A survey of US academic economists, which found that 36 thought the Obama fiscal stimulus reduced unemployment and only one thought otherwise, led to this cri de coeur from Paul Krugman. What is the point in having academic research if it is ignored, he asked? At the same time I was involved in a conversation on twitter, where the person I was tweeting with asked
“What I have never understood is what is so great about academic economists? Certainly not more objective.”
They also wrote
“Surely, rather a dangerous assumption to think that an academic whose subject is X > a non academic whose subject is X”
In other words, why should we take any more notice of what academic economists say about economics than, well, City economists or economic journalists?
Here is a very good example of why. The statement that the 2013 recovery vindicates 2010 austerity has a superficial plausibility because of the dates (one is before the other) and both involve macroeconomics. However just a little knowledge, or reflection, shows that the statement is nonsense. It is like saying taking regular cold showers is good for curing colds, because everyone who takes them eventually gets better. But the thing is George Osborne says the statement is true, so this is a test of objectivity as well as expertise.
In the Christmas 2013 FT survey of various economists, one question was “Has George Osborne’s “plan A” been vindicated by the recovery?”. Among the academic economists asked, ten said No, and two said Yes. So two gave the wrong answer, but if you knew who they were you would not be surprised. Among City economists surveyed, the split was about 50/50, with at least a dozen giving the wrong answer. Worth remembering that the next time someone says these guys must know what they are talking about because people pay for their advice. (Some do, some do not.)
And journalists? Well, there are some very good ones, particularly those working for newspapers like the Financial Times. Which is why I found the FT leader with the headline “Osborne wins the battle on austerity” so outrageous. If I also tell you the tweets above came from a well known economic journalist, you can see why I found them revealing.
This goes back to the question Paul asked. If we don’t think that academic economists’ opinions about economics are worth anymore than other peoples’ opinions, why do we bother to have academics in the first place? Now of course for some questions an academic economist’s opinions are indeed worth little more than those of anyone else: questions like what will economic growth be in two years time, for example. In fact academic research using models tells us that answering questions like that is almost all guesswork. (Some people find that puzzling, but can a doctor tell you the date on which you will have a heart attack? But if you have a heart attack, you would want a doctor nearby.) And if you want to know what is wrong with your car, you ask a car mechanic not an economist.
And yes of course academic economists cannot all be trusted, and we do make mistakes. (Not all car mechanics can be trusted, and they also make mistakes. But would anyone tweet what is so great about car mechanics when it comes to cars?) But as Paul Krugman quite rightly keeps reminding us, academic macroeconomists have also got some important things right recently: inflation did not take off following Quantitative Easing, interest rates have stayed low despite bigger deficits, and our models said that Eurozone austerity could cause a second recession.
This post so far has seemed far too self serving, but I think this devaluing of academic expertise is not just confined to economics. The obvious comparison is the science of climate change, where the media often appears to give as much weight to paid up apologists for the carbon extraction industry as they do to scientists. When a UK MP and a member of the House of Commons Health Committee and the Science and Technology Committee has “spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work”, it is maybe time to get seriously worried. What is so great about doctors anyway?