Un événement organisé par

Healing Economics

Société | Connaissances

How do we make economic discussions more accessible?  How do we ensure that policy decisions are well informed?   These are the questions posed by the organizers of this session. 

The subtext is that things are not going well in the economic public sphere.  Citizens see economists’ characterization of the state of economic affairs as out of touch with their reality.  Economists counter that economic misinformation and misunderstanding are rife.  Economists have always found it difficult to influence popular opinion and shape public policy.  But the problem today, it is widely argued, is worse than ever.

I will argue that this diagnosis is too dire.  Economists possess a number of effective channels for influencing public opinion.  But our efforts are hobbled by two structural problems, only one of which is under our control.

Examples of the channels I have in mind are Project Syndicate and the Clark Center Experts Panel.  Project Syndicate was created three decades ago with impetus from a well-known New York University professor, responding to the perception that there was a shortage of high-quality economic commentary available to media around the world.  It now has as many as 82 regular economic commentators whose columns appear in 500 media outlets in 156 countries around the world.  These columns are widely read.  I know this from the abundance of comments, some sympathetic, not a few hostile, on my own contributions.

The Clark Center Experts Panel was established with impetus from a pair of University of Chicago professors to counter the impression that economists cannot even agree amongst themselves.  The organizers send out a question a week, with which respondents are asked to agree or disagree, and post the result on a website for all to see.  Their responses, which often display a high degree of consensus, are picked up by the media.  There is now a parallel panel of European experts addressing similar questions.

The opinions and analyses disseminated by these platforms are well-informed and accessible.  They work because both platforms are overseen by reputable scholars who act as editors, seeking to be inclusive but also exercising quality control. 

In the past, this would have been the end of the story.  But the Internet has eroded the dominance of such gatekeepers, spawning a proliferation of blogs, substacks and podcasts that are sources of economic misinformation.  This has enabled the operation of a kind of informational Gresham’s Law, where bad information crowds out good.  You need only compare what is written about cryptocurrencies, to cite an example not entirely at random, on Project Syndicate and by the Clark Experts Panel with what appears elsewhere.

Unfortunately, this is not a problem we can control.  But a second problem, which we can control, concerns attitudes and practices within the academy.  Too many scholars at leading institutions ascribe value only to technical research published in so-called “top five” journals.  This research is driven by technique as much as economic questions and is most definitely not accessible to the public.  It displays a disturbingly high degree of intellectual and methodological conformance, acceptance by these top five journals being controlled by a small cabal of editors who share these same intellectual and methodological preferences.   We teach our students that tenure at prestigious universities depends entirely on publications in top five journals.  This encourages them to do technical research inaccessible to the general public, and to work on narrow questions amenable to the latest methodology and not on the pressing public-policy questions of the day. 

Worse still, there is a tendency to dismiss colleagues who write newspaper commentaries – or, worse still, books! – as not qualifying as “economic scientists.”  An earlier generation of leading economists, such as Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman, believed passionately that rigorous scientific analysis and public commentary went hand in hand.  Department chairman, deans and university administrators were supportive.  Alas, the same is significantly less true today.

This is a problem that we academic economists can begin to change by modifying our own training and hiring practices, and by our own behavior, altering the incentives faced by the next, aspiring generation of scholars.  To heal our broken economic commentary, we must first heal ourselves.