The Curious Ethos of the Academic/Appointee
By Bryan Caplan
High-status academic economists often look down on economists who engage in blogging and punditry. Their view: If you can’t “definitively prove” your claims, you should remain silent.
At the same time, though, high-status academic economists often receive top political appointments. Part of their job is to stand behind the administration’s party line. They don’t merely make claims they can’t definitively prove; to keep their positions, appointees have to make claims they don’t even believe! Yet high-status academic economists are proud to accept these jobs – and their colleagues admire them for doing so.
You could say there’s a “tension” between scorning punditry and praising politicking. But it’s worse. Our professional norms are topsy-turvy. We scorn the admirable, and praise the questionable.
High-status economists’ disdain for popularizing is baseless. Once you understand Bayes’ Rule, you realize that “definitive proof” of empirical claims is neither possible nor necessary. All any mortal can do is begin with common sense, then update his beliefs if and when some evidence arrives. Indefinitely suspending judgment is not just overly cautious; it’s irrational.
When an academic economist accepts a political appointment, however, he doesn’t merely lower his standards to a reasonable level. He overshoots. Suppose the academic/appointee accepts his administrations’ basic philosophy. Even then, no half-decent economist can fail to notice his political superiors’ day-to-day public affirmation of half-truths, non sequitors, non-responses, simple mistakes, and willful ignorance. Yet when you join an administration, you commit yourself to supporting its party line – warts and all.
You could object that your party line happens to be honest. A nice story, but ponder this: If the politicians you serve were your students rather than your bosses, would you unfailingly give their public pronouncements an A+ for accuracy, completeness, and transparency? If not, how can you agree to defend those pronouncements?
To disclose the obvious, I’m an economist who engages in blogging and punditry. I’ve never held a political appointment – and it’s a fair bet that I never will. Perhaps, due to my narrow experience, I’m missing something. If you’d like to defend the curious ethos of the academic/appointee, I’m happy to listen.