Not the Problem

By James Kwak

Nicholas Kristof’s ill-conceived diatribe against the supposed self-marginalization of academics has come in for a fair amount of criticism, notably from Corey Robin. The most obvious problem with Kristof’s argument assertion is that anywhere you look in the policy sphere, you can’t help stumbling over academics left and right. Macroeconomics is an obvious one, but there many others. Take education, for example, where anyone pushing for any conceivable policy change can wave a fistful of academic papers in your face.

It’s easy to multiply examples of academics doing policy work or even occupying policy positions. The bigger question, and the less obvious problem with Kristof’s opinion, is whether more of us would do any good for the world.

Consider climate change. Here, academics have hit the ball out of the park. We know the world is getting hotter, and we know why, because of hard, painstaking academic research. There are two main reasons why we’re not doing anything about it, and neither is a shortage of op-eds by professors.

The first is a well-funded campaign by fossil fuel companies and anti-government ideologues to spread misinformation. That’s just politics, given the state of American campaign finance law.

But the second is a media that refuses to call out people for simply lying about science, relying on the formula of “expert A says X and expert B says Y” instead. And a media that compounds the problem by giving prime real estate to the unqualified climate change-denying drivel of people like George Will. In other words, the journalists–Kristof’s profession–are a big part of the problem.

On most policy questions of any importance, there are enough academics doing work to generate far more policy ideas than can seriously considered by our political system. When it comes to systemic risk, we have all the ideas we need–size caps or higher capital requirements–and we have academics behind both of those. The rest is politics. What we really need is for the people with the big megaphones to be smarter about the ideas that they cover.

14 thoughts on “Not the Problem

  1. The For-Profit-News Media can never be fair and balanced as long as they live or die based on advertising. When people ask, “How did we not see the 2008-09 mortgage crisis coming?”, one only has to look at the advertisers of all 6 major media outlets— Citi, JPMorgan Chase, BOA, etc.,….there were plenty of traditional bankers screaming about the practices of the major national mortgage lenders but they didn’t get any real press or publication of their letters.

  2. We could spend ages dissecting why ‘we’re not doing anything’ – though we are actually doing all sorts of things.

  3. “What we really need is for the people with the big megaphones to be smarter about the ideas that they cover.”

    waaaaaaaa! waaaa! Why can’t everyone just think the same way I do?!?! Then they would all be right!

    This is seriously your argument?

    Your climate change argument is a very strong argument for reducing academia and increasing policy decisions by those who have real-world experience actually doing instead of making academic arguments.

    Lets look at how greens have been crying wolf on the end of the world for decades…..we’re going to run out of food, we’re going to run out of oil….yada yada.

    and then an entrepreneur makes a shit ton more food available per acre and another finds a shit-ton more oil in tiny cracks.

    Individuals make the difference, not policy-makers in ivory towers.

  4. The oil industry did a huge PR drive especially Exxon a Chevron moving public opinion away from being seriously concerned about the issue. It may have been the biggest PR campaign in history. Senator Inhoffe quipped “the American people have studied the issue and don’t believe the doomsayers.” They were educated by the commercials and not much hard news . The number of stories on climate change have been very minimal, hardly any coverage according to a recent study.
    Ironically ,I had some success against Chevron . Their CEO ,the late George Keller complained to the local paper that “we(the local environmental group) were getting from page coverage while if Chevron did anything good it was on the obituary page.”
    The big Chevron PR campaign played over and over again . I watch little TV less than 90 percent of the population and had seen the ad at least 50 times. The theme was Chevron would take care of the energy issue , and sure there was “talk” about the environment but they had it covered. Basically everything said in the ad was untrue beginning with claiming the financial meltdown was due to a lack of oil and that they needed to continually discover more oil to “get the economy humming again.” Its hard to get the commercial media to address the conflict of interest in their own industry . You don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you.
    There is something very Orwellian about our predicament . Maybe local Climate Change Awareness Week on a local level might be a way to approach the issue. Plus listening to Michio Kaku who probably does more stories on the issue than anyone else in the media.

  5. James,
    I had the exact same thought in reading Kristof’s piece. Global warming is a perfect test for how real science gets translated into policy, and we’re failing miserably. It isn’t for lack of trying.

    Kristof’s mention of economics as a rare case of Republicans in academia makes my blood boil, frankly. Economics has been so compromised by monied interests for so long, it allows plenty of room for hacks who don’t care about the true nature of reality. Rather, they exist (and are well compensated) to search for justification for what certain groups *want* to be true.

    There is no conservative school of physics, or chemistry, or molecular biology. There’s no liberal school either. You’re either doing rigorous research, or you aren’t. The very fact that economics has remained bifurcated into saltwater, freshwater, whatever is indicative of its seriously flawed underpinnings. It is not example to uphold.

    Apologies to those of you do manage to perform real, data-driven economics research in the midst of the swamp.

    Chris F.
    Mountain View, CA

  6. Be careful how you describe ones self there Chris. Our definition of a scientist is simply a failed engineer, that was going to be your outcome. Now how do we know if the scientist is on the path to insanity? Well if he tries over and over again, and expects the same results, he is on the path to insanity.
    Now paying for this type of behavior, to expose itself, could be considered worse than that. But lawmakers and regulators encouraged it so that is why we hear so much about it today.

  7. Few journalists in the biz these days. What we have today, in many– or most– instances is stenographers. They betray to history of journalism.

  8. These are the people who used The Patriot Act (Your tax money to wipe you out), empowered NSA, or whomever, to basically do what CRIMINALS used to have to do in the dead of the night – pick through your garbage to get personal information on you – and then their trillion FIAT $$$$ investments in computing gizmos paid off big when they launched the ultimate algorithm:

    More misery for others = More $$$$ for ME ME ME

    pass the lipstick on a pig…

    they hand-picked the Pope, also….

  9. I thought that the thrust of Kristof’s argument – assertion according to you:-) – is not the shortage of op-eds by professors, but the kind of published research that has taken hold of academic work. It lacks easy accessibility because of the highly mathematized methodology and embrace of jargon. It becomes part of the institutional structure of the universities to encourage such work, in order to receive prestige and funding. All this is observable in many cases and it is certainly not the fault of the individual practitioners. They will do what they are trained for and where the prize lies. But a change to policy-oriented and publicly meaningful rhetoric is called for in most fields, including economics. The days when the political economists could “explain” issues to lay people are rare now. The high priests seem reluctant to sully their keyboards with such ordinary stuff.

    Blame big business for sure. I don’t know how much judgment can journalists bring to picking and choosing, except based on their own ideology. Then they will sure be accused of being unbalanced. Krugman on his blog has made some interesting comments about this.

  10. I see your point and I disagree with his example of economics. I have noticed less engagement by academics in public controversies and politics than in the 1970s. There is more public policy research to be sure. However, fewer academics are seriously active in politics and making their voices heard on the local and state level. The op-ed is important; however, greater impact would result from academics collaborating with emerging political forces. This happens best below the national level. Collaborating with non-academics will change how academics “talk” and think about policy change.

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