Be wary of the "serious economists"
Expert advice is hard for most people to evaluate. It often takes an expert, and so experts have a duty to explain the science, not lean on their credentials.
Health officials in the federal government and the Biden White House have repeatedly told us their policies are guided by “science.” Here’s the latest:
Given what we currently know about COVID-19 and the Omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control is shortening the recommended time for isolation from 10 days for people with COVID-19 to 5 days, if asymptomatic, followed by 5 days of wearing a mask when around others. The change is motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness.
I’m sympathetic to the fact that scientific advice often changes as the world changes. Scientists learn and policies change.1 But policymakers usually don’t tell us who the experts are behind the science and what the disagreements are.2 Moreover, policymakers rarely admit mistakes in the prior science they relied on for policies, even though mistakes are common. No one is infallible, and our knowledge evolves.
Blind appeals to “experts” undermine trust in science and lead to bad policy.
People are not stupid, and they see that policymakers do not level with them. It comes across as a ‘you can’t handle the truth.’ Not surprisingly, that leads to a distrust of science, experts, and statistics. That’s a big problem, true in Covid, true always.
The experts, especially elites, are to blame too. Their obsession with personally being “right” is anti-science. Science is about expanding the frontier of knowledge and improving. No one is always right. It’s dangerous to pretend otherwise.
I have a long-standing dislike of the norms in elite macroeconomics. Using “serious economists agree” to shut down debate drives me bonkers. It’s happened time and again during the Covid crisis. Here’s me complaining at Paul Krugman in April 2020:
That earned Paul a cameo in my “economics is a disgrace” blog post.
And my questioning the elites naming “serious economists” earned me an attack on Economic Job Market Rumors, an anonymous forum that most economic Ph.D. job market candidates visit this time of year. Don’t! It reinforces all the ugly in economics.
Come on, guys. I am as qualified as Ivan Werning on economic policy advice. Frankly, I have more experience in real-world macroeconomic policies in recessions than him. That said, I respect Ivan as an expert in macro, even when I disagree. They are correct that I am clumsy and would not be a good person to bring you your coffee.
“Serious economists” declare war on student loan borrowers … on Christmas Eve.
Paul Krugman is not the only macroeconomist who has hidden behind “serious economists.” On Christmas Eve (really) Larry Summers launched a critique of Biden’s extension of the student loan payment deferral. Larry’s thread yesterday rebutting the angry response he got included an appeal to “serious economists:”
Sigh. The IGM Economic Experts polls are NOT where I go to get an expert opinion on a topic. Why? In any given poll, only a handful of the panel members are subject-matter on the issue. I honestly don’t care what some think about student loan forgiveness. AND the questions are usually poorly written.
Here is the student loan question Larry referred to:
Note well, one-third (a magic number in macro) of them do not agree with Larry that forgiveness would be regressive. That would be my answer. The question is far too vague, From my thread yesterday …
I do not research student loans, but I follow the research and policy debates. In fact, I helped write a report at the Council of Economic Advisers on it. I talked with many experts, on all sides of the debate.
I did not talk to any of these IGM panelists. Why? They are not experts on student loans. Harvard Ph.D. does not come with the Oracle of Delphi.
Who are those “serious economists?”
Finally, we would be hard-pressed to find a less diverse group of “serious economists” by race, gender, class, credentials, age, etc.
Columbia at #9 is the lowest rank economics department among the panelists. Oh, the horror! Each of them is an expert in some area of economics, but only a handful work in education. I respect most of them as scholars. (Some show up in my “disgrace” blog, and others should have. Ugh.) The vast majority of experts on student loans do not work at MIT, Harvard, Chicago, etc. An even higher fraction of people struggling with student loans did not attend MIT, Harvard, Chicago, etc.
Policies that affect millions of people must be grounded in expert advice, and that advice must come out of robust evidence-based debates. Experts, especially elites with big platforms, must do everything to support debate, not silence it. They must stop with the “serious economists” bullshit. Do economics, not elitism.
With power comes responsibility. It’s hard not to call rank. I am guilty of it at times. To fight against it, I spend a lot of time communicating the reasons for my advice. I bring data and research. I listen to critical feedback and adapt my advice as necessary. I also spend a lot of time explaining the reasons behind other economists’ advice, even when I disagree with their methods and findings. I am not the decision-maker. I am here to ensure that they have the best possible information to inform policy.
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I am furious that the business lobby once again is driving health policy. They convinced states to cut off enhanced unemployment benefits early in summer 2021 to address the labor shortages. President Biden agreed with their decision and did nothing to extend the national program in the fall. I wrote in June why that would not solve the problem and would cause hardship. That’s what happened. Now they want to address shortages to bring workers back more quickly. It could easily backfire again. Cutting quarantine from ten to five and then infecting even more people won’t solve the problem and could make it worse. AND KILL PEOPLE! It’s bad economics too. Since the pandemic, it’s been clear that fighting Covid vigorously is good for the economy, not bad.