Danny Blanchflower remarked on Twitter that UK economic discourse lacked much engagement from academics. This was a follow-up to a Paul Krugman post where he disparaged UK economic discourse, and used as his metric the fact that there was a lot of focus on the deficit. And that in turn derives from Simon Wren Lewis’ developing caricature of UK’s ‘mediamacro’.
Well, this blog is about why – supposing the assessment of our discourse to be true, which I don’t really accept in the way it was put – you shouldn’t blame the academics. Or perhaps anyone, except the market.
The first reason why is that there is little or no financial incentive to take part.
UK economics departments are partly assessed on ‘impact’. But there is almost no link to that and me, for example, piling into a debate about whether inflation 2pp below the BoE’s target is, as George Osborne’s office seemed to be claiming, was a good thing.
The ‘impact’ criterion is, mostly, about the impact of a particular piece of research [produced while at the institution being evaluated].
I could, for example, write a new paper examining the costs of inflation target misses, and succeed in persuading either the BoE or HMT to take notice, cite my work. My department might then choose to use me as one of a small number of impact ‘case studies’. Or they might not.
Notably, me piling into a conversation over Twitter on the train to Bristol, synthesising what most macroeconomists would already believe into a few tweets and persuading those who listened of the correctness of my case, would not carry any weight whatsoever.
You might well say ‘Good!’ Do something more useful on the train! Write that new paper on the costs of target misses! But, actually, that wasn’t necessary to point out the dangers of bragging about too-low inflation. We don’t need a new paper to do that.
What dominates the financial calculus for those on either side of the academic hire is publications.
Some small weight would be put on other aspects of an academic’s profile, but not much. I’m soon off to Birmingham. They might have been happy to see that there is someone with experience of how the UK monetary and fiscal regime works. But I am sure they were much more vexed about how their 2020 Research Excellence Framework results would come out, and for that they need publications. And trying to predict what a bunch of impact case studies might look like, and who would be used to make them, is much less certain than adding up the number of 4-star publications now, or forecasting those in the pipeline.
A second point to make is that engagement often isn’t wanted, really.
Engagement sometimes presents itself as criticism of those in the media who are currently paid to try to keep eyeballs focused on them. I don’t expect any pieces reporting ‘Selflessly engaged academic Tony Yates explained how all our pieces extolling the bottom-up theory of inflation fallacy were, in fact, wrong, for which we are eternally grateful. How much clearer the world looks to us now the fog has been lifted.’ Silence is much more likely, even on uncontentious points, and understandable.
Those controlling access know what their consumers want better than people like me. They probably don’t want mini-literature surveys that are faithful to the small economic print and convey all the shades of opinion and controversies about some issue. Consumers don’t have time or inclination for that. They want a way into a topic. And that way in might be an opinion. A crude version of one of the many possible arguments. Something that people like me don’t offer.
A great example is Robert Peston’s old blog on QE. With my academic/central bankers macro hat on, this was full of stuff that was wrong and confusing, and I explained why. But in retrospect, what was the point? Those who were likely to read my response didn’t need persuading. And those that did need persuading were, thanks to Robert’s wise guardianship of his own access point, not going to hear about it, and probably would not want to anyway.
Peston’s blog would be an unreadable mess if it was full of stuff responding to pedantic academics no-one had heard of. And the point of some of these journalism brands is that they are themselves the founts of their chosen specialist wisdom, not that they humbly intermediate from academics who know better. You can see the business case for keeping academic minnows out of ‘engagement’ because it changes the brand.
I exaggerate the extent and scope of these problems – if they are problems – to make a point. There are lots of examples of successful conversations emerging too. Although I think most of those are between the discourse producers, and not about academic stuff being put in front of the ultimate consumers (the readers/watchers).
I also don’t want to claim that this is a case of the media selling a dud and concealing from the information-hungry public the holy truths that noble academics are dying to tell them.
I already conceded we were selfish, and looked to our incentives.
But I should also concede that we often don’t know the answer either. Many of us are drawn into specialisms that would look frighteningly narrow to an outsider (in pursuit of publications). And we are sometimes therefore just as bad at digesting literatures outside that specialism as your average journalist. (Extreme but common example being the number of Nobel laureates recruited to talk off topics they excelled at, and getting it wrong).
Even when we do know the answer, we don’t have the skills to put it into words intelligible to even a well-meaning journalist quickly enough to be useful. The few conversations I’ve had have often conjured up my fond memory of former BoE Deputy Governor John Gieve asking ‘ah, so what does this answer depend on this time, Tony?’ In fact, I’d say I was treated rather charitably, given my tendency to insist on the ‘on the one hand, on the other’ format.
So, in short, engagement by academics is unpaid, is sometimes experienced as unwelcome [either because it undermines the business model of the expert journalist, or because consumers wouldn’t want it] and we are often not very good at it anyway.