’s feedback, so I’m not talking about slavery, I’m not talking about oppression, or war. I’m saying in situations where there’s feedback—like there is feedback between workers and employers, okay? And across many employers across many employees, and we see the same relationship. Maybe there’s a reason for it.
It may be a bad thing, and we can improve the world by changing policy. But I shouldn’t start from the premise that workers day in and day out are signing an agreement that is harmful to them, okay? I should be humble enough that I don’t know the ins and outs of this relationship; I’m not measuring it well enough, okay? I’m not measuring it well enough, so there’s something that I’m missing. And so I put a little bit more emphasis—actually maybe a lot more emphasis—on things that people day in and day out have been signing, and the economy’s going well overall. People seem to be happy, incomes are going up. All the things in the U.S. that we think they’re not as good as they could be, technological progress is down, business dynamism is down until recently, but the economy is still chugging along.
And so I’m a little bit more of a Chesterton’s fence respecter. If there’s a fence there, I don’t know what it’s for. Before I tear it down, I should at least grapple with what it’s doing. And the serious people in this field are grappling with it. I don’t mean to imply that the researchers are not, but I think with some of the translated policy, they see this thing that seems on the face of it to be destructive to workers. Well, it’s destructive. It’s obvious. It’s called a non-compete. It’s in the title, you can’t compete. We want competition. Therefore, get rid of it. Well, let’s take a second. Let’s think about it.
And so I’m not even saying in that post that we shouldn’t have state-level bans or your courts shouldn’t rule against these sort of agreements and call them unconscionable and avoid them, I’m just saying, I don’t think we’re there for a national ban in the United States across 330 million people, across all labour contracts, besides a few tiny exceptions, like for business owners. I don’t have the confidence to overturn policy that way. And I don’t have the confidence to overturn other policies that are more in my—it’s not a Right-Left thing or a free market, anti-free market. I don’t have that confidence to get rid of income tax, just get rid of the income tax tomorrow. It’s like, well, we’ve had it for a long time; the economy’s done pretty well. Maybe it’s actually a pretty good way of getting revenue for the government to do the things that it needs to do. I’m not a radical in that way.
SEAN SPEER: Let me take up this point because I think it’s such an interesting line of argument. In a way, it’s a kind of application of Burkean ideas and Burkean insights to an economic framework. As you say, Brian, you write in the post that you “place weight on the benefits of existing agreements or institutions,” by which I interpret you to be saying that you assume that arrangements or institutions that have persisted over time are likely efficient, or they would’ve been scrapped at some point.
Let me put a two-part question to you: First, do you want to elaborate a bit on the limiting principles that you would apply to this way of thinking about economics? Second, on the question of efficient, is that the point that you’re making? That institutional arrangements that are persistent over time are efficient in a pure or sole economic sense? Or do you mean efficient in a broader political economy sense?
BRIAN ALBRECHT: Great questions. So on efficiency, so we started this conversation by saying that one notion—it’s very confusing, economist, use efficiency—I was sloppy on this, but one notion of efficiency is very strong, as we said, is God himself couldn’t rearrange things. But sometimes efficiency is a little bit weaker sense. Pareto efficiency, as the technical term, is actually a very weak standard. I guess the way I would think about it, and if I would rewrite the post, I would make it more explicit, is they can’t be that bad, okay? I could imagine situations that would improve it, but if it was, it’s the $20 bill on the sidewalk sort of thing. If everyone claims that there are $20 bills lying all over the sidewalks, well, people’s self-interest, people’s rational action, will pick those up. Now, that doesn’t mean there’s never a $20 bill on the sidewalk, but what it means is if someone says, “Hey, I know where a $20 bill is, but first pay me $10.” I’m going to be a little bit hesitant, right?
I’m going to take a higher burden than just someone saying that there’s a $20 bill on the sidewalk before I believe that there’s a $20 bill, especially if they have some incentive as politicians do for being less than honest about things. So yes, it’s a very Burkean idea. I brought up Chesterton’s fence. A similar concept is that we should be respecting of these institutions. They may not be the best thing possible, but they have some value, and we should understand them.
Now, what’s the limiting principle? As always, the limiting principle in economics has to do with your outside option. What are the other things you could be doing? What is your exit option?
If you can exit, then that’s a feedback mechanism that says that “Okay, the fact that you’re not exiting tells us something.” Okay? So if I go to one coffee shop day in and day out, and then next door to it is another coffee shop, I can’t say it’s the best coffee shop in the world that I go to, but it’s better than the other one. And it’s probably pretty good all considered, okay? It’s good for me. I like it because I keep going there day in and day out. Now, if I’m in the middle of nowhere and that’s the only coffee shop in town, we should be less confident at how much I value going to that coffee shop. So it’s all about your ability to exit, your ability to provide feedback, or and say no if that’s not the case.
And so in markets, generally, we think of this as a very strong force. If I don’t like targets, prices, and quality on groceries, I go across the street to Walmart. I get their prices and their quality, and there’s this disciplining action that means that when I keep going to a store again and again, we expect them to be relatively efficient, to do things relatively well, to be providing relatively good quality. Now, anyone who’s been in business knows that there’s always room for improvement. These companies can lower costs, they can improve quality, and that’s what the business is constantly trying to do. But me, as the outsider, I shouldn’t come in and say, Target’s doing it terribly. Well, if they’re doing it so terribly, why are they making money in it and out every single year? I should be a little bit more hesitant again about that.
Now, where do we not have feedback? Slavery’s an extreme example of no feedback, any sort of oppression. And as political frameworks moved from very oppressive to very free, they moved closer to the market. And so in that post, the line that everyone seemed to skip, was this idea that in democratic societies where people can vote, people can respond in courts, people can move across state lines, then we put a little bit more weight on this principle of respecting the Chesterton fence. Now, is that a limiting principle? No, it’s about tradeoffs. It’s not about across this line I don’t respect this idea. On the other side, I do respect it. It’s about, on the margin, I’m going to think a little bit more about what is the benefit of this policy when I see that people can move. And the same way that I would use one more analogy.
And I think there’s good empirical evidence on this, but suburbs where people can freely move and build houses or got o suburbs around them, those governments tend to be very efficient in the sense of being able to produce things at low cost because they’re in a tough state of competition. Now states are harder in that are competing less, rural areas have to compete less, places that have a particular strength that can’t be replicated. Things like Silicon Valley, San Francisco, that you can’t exit to another city and replicate San Francisco. We expect this disciplining force to be weaker.
SEAN SPEER: A lot of insight there, Brian. I would just say in parentheses for listeners that the University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath’s work on reconceptualizing efficiency to account for arrangements that produce accommodation or settlement within a pluralistic society, i.e., a political economy form of efficiency, is, I think, also an interesting way to think about your broader point here, which is we ought to be a bit hesitant to assume we can simply discard preexisting institutions and arrangements that have managed to withstand scrutiny over a protracted period of time in, as you say, a democratic market economy.
BRIAN ALBRECHT: Can I add one point on this? I think that’s absolutely right. And we as economists need to be better about thinking about these political constraints. I have a paper also with Josh Hendrickson; it’s the one I cite in that newsletter,with Joshua Hendrickson and Alex Salter, of this idea that one thing that societies need is they need to not be invaded. They need to not be overthrown by outside societies. Now, we don’t think about that so much in the U.S. and Canada today, but throughout history, that’s a big thing. And so any analysis of policy, any analysis of how governments are doing in the past, needs to understand that that’s a real constraint. And our definition of efficiency must respect that. That, oh, yes, I have this idea that they should have done their tax system differently, is what we stress in the post or in the—I’m writing too many newsletters—in the academic article in the Journal of Macroeconomics—yes, we have this idea that they should use their tax system differently, but if that meant that they got invaded by Viking raiders, that’s not an improvement. And so in no sense is that more efficient change. So we need to respect this. If you have an internal revolution because your society is so unequal and people think it’s so unfair, we need to account for that. Now, this can be oversold. Everything could be in the name of protecting law and order, but we should at least consider it.
SEAN SPEER: This conversation about the interaction between theory, evidence, and policy in the political arena is something that you’ve written about, particularly the extent to which a lot of current political debates seem more rooted in normative differences than competing interpretations of the facts. In a world like this, what’s the role of a policy-oriented economist? Do you simply have to come to terms with normative arguments if you actually want to be part of where the action is?
BRIAN ALBRECHT: That’s a great question, and it’s something that I, constantly, am thinking about. Because I’m a person, so every policy that I’m thinking about comes with normative baggage. But I hope it’s not only normative baggage; there’s a lot of room for us to debate the positives, to debate what are the causal mechanisms. And so if we can get some agreement on that, or more agreement on that, maybe we can leave the normative disagreements aside. Now, that doesn’t mean that—I don’t imagine that I can ever truly do that, but I think really the real benefit, the comparative advantage of economists is on the positive side. So I want to stress that. I want to stress how are markets working, what are the effects of prices on quantities, things like that. But at the same time, I mean, economists tend to be—and I fall prey to this—economists tend to be utilitarians, definitely consequentialists in the sense that we are caring about how people interpret them or welfare is, we care about how the individual views it. Throughout this conversation, I’ve said that the person likes Target because they keep going back to Target, right? So the standard is always their perspective.
And so that sneaks into everything I do. I do think that there are cases where I’m ready to argue for that as a normative benchmark, in particular around antitrust, which is an area that I work a lot on. Other people want to bring in issues of fairness. I just think they’re—now, we’re going back to an empirical matter—I think they’re unoperationalizable. I don’t think courts can make a coherent understanding of fairness. And so I’m going to argue for looking at things like economic efficiency and what happens to cost, what happens to prices, things like that, as just a practical solution to these broader debates. If you personally put more weight on fairness than I do, I’m not talking about that. I’m thinking about policy. How should we incorporate that?
SEAN SPEER: Final question: I want to ask about your participation in the public square. You’ve effectively used social media, and now Substack, to build up a considerable voice in economic and policy debate. Do you want to reflect a bit on your experience, and what, if any, advice you’d have for new professors or graduate students about engaging on these platforms?
BRIAN ALBRECHT: Have I spent an efficient amount of time on Twitter? I don’t know, maybe too much. But it’s been a real benefit for me. Twitter has been. I entered econ Twitter 10 years ago, when it was a very different thing. All these other things were changing. And so I entered into a sphere where it was relatively small and there were few people on it. And so I was able to interact with people that I wouldn’t have otherwise as a grad student.
But I still think that there’s value for all economists who think—listen, I’ll never tell someone they should get on Twitter if they don’t want to get on Twitter. But if you’re debating, I think that the benefit of being on Twitter or writing on Substack or a blog or something is larger than you think it is, especially if you stick with it for a while. So I’d encourage traditional academic types. People who are more intellectual to get more involved on that for two reasons. One, it refines your thinking. I know it’s silly and that Twitter is this short form shallow, some would say, thing, but you really do have to engage on a constant basis in a way that you don’t just reading books in your house alone or teaching to your students.
The other, I think, is trying to get better at explaining things. I’ve taught a lot of students. I’ve taught large classes, small classes and I think that discussing with people, it’s just so easy for me now to forget what it was like to not know any of the stuff. And when I’m up in front of the classroom, people are just staring at me with blank faces. Do they understand anything? Are they just bored to death, or are they liking it? We can’t quite tell. But going back to feedback mechanisms, Twitter, if you get engagement, gives you direct feedback that you’re being unclear. Now you’ll be perfectly clear sometimes, and people will say that you’re not being clear because they’re not interested in your argument. But if you find good faith interlocutors, you’ll get this kind of feedback.
And I’ve really found that with Substack. A little bit longer form, we write about 1500–2000 words per post. A little bit longer form, but I can’t just drone on for an hour uninterrupted like I do in the classroom. In the classroom, they don’t have an “exit option” after they’ve signed up, right? And so I don’t have the feedback to be efficient. But Substack if they’re not paying attention, boom, they can go to the next spot. They won’t share it, things like that. And so you get a little bit more feedback that you’re being somewhat concise and clear in your explanation.
I’ll add one more. And that is that, yes, you’ve maybe been studying this stuff for so long, but not everyone has. And I think it’s valuable to go back to the basics which circles back to the very beginning of our conversation. Economists, academics, get so into their little spin on the debate, their little spin on how to make things different, that they forget that most people just don’t know basic supply and demand. And so I think it’s worthwhile to remind people and remind yourself of these intricacies that you easily forget when you’re working on your current paper that you’re trying to publish in an academic journal.
SEAN SPEER: Well, those in search of such a reminder, I’d encourage you to check out Brian’s Substack newsletter called Economic Forces. Brian Albrecht, the chief economist at the International Center for Law Economics and an assistant professor of economics at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
BRIAN ALBRECHT: Thanks for having me on. It was a lot of fun.