The Economics Public Sphere

Mark Thoma, live at SSRN

… economics lost communication with policymakers and practitioners leaving room for all sorts of “charlatans and cranks” to fill the void. In doing so, academics ceded important ground to think tanks aligned with one party or the other, to self-appointed economic experts, to business economists maximizing profit rather than public knowledge, and to a media that doesn’t always comprehend the economics that underlie a particular issue. Even in cases where there actually was fairly wide agreement among academic economists about a particular policy proposal, the public debate in the media did not convey that economists were largely united on the issue.

There is another cost of disengagement as well. As academic economists severed ties with those who apply economic models to real world problems, the feedback from the users of models to those in academics who create them diminished. Because of this, the questions that academic economists ask drifted away from the questions that the users of the models need to have answered. Thus, lack of communication between the creators and users of economic models and knowledge has lead to economists pursuing a research agenda that fits the interests of insiders, but does not pay enough attention to the questions that are the most important to society more generally. This is an important element of the Great Disconnect.

For economists, the rise of economics blogs – which has been quite substantial both inside and outside the academic community – can be explained using our favored and simplest construction, supply and demand. The demand for the information that blogs offer was always present, but the cost of obtaining the information was prohibitively high. If a reporter or policymaker could quickly read the views of many prominent economists on a particular topic through a few clicks on the computer, i.e. at very low cost except for the time involved, they would be likely to do so – same for members of the business community trying to get a read on the economy so they can forecast sales, and so on. For policymakers, the ability to receive near instant feedback on policy proposals and thus learn about positives and negatives they may have overlooked before the policy is finalized would have been valuable.

As Thoma notes, the economics blogosphere has grown faster and become better established than many other disciplinary blogospheres. And if, as Thoma argues, economics had grown increasingly disengaged from public debate, political science had scarcely been engaged in the first place. Political scientists sometimes accuse each other of economics envy – one of the motivations for the Monkey Cage was a mild envy of what the economics blogosphere has achieved. Four years later, there are many more political scientists blogging than there used to be – and more systematic linkages between political science and public argument. But there is still an awful lot to do.

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