Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Economists Returning to Mission of Informing Public Discourse

by Brian T. Lynch

Thoma writes that economists were once more engaged with answering important policy questions than they have been in recent decades.  They were also more interested in answering public question than pursuing purely academic questions.  This subsequent estrangement between academic economists and the public sphere, he argues, has made it easier for ideologically motivated groups to introduce false or misleading claims to influence policy.  This “Great Disconnect” is starting to reverse course with the spread of new information technology, such as economic blogs.

While economists retreated from a more public role in policy debate, Thoma points out that public policy has remained a central focus all along.  What actually changed was the audience.  Economist went from serving the public and civil government to serving wealth private interests, or, as Thoma puts it, economists became, “‘privy councillors to private wealth,’ rather than public servants to elected officials.”

On reason economists withdrew from public engagement was their desire to be more scientific. Economists needed academic space to advance their analytical capabilities and develop the mathematical formalism this requires.  Academic freedom and a degree of isolation were needed to develop and advance new economic models, to refine the language of scientific debate and to safely challenge assumptions and common wisdom.  In this rarified setting mathematical development lead to increasingly abstract and symbolic communications among economists, further isolating them from public discourse.  In the process, “… the work of economists lost important connections to the outside world.”  Theoretical economists became less willing be perceived as taking sides in our increasingly polarized public discourse and the questions they asked were less connected to real world questions.  The public mission of economists declined in importance as the profession became more insular and increasingly beholding to powerful and wealthy private interests, according to Thoma.

Another impact of this disengagement was a growing disconnect between theoretical and applied economists. New information technology is beginning to bridge this divide as well as the divide between the discipline and the world at large.  Electronic media drastically lowers the cost, in time and money, of reviewing the views of many prominent economists on any given topic.  This increases the demand for information from economists and puts added pressure on them to participate in the new public media.  This, in turn, lead to the benefits associated with greater academic information sharing and strengthened the connections between academic economists, public policymakers and the press.  Thoma writes, “More than ever before, the public has direct access to the thoughts of academic economists. On most any important economic topic in the news, it’s possible to find scores of economists writing about it.”  In service to this public demand for information economists are increasing speaking in clearer simple language and using powerful new graphical methods to depict information in ways that can engage those without technical knowledge.

In conclusion, Thoma writes:

“Modern communications technology is forging new connections between academic economists, the public, policymakers, the press, economists outside of academia, and other academic disciplines in ways that were not possible in the past, and there is little doubt that these connections have increased in recent years. The Great Disconnect is, hopefully, coming to an end.

We are still working out how blogs fit into academic economics, what professional mores ought to apply to blogging, how blogging relates to the academic mission of teaching, research, and service (including serving the public mission), how it should be viewed in tenure and promotion decisions, and so on. But this is a new endeavor for economists, and such questions are expected. We will get these things worked out over time. For now, however, there is plenty of room for optimism that new forms of communication will continue to enhance the public presence of economics in ways that provide mutual benefits to the profession and the public sphere.”

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