Can you hear me?

There often seems to be a disconnect between what academics say and what other people hear, but the problem seems particularly acute in the economics profession.   Steven Landsburg has a rather amusing post on the subject, detailing how what we think are rather innocent comments can make us sound rather callous, to say the least.

Here’s my favorite from that piece:

A few years ago, in the state of Washington, some apartment buildings were converted to public housing. The buildings were described as having “million dollar views”. I was a silent witness to a conversation that went like this:

Person A: They’re giving million-dollar views to people below the poverty line?!!!???!

Person B (in an aside to Person C): He’s got some problem with that?

Well of course he’s got a problem with that. Ask any poor person in America to choose between a million-dollar view and a million dollars cash, and I guarantee you he will take the cash. So how callous would you have to be to give that person a grand apartment instead of selling the apartment and giving him the cash?

That, I am certain, is what Person A (who had some economics training) meant. What Person B heard was something like: “Why would you want to do anything nice for poor people?”

I’d probably take the cash, too.