Bryan Caplan  

The Curious Ethos of the Academic/Appointee

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High-status academic economists often look down on economists who engage in blogging and punditry.  Their view: If you can't "definitively prove" your claims, you should remain silent. 

At the same time, though, high-status academic economists often receive top political appointments.  Part of their job is to stand behind the administration's party line.  They don't merely make claims they can't definitively prove; to keep their positions, appointees have to make claims they don't even believe!  Yet high-status academic economists are proud to accept these jobs - and their colleagues admire them for doing so.

You could say there's a "tension" between scorning punditry and praising politicking.  But it's worse.  Our professional norms are topsy-turvy.  We scorn the admirable, and praise the questionable.

High-status economists' disdain for popularizing is baseless.  Once you understand Bayes' Rule, you realize that "definitive proof" of empirical claims is neither possible nor necessary.  All any mortal can do is begin with common sense, then update his beliefs if and when some evidence arrives.  Indefinitely suspending judgment is not just overly cautious; it's irrational.

When an academic economist accepts a political appointment, however, he doesn't merely lower his standards to a reasonable level.  He overshoots.  Suppose the academic/appointee accepts his administrations' basic philosophy.  Even then, no half-decent economist can fail to notice his political superiors' day-to-day public affirmation of half-truths, non sequitors, non-responses, simple mistakes, and willful ignorance.  Yet when you join an administration, you commit yourself to supporting its party line - warts and all. 

You could object that your party line happens to be honest.  A nice story, but ponder this: If the politicians you serve were your students rather than your bosses, would you unfailingly give their public pronouncements an A+ for accuracy, completeness, and transparency?  If not, how can you agree to defend those pronouncements?

To disclose the obvious, I'm an economist who engages in blogging and punditry.  I've never held a political appointment - and it's a fair bet that I never will.  Perhaps, due to my narrow experience, I'm missing something.  If you'd like to defend the curious ethos of the academic/appointee, I'm happy to listen.


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
John Arkwright writes:

During 2008, Phil Gramm, respected economist and adviser to McCain, was asked about the recession. At the time, we had not measured two successive quarters of negative economic growth and (for fans of anointed experts) the NBER had not made any definitive pronouncements. So Gramm answered, "We may have a recession; we haven't had one yet."

The other party was aghast that a McCain adviser would deny the suffering of the American people by focusing on mere language. So Gramm got fired.

In politics, a sure way for an economist to get fired is to tell the truth.

Tracy W writes:

Who are these high-status economists who look down on economists who engage in blogging and punditry? I've never run across one.

Peter St. Onge writes:

I'd read somewhere that professional actors were, until the 20th c, very low status -- somewhere around prostitution. And this was because actors were sort of professional liars. Then, of course, something happened, and now we seek out Alec Baldwin's opinions on public policy.

So maybe the economics:policy cognitive dissonance is a professional norm that lying is required in politics, hence when you enter politics you're allowed to lie, and can come back and regain your old status. Hence Krugman can still command ears insofar as he skirts that line.

Of course, I'd guess that former appointees are better networking partners if one craves the perks of appointments, so maybe the suspension of moral judgment is self-interested.

Sonic Charmer writes:

I'm stuck on & genuinely surprised by the implication that there are people in economics who actually walk around with the belief that some things in their chosen field have been 'definitively proved'. Is this really the case?

collin writes:

Bryan,

My guess is blogging is still relatively new and by the next generation academics will better respect its value. A lot of people are following economic blogs and soon students are going to coming into Econ. 101 already with the basics. Give it time.

Just think of the e-book revolution. America reading is going roof but most people reactions are surprised by this.

Joe Cushing writes:

Sonic,

There are lots of economic principals--especially micro principals-- that have been proven, not to the level of a Newtonian Law but reasonably so that there is no debate on these topics. It's these topics that people often don't hear about because economists all agree on them. For example, the idea that a price is determined by the intersection of a supply and a demand curve is pretty universally excepted and there have been enough natural experiments to show this.

.................................................

I feel like we need economists to protect liberty through education because politicians are always trying to take it away based on false economic assumptions.

.................................................

I could see being a political appointee if the job were to advice and try to shape policy but not if the job were to publicly support policy that goes against my advice. In other words, to be a political appointee that never talks to the press.
Then you could write a book after discussing how you were able to make freedom squashing policy less abusive than it otherwise would have been.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

That's a really profound observation. Shilling, exaggerating, or misleadingly emphasizing, is all OK as long as you are doing it in the context of showcasing very high status; otherwise it is beneath the dignity of an academic. So, what's the principle there? My guess would be that status signaling trumps other virtues when you are talking about signalling very high status, because everything else is a means to that end (status) anyway, so if you know you already are at the end game tactics don't matter anymore.

Thucydides writes:

In what other field can an academic professional hire himself out as a spin doctor, trafficking in manipulative dishonest statements, without any loss of professional status, indeed, enhancing his status? Truly, today's courtier economists make a sorry spectacle for anyone who believes in the values of the academy, which were supposed to include truth-telling.

Steve Roth writes:

"begin with common sense"

I think this gets it wrong. We begin with common sense in, say, third grade, and update from there.

Related, not directly on topic: my takeaway from the Kahneman System 1/System 2 ideas:

Rather than System 2 serving as a "filter" or adjudicator for System 1 (though it seems to serve that purpose too), the main purpose of System 2 is to *train* System One over time -- effectively creating and fine-tuning heuristics that then get fast-coded. Chess masters who can analyze a board at a glance being a perfect example.

IOW, we can constantly update our priors, *and our algorithms for updating our priors.* That's the main way "we" can improve our System 1 thinking. Post-filtering is sort of a last-gasp, after the fact alternative.

Those priors and heuristics are at any moment always our "common sense." Thus the conundrum when faced with a conundrum: reject it based on common sense, or update common sense?

If we always revert to the common sense we had in third grade, and update from there, we tend to end up like the academic appointees you discuss (though maybe not for the same reasons).

If this makes sense, then a rhetorical appeal to common sense is pretty circular in its logic.

William Perry looked at this updating loop a long time back in "Stages of Intellectual and Moral Development in the College Years." There are all sorts of things wrong with it as "research," but he observes and analytically describes a number of ways that many students exit the loop and get stuck.

Yancey Ward writes:

Politicians know that principles are cheap.

David T writes:

I think I would highly enjoy if you DID take a political appointment and then only told them what you actually thought. It would make a great reality show.

clay writes:

My guess is the disdain for blogging is rooted in the disdain for the low bar of the semi-anonymous Internet community. Academic journals and circles have a much stronger filter on who can participate in the discussion.

John Palmer writes:

All any mortal can do is begin with common sense, then update his beliefs if and when some evidence arrives. Indefinitely suspending judgment is not just overly cautious; it's irrational.

That is a brilliant, concise statement embodying opportunity costs, information economics, etc.

Tracy W writes:

Sonic Charmer: Comparative advantage. Trade between two parties can be mutually beneficial even when one of the parties is more productive than the other party at doing everything.

KnowPD writes:

I think you nailed it and the basic thesis applies well beyond academia. People update their beliefs when it is to their advantage to do so. Business leaders were once star students who were adept at updating their beliefs based on reality. Intellectual honesty in any sort of absolute sense is really only a value to academics. In business, it's clear (or should be clear based on incentives) what position you start from and you build your case from there. The murky view that people above you know more fades with time and you see the highly limited information that decisions are based on. Younger people are too busy updating their beliefs earlier in their careers to pay much attention to how the bigger game is played and the highly limited knowledge of decision makers. Idealists fail to update their beliefs based on such knowledge and declare their world unjust.

steve writes:

Bryan- Would you take that political appointment if you thought you could turn that C student into a B student? Would you be able to work with someone when you agreed 80% of the time? Must it be 100%?


Steve

Sonic Charmer writes:

Joe Cushing / Tracy W

Not that I dispute concepts like supply/demand and comparative advantage, but my honest impression from reading some economists (e.g. Krugman) is that these are not consdered 'proven'. Not that they are explicitly denied per se, but their denial is either implicit in many of the policies advocated by such people, or they are quibbled as oversimplifications not applicable to this situation etc.

Which, of course, they are; 'price = where the supply/demand curves meet' for example makes sense under a bunch of toy assumptions about what a market consists of. At the same time, there is so much wiggle room that in any given instance an economist so-motivated could come up with some kind of fancy-sounding argument as to why the common-sense version doesn't apply. (Again, cf. Krugman.)

This is what I mean by nothing being 'proven'. Even the things that are so 'proven' as to be common sense are (again, by my observation) routinely ignored/waved away at will when policy preferences require. This would simply not be possible in, e.g., mathematics.

Jeff Frankel writes:

Bryan, When I was a Member of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, I never said anything I didn't believe. I think the same has been true of others to serve on the CEA, in both Democratic and Republican administrations. I once wrote an article on what advisers did when the disagree with the presidential party line on an important issue: "What Can an Economic Adviser Do When He Disagrees with the President?", Challenge, 46, no. 3, May/June 2003, pp.1-24. In every case, the adviser managed to avoid saying something he did not believe to be true.

Lauren Feinstone writes:

Hi, Bryan.

I completely agree with Jeffrey Frankel. When I was an economist at the CEA during the year of transition between Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, I certainly never said anything I believed to be untruthful.

I did witness a substantive change in the role of the Council when the Administration changed, though.

Under Beryl Sprinkel, Reagan's CEA Chairman (and also a Cabinet member), we were to always summarize for the President the truth as best it was known to us--including concise summaries of arguments and evidence on both sides if there was disagreement in the economics profession. (Budget deficit matters hinging on Ricardian equivalence were one kind of example of disagreement in the profession at the time.)

Under Michael Boskin, Bush's CEA Chairman (not a Cabinet member, which partly accounts for what I'm about to describe), the structure of the questions soon changed in a critical way. We were now explicitly tasked with presenting the best economic arguments in support of the policy the President wanted to see enacted. For example, we were no longer to answer "What are the arguments pro or con a free trade agreement? pro or con raising farm subsidies? What would be the best policy to strive for on behalf of the economy and country?" We were to answer: "If the only way to get a free trade agreement through Congress is to raise farm subsidies, what are the best economic arguments that can be made to those who oppose raising farm subsidies to convince them to give in to the compromise?"

I certainly always answered such questions with honesty. However, the disinterest in weighing all sides increasingly stifled presenting the best economics arguments. The new emphasis on supporting the exogenously given policy immediately shifted the previous role of the CEA as a group of independent academic advisers--or at least a group of non-bureaucratic, academic government-outsiders--to a more political role.

I was not the only person who left the Council soon after and very much because of the change.

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