One of Paul Krugman’s first books, Peddling Prosperity, made a distinction between academic economists and people he called "policy entrepreneurs". These are individuals who promote particular intellectual positions and ideological policy prescriptions which have little or no academic support, but which may appeal to certain politicians.
I remember it as a great book, and unfortunately one of the main subjects - the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves - is still current in the US. It remains the case that this idea has virtually zero academic support, but for whatever reason - the activities of policy entrepreneurs being one - it still has a tight hold on the Republican Party.
I also remember being dissatisfied with the concept of the policy entrepreneur. It seemed to me that the book failed to situate them in a more general framework of how different interests influenced policy. Why were policy entrepreneurs particularly prevalent in economics? Could academics also be policy entrepreneurs? But that was the social scientist in me speaking. It was clear that such people existed, and that their influence could be far from benign.
I was reminded of all this when someone referred me to Andrew Sentance’s latest piece where he advocates moving to a zero inflation target. Coupled with George Osborne and David Cameron proclaiming zero inflation as a great success, a horrible thought occurred. If these guys were re-elected, might they find the arguments of Andrew Sentance appealing, and actually go for zero inflation? (In the UK, the Chancellor sets the inflation target.) Getting rid of inflation completely - sounds like a vote winner!
Why is it a horrible thought? Because all the academic discussion has been going in the opposite direction, for a very good reason. The Great Recession has highlighted the problems caused by the lower bound for nominal interest rates. That problem will not go away if that lower bound turns out to be -1% rather than zero. The discussion of secular stagnation has highlighted how the ‘underlying’ level of real interest rates has steadily fallen over the last few decades. Put the two together, and you see that a 2% inflation target may mean that we hit the interest rate lower bound far too frequently for comfort. A higher inflation target is one way, although not the only way, of reducing this problem.
Given this, calling for a zero inflation target seems perverse. In response, Andrew Sentance says this: “And the fact that a target of zero inflation may not allow central banks to easily impose negative real interest rates may actually be a good thing – protecting savers, who have suffered heavily as a result of very low interest rates since the financial crisis.” This is just the kind of thing a policy entrepreneur would say: identify your target interest group, and appeal to their interests over the common good. A politician who wants to appeal to savers might think that sounds like a good idea, and before you know it the policy is in place.
I suspect things have moved on a little since Peddling Prosperity was published. The role of think tanks is probably greater. The good ones are a means of channelling academic research, as in this very recent discussion of how to enhance real wage growth from the Resolution Foundation (which I would call excellent if it didn’t have a contribution from me). But they are matched by others that are effectively the institutional equivalent of policy entrepreneurs.
One answer to this problem is delegation. If you delegate an issue to a non-political body, that institution is going to be less swayed by the policy entrepreneur, and more influenced by knowledge and evidence. The independent central bank is an obvious example. It is interesting that one of the contributions to the Resolution Foundation volume, from John Van Reenen, calls for a “permanent infrastructure strategy board”, to improve the level and quality of national infrastructure. Of course with delegation comes the danger of power without accountability, and one particular central bank is a good example of that.
Is delegation the only way we have of protecting ourselves from the policy entrepreneur? I have one final thought. (The idea comes from Chris Dillow, but he said it on my blog first!). Policy entrepreneurs exist in part because of sectional interests. The problem arises if sectional interests drown out evidence based policy. Society as a whole clearly has an interest in evidence based policy, but one institution that is well placed to protect society’s interest here is academia. Although - in the UK at least - academia encourages the dissemination of research, most academics are always going to value their research above its dissemination, because that is how internal incentives work. So maybe the academic sector needs to create a few policy entrepreneurs of its own, whose mission is to disseminate not their own research, but research in a whole field. One of two examples already exist - maybe we should have more of them.