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Politicians Turn to Familiar Enemies on Inflation

Politicians and pundits are increasingly using reductive, inaccurate narratives to explain away inflation. These "folk economic" theories are misleading, and our leaders are missing the point on the true drivers and solutions to our economic troubles.


In an ever-changing, increasingly-complex world, the search for answers is an unending process. For people unfamiliar with certain topics, it can be tempting to find the most simple answer to the latest issue or ailment. This tendency can be found across multiple disciplines, from mistaken beliefs about the solar system to reliance on “natural” medicines. Folk economics describes these same attitudes, in regard to economics and public policy making.

In a February column for the New York Times, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom defined folk economics as the “human impulse to describe complex economic processes in lay terms.” Cottom went on to connect this to the way politicians describe the national budget and debt through the lens of balancing a checkbook and how many crypto enthusiasts view any new technology as an inevitable life-changer. While the concept of folk economics has been around for decades, its use as a lens to understand contemporary politics has been restricted to a handful of academic papers. This is a missed opportunity, as much of the national discourse on economic policy is driven by folk economics. During the current inflation crisis, politicians from across the political spectrum have leaned into the tactic—to potentially disastrous consequences.