Explaining Complex (Economic) Ideas in a Simple Way

The current financial / credit crisis in the U.S. exposes an ongoing societal need: people who can understand complex ideas and then translate them for consumption by the quasi-informed and curious but non-expert segment of the population.

Malcolm Gladwell, for example, has made a living out of reading hard-to-understand psychology papers and writing about them to the lay audience. Michael Pollan is the Gladwell of food science. Pollan’s books on agriculture, farming, and eating have been bestsellers. He once boiled down all nutrition advice thusly: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Simple but right.

Who’s the Malcolm Gladwell of finance? Who is translating the macro-economic gibberish into concepts the average person can understand, without offending economists?

As anyone who reads Brad DeLong knows, the economic literacy of the average journalist is not very high. There’s a big difference between “simple but right” and “simple but wrong.” Ben Stein, in the New York Times, is often simple, often wrong. Jim Cramer, often simple, often wrong.

On the contrary, James Fallows on China and the deficit, David Leonhardt on how even experts are confused about what’s going on in the markets, or James Surowiecki on real estate and foreclosures, are all examples of solid explanations that are simple and clear. Michael Lewis is also a reliably thoughtful lay-person’s explainer on business issues.

I read lots of economics blogs, and blogs are good for in-the-moment analysis, but they rarely can afford to step back and offer a higher level overview. Also, professional economists, by virtue of being professional economists, can struggle to translate economic jargon.

In an old post of mine titled When to Think Hard, When to Outsource, I talked about how I rely heavily on certain people’s insight for certain types of issues (in effect “outsourcing” some parts of the critical thinking process to them). To wit, I’m trying to construct my “dream team” of people who are following the macro-econ scene, following the credit markets and mortgage situation, and conveying their thoughts in sound, simple prose.

Any ideas for who should be in the starting lineup?

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