Kartik Athreya: On Economics Writers 

A senior research economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Mr. Kartik Athreya, recently penned an essay “to open-minded consumers of the economics blogosphere” in which he argued that bloggers, and other economics writers, who portray macro-economic policy as simple matters are doing us all a disservice. In short (with apologies to Douglas Adams), Athreya asserts that "Economics is hard. Really hard. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindboggingly hard it is. I mean you may think doing the Sunday Times crossword is difficult, but that's just peanuts to economics. And because it is so hard, people shouldn’t blithely go shooting their mouths off about it, and pretending like it’s so easy.  In fact, we would all be better off if we just ignored these clowns.”

Or at least, that’s what I took from it anyway.

As examples, he specifically cites not only Matt Yglesias, John Stossel, Robert Samuelson and Robert Reich, but also the hugely popular Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong. For the most part, these are leading lights of the politically liberal point of view, but Athreya’s critique does not appear to be aimed at either left or right commentators. Instead, he questions why we should listen to anyone who assumes complicated economic matters can be so easily dispensed with:

But why should it be otherwise? Why should anyone accept uncritically that Economics, or any field of human endeavor, for that matter, should be easy either to process or contribute to?  To some extent, people don’t. Would anyone tolerate the equivalent level of public discussion on cancer research? Most of us readily accept the proposition that Oncology requires training, and rarely give time over to non-medical-professionals’ musings. Do we expect advances in cell-biology to be immediately accessible to anyone with even a college degree? Science journalists routinely cite specific studies that have appeared in specific journals. They generally do not engage in passing their own untrained speculations off as insights. But economic blogging and much journalism largely does not operate this way. Naifs write books, and sell many of them too. People as varied as Matt Ridley and William Greider make book-length statements about economics. I’ve never done that, and this is my job. This is, to say the very least, bizarre.

Although there is a bit of a “don’t cast pearls before swine” attitude to his essay, as someone who likes to write about and analyze economics, I think Athreya has a good point. It certainly isn’t uncommon for writers such as myself (not to mention those with vastly more expertise than I) to opine about economic policy in a way that assumes certain underlying premises are unassailable fact, rather than difficult and sometimes contentious theory. Whether it’s a discussion of how the Community Reinvestment Act is responsible for the collapse of Wall Street, or why universal health care would boost our GDP in the long-term, bloggers/writers of both left and right are surely guilty of assuming too much at times.

By the same token, I think Mr. Athreya is missing an important distinction. Although economics lies at the heart of what many of these writers discuss, it is in fact politics that is the real subject. As opposed to laymen arguing the finer points about advances in cell-biology, Yglesias, et al., are making political policy arguments and supporting them with economic reasoning. Even when writers such as Krugman or Delong tackle macro-economic subjects head on, they are typically doing so in order to advance a specific policy position that they prefer, rather than seeking to refine our knowledge about economics itself.

In other words, while the economic principles may be oversimplified to an extent, the same came be said about computer science when arguing the pros and cons of owning an Apple or PC. You don’t need to be a computer expert to make a choice.

In the same way, when making a choice between policy A and policy B, the public is going to be asked to understand often intricately nuanced macro-economic premises. Boiling those premises down to something manageable, albeit oversimplified, is completely necessary in order to make an even marginally informed decision. So, for example, when choosing whether or not to raise the minimum wage, those against it will use economic arguments to show why it’s a bad idea. Yes, the economic data on the subject is inconclusive, but there is enough of it to make a plausible argument that minimum wage hikes hurt the very people they are proposed to help (just ask Paul Krugman!).

Ironically, while Athreya asserts that writers of this ilk “should be ignored by an open-minded lay public,” if it weren’t for many of them the public would generally ignore economics altogether.  It’s hard to see how that would be an improvement.  At least with exposure to simplified versions of complicated economic arguments there is the possibility that the “open-minded lay public” will become interested enough to learn more.

Indeed, in the end, this is exactly what Athreya seems to be asking for:

How can this be changed? A precondition for the market delivering this is a recognition by the general public that they are simply being had by the bulk of the economic blogging crowd. I hope to have alerted you to the giant disconnect that exists between the nuanced discussion that occurs between research economists and the noise (some of it from economists!) that one sees in the web or the op-ed pages of even the very best newspapers of the US. As a result, my hope is that the broader public will ask for a slightly higher bar when it comes to economics, rather than self-selecting into blogs that merely confirm half-baked views that might have been acquired from elsewhere. And I hope that non-economists who write about economics start routinely to do so in a way that references and discusses the premises that lead to particular conclusions about a given issue. Economics is full of this sort of “if-then” knowledge, which, if communicated well, could significantly sharpen the public discussion. This is not asking a lot, it is asking just enough.

Again, this is a good point which deserves acknowledgement and consideration.  But just as I, an attorney by trade, don’t get terribly exercised over how the finer points of law are routinely butchered by “Law & Order” or “Boston Legal”, maybe Mr. Athreya should take a more phlegmatic approach to how his profession is handled in the broader media. 

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Michael Wade

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