Can’t you see I’m a fool, in so many ways? But to lose all my senses, that is just so typically me. Baby, oh. Oops! I did it again. So sang out the alluring Britney Spears in this number one hit released some years before she found herself in the psychiatric ward of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. I can’t help but think of this song title every time I hear of an academic economist being hired to work on advocacy material.
I don’t say this lightly, and I definitely do not say this with any malice toward the academic end of the economics profession. Academic economists not only have a pretty thankless job in teaching disinterested undergraduates about the magic of supply and demand, but they also do some amazing research. Without academic economists most of the tools of the trade would never have been invented, and we would not have access to minutely detailed information on particular industries or concepts. In other words, academic economists do a lot of good work, but unfortunately most academic economists have not been allotted with much of an ability to spin a good yarn – to tell a good story.
This is of course not 100 percent true. There are good economists that are also fantastic storytellers. University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt comes to mind as does Ken Rogoff, the IMF’s former chief economist. But for the most part, professors are … well professorial. This was not always the case. Some of history’s greatest economists – Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Alfred Marshall – were all fantastic storytellers, but for some reason, the profession lost this knack and veered off toward a more quantitative approach.
Its very important to keep this in mind when incorporating economic information into an advocacy campaign. Since I make a living doing just that I may be biased, but I think the three most important elements an economist can bring to bear on an issue are:
1) The ability to see how a policy decision can have multiple and often unintended impacts. A good economist will not only be able to tell their client that a policy proposal may not work as intended, but can also communicate these effects to a wide and varied audience in a way they can all understand.
2) The ability to provide sound quantitative (numbers based) arguments-In my 20 years doing policy economic research, I have never seen a proposal get passed or killed without someone giving a decision maker a sound number to hang their hat on.
3) The ability to “stop the presses” when they need to.-Often a client will be supporting a policy where the numbers simply don’t work. When this is the case it’s an economists duty to warn then and inform them about the problems with their proposal and provide solid counsel on how to make it work or mitigate the problems. Frankly, this is where academic economists always seem to fall flat. Academics are – well, academics – and the pursuit of their research goal is often more important than a client’s needs.
I recently listened to a story about the debate on replacing the dollar bill with a dollar coin on NPR’s Planet Money. (See Should we Kill the Dollar Bill at http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2012/04/19/150976150/should-we-kill-the-dollar-bill) In their podcast, the reporters were referred to an economist by the Dollar Coin Alliance, an organization lobbying for the dollar coin. This economist , Robert Whaples from Wake Forest University, said when talking about the benefit of dollar coins, “The more I read it, the less I agreed with it.” He went on to say “People are going to be putting them on top of their bureaus instead of spending them for transactions and that seems like a big waste of resources to me.”
Since my firm has worked on this issue and determined that the cost of dollar coins on business could be substantial I tend to agree with Dr. Whaples. But an economist working for the pro dollar coin lobby should know that its not his job to make the other side’s case, and should at least abstain from commenting. Better yet, he should work with his client to modify their position or proposals in such a way as to make the economics work. Unfortunately for the Dollar Coin Alliance, and for other organizations that have worked with academic economists, this sort of thing happens all to often.
When hiring an economist or any technical expert, it’s a good idea to keep Britney’s lyrics in mind and not lose one’s senses and have to say Oops! I did it again.