Oil and Vinegar: Economics Edition

Bill Keller has a good Op-Ed up over at the New York Times on the politics of the economist’s profession. He ultimately laments the loss of civility and the reduced clout of mainstream economic thought in national conversations. Yet in his quest to survey the current landscape of economic thought, Keller (self-described as somewhat illiterate in the field) quickly found this:

The first thing I gleaned from this little tutorial will probably not surprise you: There really is a textbook way to fix our current mess. Short-term stimulus works to help an economy recover from a recession. Some kinds of stimulus pay off more quickly than others. Once the economic heart is pumping again, we need to get our deficits under control. The way to do that is a balance of spending cuts, increased tax revenues and entitlement reforms. There is room to argue about the proportions and the timing, and small differences can produce large consequences, but the basic formula is not only common sense, it is mainstream economic science, tested many times in the real world.

Of course this all seems very reasonable to me but, as Keller discovers, reasonability often has no place in politics:

So what’s the problem? Why is our system so fundamentally stuck? Partly it’s a colossal, bipartisan lack of the political courage required to tell people what they sort of know but don’t want to hear. Partly it’s a Republican Party that, for its own cynical reasons, wants no deal with this president. Partly it’s moneyed, focused lobbies that swarm in defense of specific advantages written into the law; there is no comparable lobby for compromise, let alone sacrifice.

But he also (rightly, in my opinion) observes discordant behavior within the economists field itself (my emphasis in bold):

Economists don’t live in caves, so there is no reason they should be immune to the centrifugal politics of this noisy world. Thus serious scholars are tempted to sign onto ideas that stretch their own credulity, and lesser economists are thrust forward for their moment of fame as witnesses on behalf of dubious claims. Economists cluster in ideological think tanks that promote political conformity rather than intellectual rigor. Politicians, with no generally accepted consensus to challenge them, can get away with plucking data out of context to bolster assertions that are based more on faith than on reality. Tax cuts pay for themselves! Protectionism saves jobs! It’s all the Fed’s fault! Deficits don’t matter! Obama is a socialist! Say it often enough and before long it’s a serious discussion on cable TV, in which the proven and the preposterous get the same respectful chin-wagging.

This is a phenomenon many have observed in the modern media age, specifically the occurrence of making a thing true by repetition. Keller chastises the media for giving credence to views and opinions on the fringe of intellectual fields, but I don’t actually see anything inherently wrong with this per se. What I take issue with is when the media doesn’t acknowledge that those views don’t hold the consensus of their respective fields. The absenceof such acknowledgement is a type of de facto credibility that the media has no business bestowing.


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