By Chrystia Freeland
NEW YORK Jan 10 This is a tough time for
experts. Empowered by the Internet and embittered by the sour
economy, many people doubt the wisdom of expert elites.
Journalism sometimes casts further doubt by seeking polarized
positions that can draw an attention-grabbing debate, or by
taking refuge in he-said-she-said accounts to avoid the harder
job of figuring out who's right.
Now one tribe of specialists - economists - is striking
back. Concerned that the great unwashed have come to see all
economic proposals as being equally valid, the University of
Chicago Booth School of Business has led an effort to figure out
what economists agree on, where they diverge and how certain
they are about their views.
To do that, the Booth school called on reputable economists
to join its panel of experts. Each week, the panelists are asked
whether they agree or disagree with a particular economic idea.
"Among practicing economists, it is understood that the
media and the political process paints economists as more
divided than they are," explained Anil K. Kashyap, a professor
of economics and finance at the University of Chicago and a
leader of the project. "It is more sensational and maybe makes
for better reading to have point-counterpoint. It seemed
reasonable to provide some context. There's a lot more settled
issues than most people have a sense of."
As an example, Kashyap cited the gold standard, the monetary
system in which the standard economic unit of account is a fixed
weight of gold.
"The gold standard is an insane idea," he said. "I don't
know of any reputable economist who thinks it is a wise idea,
but it got a lot of real political traction."
Of the Booth panelists, 93 percent disagreed that the gold
standard could improve price stability or employment.
But that is an extreme example. A paper presented this week
at the annual gathering of the American Economic Association
investigated the survey results in greater detail.
"Based on our analysis, we conclude that there is close to
full consensus among these panel members when the past economic
literature on the question is large," wrote the authors of the
paper, Roger Gordon and Gordon B. Dahl of the University of
California, San Diego. "When past evidence is less extensive,
differences in opinions do show up."
But the authors did not find an ideological bias in those
disagreements: "There are certainly some idiosyncratic views
expressed, but we found no evidence of different camps."
Economists, these results suggest, seek to objectively
establish the truth and have a widely agreed-on body of
knowledge about how the economy works. In an age when it can be
hard to write the word "facts" without reflexively reaching for
quotation marks, that is of some comfort. But this picture of
consensus among experts comes with a few caveats.
One was articulated by Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize laureate
and New York Times columnist who was at the American Economic
Association meeting. Krugman accepted the idea that economists
share a wide body of agreed, objective and nonideological
knowledge. But he argued that when it comes to one subset of
issues - business-cycle macroeconomics, or how policy should
respond to booms and busts - economists are both divided and
biased. That matters, Krugman rightly pointed out, because
outside the academy these are among the economic issues ordinary
mortals care about, and fight about, the most.
The second caveat is that consensus may be more fleeting,
and therefore less valuable, than the economic high priesthood
might like to think. To his credit, Kashyap revealed two issues
on which the economic conventional wisdom, and his own views,
have changed since the financial crisis of 2008.
One is currency controls: "Having watched all this hot money
flow into these markets, I am much more sympathetic to the
desire to slow things down," he said.
The second is whether central bankers should try to pop
asset bubbles, an idea toward which Kashyap has softened. "I
don't think the conventional wisdom was very good on this and I
was firmly in the consensus," he said.
These shifts suggest that it is worth looking more closely
at one clear subgroup among the economists in the University of
California study. Gordon and Dahl searched for, and failed to
detect, ideological bias or even the subtler influence of the
very distinct intellectual traditions of top U.S. universities.
But they did pick up a clear difference between men and
women. "Women," they wrote, "tend to be more cautious in taking
a stance." For women making their way in the 21st-century world
of work, that reticence is mostly a handicap - a willingness to
admit to uncertainty is one reason women are paid less and can
find it difficult to break through the glass ceiling.
For the benefit of the community as a whole, though, more
female economists may be needed. The quest for objective
economic knowledge is surely a good thing, as is the Booth
effort to map where economists agree and where they diverge.
But, given how profoundly and unexpectedly the world economy
collapsed in 2008, maybe a little more womanly humility about
that conventional wisdom would be a good thing, too.