Russ Roberts: Why Economists Suck at Explaining Life

The EconTalk host and Wild Problems author talks about the limits of cost-benefit analyses.


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Economist Russ Roberts is known for his extraordinary gift at finding creative ways of communicating the power of free market capitalism to the general public. 

He's the host of the wildly successful podcast, EconTalk, which has been running weekly episodes since 2006. He's the author of three novels and, along with filmmaker John Papola, he created the blockbuster Keynes vs. Hayek rap videos.  

More recently, his interest has turned to the fundamental inadequacy of his chosen discipline to comprehend what matters most to people. "I came to realize that economists…tend to focus on things that can be measured," he tells Reason. "Dignity is hard to measure. A sense of self is hard to measure. Belonging is hard to measure. A feeling of transcendence is hard to measure. Mattering—that you are important, that people look to you. [These sorts of things are] about the life well-lived and they're not about getting the most out of your money. They're not about what the interest rates are next week. And economists truthfully have virtually nothing to say about these things."

Robert's new book is called Wild Problems and it deals with the decisions that define us: whether to marry, whether to have kids, what kind of work to pursue. He says these are the sorts of questions that can't be figured out with economic modeling and cost-benefit analyses.

Reason talked with Roberts about how he makes sense of a world that is richer than ever in material resources and yet suffers increasing numbers of "deaths of despair." We discuss his own life, from earning a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago in the 1970s to becoming president of Shalem College in Israel to the central role that religion plays in his life.

Photo Credits: Russell Roberts, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Music Credits: "Little Eyes—Instrumental Version," by Yehezkel Raz via Artlist.

Interview by Nick Gillespie. Edited by Regan Taylor and Adam Czarnecki.