Wednesday, July 11, 2007

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What motivates economic journalists?

At least once a year, journalists who cover economics like to use the trope of "the dominant market-friendly paradigm is being challenged, changing economics as we understand it." It's safe to say that Patricia Cohen's New York Times story from yesterday fits that bill:

For many economists, questioning free-market orthodoxy is akin to expressing a belief in intelligent design at a Darwin convention: Those who doubt the naturally beneficial workings of the market are considered either deluded or crazy.

But in recent months, economists have engaged in an impassioned debate over the way their specialty is taught in universities around the country, and practiced in Washington, questioning the profession’s most cherished ideas about not interfering in the economy.

“There is much too much ideology,” said Alan S. Blinder, a professor at Princeton and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Economics, he added, is “often a triumph of theory over fact.” Mr. Blinder helped kindle the discussion by publicly warning in speeches and articles this year that as many as 30 million to 40 million Americans could lose their jobs to lower-paid workers abroad. Just by raising doubts about the unmitigated benefits of free trade, he made headlines and had colleagues rubbing their eyes in astonishment.

“What I’ve learned is anyone who says anything even obliquely that sounds hostile to free trade is treated as an apostate,” Mr. Blinder said.

And free trade is not the only sacred subject, Mr. Blinder and other like-minded economists say. Most efforts to intervene in the markets — like setting a minimum wage, instituting industrial policy or regulating prices — are viewed askance by mainstream economists, as are analyses that do not rely on mathematical modeling.

The story conflates a bunch of things (adopting interventionist policy positions, deviating from formal methods, behavioral economics, heterodox economics) together. Alex Tabarrok has a nice takedown (and see also Greg Mankiw). Even Dani Rodrik (cited in the piece) thinks the article "does overstate it quite a bit."

What's of interest to me is that this kind of scattershot critique of standard economic theory -- in which a whole bunch of disparate, even contradictory critiques are lumped together -- seems to be a common trope among journalists. My question is, why?

There's a Freakonomics-style question to be asked here -- are journalists who wash out of Ph.D. programs more or less likely to do this? What about journalists with overt ideological biases? And why the hell hasn't The New Republic written its standard, contrarian, "the neoclassical model does better than you think" kind of piece?

posted by Dan on 07.11.07 at 05:29 PM


I doubt very much this has anything to do with economics, per se. You see the same dynamic play itself out in the coverage of any topic that requires academic expertise. Journalists need a story hook, which generally requires some form of conflict. Moreover, even long-form print pieces don't provide enough column inches to cover the nuances of any moderately interesting debate. I work in the environmental field, and the reporting on issues related to my work is just atrocious. So it goes.

posted by: Sheezy on 07.11.07 at 05:29 PM [permalink]

There's also the factor of the view from inside the field versus the view from outside. It's like discussing "Asian Americans". There's major differences among Asian americans. Hell, there's major differences among natives of India, or Thailand, or Indonesia, or China. But they all get conflated into "Asian Americans".

Don't expect any journalist, or any outsider, to do a good job of understanding your specialty and you'll save a lot of time for something else to worry over.

posted by: Bill Harshaw on 07.11.07 at 05:29 PM [permalink]

It's largely about ideology. Journalists, by and large, are people who want to believe that smart, well-intentioned policymakers can improve the economy. At the same time, they are put off by the notion that progress really comes about as the result of decentralized, largely selfish actions taken by people they despise (business executives).

The position of neoclassical economics, the product of a group of officially endorsed specialized intellectuals, that these prejudices are wrong, is a constant source of frustration to the journalistic community. They want enlightened opinion to align with their prejudices. So any signs of dissension within the profession, regardless of their mutual coherence, get picked up eagerly.

posted by: srp on 07.11.07 at 05:29 PM [permalink]

Most journalists like to think of themselves as standing up for the little guy. They love writing stories about people who play by the rules and who get screwed. Also, when journalists compare themselves to anyone making "real money," they feel like they are the little guy. And with plenty of Democratic economists realizing that they'll never get a job in the next administration unless they start denouncing "globalism," the stories practically write themselves.

posted by: Alan Vanneman on 07.11.07 at 05:29 PM [permalink]

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