Celebrity economists (take two)

Garret FitzGerald coined the term celebrity economist. I defined “celebrity” as the ratio of media exposure to peer recognition (here and here), which is really a measure of “excess celebrity”. We are still working on the academic paper to support this. One of the minor findings is that one of my worst PhD alumni returned to his home country to become a media sensation and a cherished policy analyst.

Experts play an important role when democracies make difficult decisions. They help to select the policy options that are considered, and help to shape the public opinion about the desirability of these options. The Irish economy would always have gone through a rough period, but bad advice has made things worse than they could have been.

It is therefore important to recognize who has expertise and who has not. FitzGerald’s contended, rightly, that some of the people whose advice was followed were, in fact, not particularly competent in the area concerned.

For the public at large, it is hard to tell a charlatan from an expert. Indeed, Twitters reveals that the hesitant talk of one of Ireland’s top economists is interpreted by many as a sign of ignorance (whereas in fact he thinks before he says something); while the fluent speech of one of the more frequent commentators is typically seen as a sign of competence (whereas in fact his self-confidence is matched only by his ignorance). Journalists should know better, but rarely take the time to find a real expert — and entertainment value is important too.

And it’s not just expertise that matters, it’s appropriate expertise. I may be the world’s 163rd best economist, but I can only claim expertise in matters energy, environment and climate and certainly not on all details in each sub-field — and I therefore refuse media appearances on banking, pensions, growth, art, termites, cardiovascular disorders, volcanoes, … (examples of actual interview requests) The typical listener to the radio or watcher of the TV assumes that because someone is a professor and speaking on the topic, (s)he must be an expert. If only.

While most economists in Ireland show exemplary behavior in their dealings with public and policy makers, there are a few who seem to think that the quantity of media appearances is more important than the quality. They should reconsider.

65 thoughts on “Celebrity economists (take two)”

  1. @Tol
    I appreciate your efforts in explaining energy dynamics Richard and agree with some of your views but I simply don’t get your understanding of water savings .
    Expending money on meters will simply take away money from repair.
    Depreciation of assets will continue no matter how much water you save through conservation.
    Its Hamster wheel economics really.

    Water is not a scarce resourse in Ireland – its flow is not like oil , it needs basic fixed capital investment.

  2. what a shameless piece of self publicity by Richard Tol. asserting that he is the 163rd best economist in the world? come on.

    this supposed ranking puts you ahead of the following. clearly quantity comes ahead of quality in these indices.

    211 Philip Lane
    216 Athanasios Orphanides
    219 Laurence Ball
    224 Michael B. Devereux
    227 J. Peter Neary
    272 Paul Klemperer
    295 Danny Quah
    299 Kenneth J. Arrow
    311 David G. Blanchflower

  3. @Celebrity

    You would think they could rank anonymous unqualified internet economists on their list !!!!
    I know of one deserving freak that uses a Chet Raymo book title as his alias……………………………………

  4. Fascinating. You could submit this to ‘The Journal of Richard Tol’s Ego’. (only joking)

    One problem with citations is the tendency of humans to make mistakes in the same direction at once, to move in a herd. Who cares how many citations you get on a paper that is later disproven or worse shown to have led people up a blind alley? And citations can be negative.

    A great way for a scientist to improve the quality of output is to remove self-regard and to approach research with an open mind. Otherwise your work will suffer from confirmation bias and from the great motivation to beat your political adversaries regardless of the truth. In the past years Tol’s articles on Irisheconomy.ie have usually taken the form of trying to disprove government press releases. Such an adversarial approach has the perverse result of letting your enemy dictate your agenda or even your opinions.

    I am guessing this article is aimed at McWilliams and his showmanship but it was McWilliams who spent the last decade warning of a housing crash. G. Fitzgerald wrote his Irish Times articles about unsustainable growth in government expenditure. Few other economists raised a flag until it was too late.

  5. @Leon Nova

    I am guessing this article is aimed at McWilliams and his showmanship but it was McWilliams who spent the last decade warning of a housing crash.

    It does not hurt to keep mentioning that.

    It is a sad situation when a significant majority of economists have not only failed to explain why they failed to see the most worst economic crisis in the last eighty years coming but also how they then manage to criticise economists who did warn of the coming crash of the crime of being correct without sufficient peer group approval.

  6. I think Richard is being tongue-in-cheek about his ranking.

    Everyone knows that RePEc is the ghetto of economics research.

  7. That IDEAS ranking is always good for a laugh. I like that Robert Mundell appears near the bottom among the also-rans. But he’s in the same percentile as Morgan Kelly, so he’s not disgraced.

    There are some troubling questions to be asked in this area. It’s not just the public at large which finds it hard to tell a charlatan from an expert. Just what is an ‘expert’ when it comes to economics? Ed Prescott is obviously an expert on RBC models and Paul Krugman is obviously an expert on economic geography, but when it comes to questions that matter to policy-makers, they can’t both be right. This is a game that badly needs some rules.

  8. @ Tol

    I have linked to this article by Justin O’Brien of the university of NSW on this blog on a number of occasions.

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2011/0411/1224294394466.html

    His comment about the self-referencing nature of the debate among participants in a discipline that hardly merits any longer the description seems to me to be particularly apt.

    The best comment that I have read on the subject of celebrity economists is that by Miriam Lord in her colour piece on the performance by MK in Kilkenny “Let him through, he’s an economist!”. About as convincing as “Trust me, I’m a doctor!”.

    There needs to be synthesis between various disciplines in the universities if the profession is to recover any real standing. Not alone are there no moves in that direction, the need to do so is, it seems to me, not even recognised.

  9. @Leon
    I had five people in mind. Four of them know who they are.

    Note that a number of economists had warned, prior to 2008, about overheating, fiscal vulnerabilities and housing bubbles.

    This piece is not about history, however. We need good advice now about how to get out of our rather deep hole.

  10. If media are fooled by bad economists, why is it impossible that economists are fooled by bad economists?

    There is also, of course, known bias in who gets cited – this measure naively suggests that we should pay more attention to econometricians, when in reality I don’t think they are always, or even on average, most suitable to talk about policy issues.

  11. @Kevin
    Rule number one is self-restraint. When I look into the mirror, do I see an expert on X? And when I ask a colleague, would she agree that I am an expert on that?

  12. @DOCM

    “There needs to be synthesis between various disciplines in the universities if the profession is to recover any real standing….”

    So very true.

  13. @ DOCM

    ‘There needs to be synthesis between various disciplines in the universities if the profession is to recover any real standing. Not alone are there no moves in that direction, the need to do so is, it seems to me, not even recognised’

    That was tried back in 1968, but it ran up against the real-world vested interests of the professoriat. It makes pefect sense from society’s point of view, but you can’t build an academic empire by removing disciplinary barriers. Subspecialising is much more lucrative for individuals and institutions.

    ‘Learned ignorance’ is the term Bourdieu uses for the resulting state. His Homo Academicus is a fascinating insight into power relations within universities.

  14. @tunafish

    I think Richard is being tongue-in-cheek about his ranking.

    Almost certainly, though I myself dream of reaching 163rd place in any global ranking not related to undiagnosed psychiatric issues.

  15. @ Shay Begorrah

    Well, it would be very hard for McWilliams to score on this list as you have to register and I doubt he has.

    Also, if you look at the FAQs, it’s totally assumed that these people are working in departments.

    “How can I improve my ranking?

    “1 Write more papers. But you knew that.

    “2 Make sure your papers are listed on RePEc. If your department is not yet participating with its working paper series, here are the instructions. Also encourage journals that do not yet participate to do the same.”

    http://ideas.repec.org/t/ranking.html

    Meanwhile, the number one on the list, is Andrei Shleifer, and a quick look at Wikipedia, and his work on privatization in Russia and consequences thereof indicates he wouldn’t be my number one, go to guy for expert advice.

  16. Rule number one is self-restraint. When I look into the mirror, do I see an expert on X?

    I don’t think that tells us much. I’d like to know which of the following gives reliable guidance on fiscal policy: Barro, Rogoff, Mankiw, Summers, Stiglitz, Krugman, Blanchard, Roubini. If they are all ‘experts’ then the term is meaningless. Let’s assume it isn’t: there really is such a thing as an expert on fiscal policy. They are all pretty free with their opinions, so presumably some of them are non-experts who lack self-restraint. How do you tell who is an expert and who really should look more closely in the mirror?

  17. @Kevin
    Step 1 is to weed out the snake oil merchants. The 8 people you list are not that, but some who appear on the Irish airwaves are.

    Among the 8 you list, some know more about fiscal policy than others (and some know very little indeed). So then you have 4 people with 5 opinions in total. Then it’s time to consider their arguments.

  18. While most economists in Ireland show exemplary behavior in their dealings with public and policy makers,

    I take exception at this assertion. Irish economists as a whole have–over the last 10 years–overall been poor policy advisers, have consistently been behind the curve in their predictions, and worst of all have been highly prone to groupthink–along with the rest of the country it must be said.

    Irish economists were–overall–cheerleaders for the boom. Cheerleaders. I don’t think anyone can reasonably object to that statement.

    Moreover, Irish economists have–overall–talked down the bust, especially in the property market, to the point where in my opinion a proper response to the crisis has been stymied.

    Now, I would hold that the reason for these failings in the profession in Ireland were not academic, but cultural. Irish economists did not want to rock the boat, to go against the tide, to be appropriately sceptical. It is a national failing, but in the case of economists it is also a professional one.

    The “celebrity economists” are better described as “contrarian” economists, in most cases being simply those who did not tow the standard line, and subsequently received much public credit for doing so. Credit deserved it must be said. But only really credit with the public. Most of these contrarian have been ostracised by the government and their fellow economists for their actions.

    David McWilliams probably hasn’t seen the inside of a Government building for the duration of this whole crisis. The Minister for Finance literally had to sneak out to meet him in the dead of night, despite McWilliam’s consistent warnings to the property bubble since at least 2003.

    Morgan Kelly was–to my knowledge–the only economist in the country to do the figures and predict just how much trouble the Irish banks were in. Has he met with the Minister? Has a single individual in the Department of Finance so much as given him a phone call? If not why not?

    And above all, Constantin Gurdgiev, who has done extensive work on the state, Nama, and bank finances, and who has actually proposed an alternative banking strategy, has also been sidelined. He and his proposals are occasionally seen on Vincent Browne. Have the government consulted him, and if not, why not?

    From my point of view, a “celebrity economist” appears to be someone with public credibility, earned from accurate predictions, but who is ignored by the government when it comes to setting policy. Ignored to the country’s cost. It’s time to stop calling them names and start inviting them to strategy meetings.

  19. Surely a much more important point is self interest. All economists have a self interest in one direction or another and it is extremely difficult to separate this from objective analysis.

    Obviously the most transparent example of this was the roll call of expert boom economists – McLoughlin, Power, Fahy, Hughes etc who all had a huge self interest in the property boom continuing.

    A related point is political persuasion of economists impacting on their analysis of government decisions. In addition it is always easier (and probably more profitable) for economists to attack the government of the day as this is what gets you in the newspapers.

  20. It takes a certain level of flair and charisma to attract notice in the busy media market. To an extent a media person is an entertainer. I think our real economists, should consider some media training.

    Also another key factor is making yourself available, radio and TV producers work at a pretty fast pace, and someone who is always willing, will likely make their speeddials.

    And then of course there is making yourself known, and getting ‘on the scene’.

    I think consideration should be given to a ‘public policy network’ , a semi formal grouping that would:
    1) Maintain an ‘experts’ list
    2) Assist with training
    3) Arrange networking
    4) Arrange some events

  21. Oh please ….

    Irish economists have become the new technocratic kings in the Irish public sphere. The media (like academics in political science) run around after them because they use numbers to make arguments and to mask a deeply ideological profession.

    The fact of the matter is that the Irish economic profession failed miserably over the past 20 years. As stated by ‘obsessive maths freak’ – they were the BIGGEST cheerleaders of the boom. Those who were not should be given a platform.

    What was it the UK economists association said to the queen when asked why they failed to forsee the crisis again?

    Quote: “we did not see systemic risk” ….. They did not see systemic risk. Open page 1 of any political economy text book and you will read about ‘systemic risk’ – it is called capitalism.

  22. And while I am at it – I see another economic buzz has seeped into the Irish media, particularly that dreadful institution central to cheerleading the boom- RTE:

    ‘Certainty’

    If only people had more certainty about the future they would spend more. If only government would cut expenditure rather than raise taxes then people could become more certain. If only investors had more certainty about their investments could they make more rational calculations. If only we are all so certain of a perfect market world.

  23. Calling a crash 4-5 years in advance is not necessarily foresight. If I call the recovery now, even though it may be 15 years away am I showing tremendous vision or just acknowledging that markets do (usually) eventually recover, just as they will eventually crash again.

    That said a lot of policy criticisms by McW / MK etc were sometimes quite specific in with regards affordability / credit driven inflation etc and they maybe deserve their platform / credibility for this.

    I think the main problem with ‘celeb’ economists is that people in Ireland prefer to listen to a character who legitimates his or her arguments by their fame rather than take the time to look closer at the detail of the arguments. Views are more often interpreted in relation to identity (cheerleader or doommonger) rather than as objective specific analysis.

  24. How can you tell an ‘expert’ from a ‘charlatan’? Easy, really. The expert’s the one who gets rounded on by all and sundry because his/her views don’t sit easily with whatever winds of consensus are blowing; the charlatan is a master of the art of dissembling so is always universally acclaimed.

  25. Richard:
    you are right to be suspicious of “celebrity” economists. Whenever I hear somebody described as that, I think of the expression “celebrity chef”. Usually the latter is somebody who is too busy being a celebrity to devote sufficient energy to getting the chef bit right. The drug of fame and the lure of publicity seem often to eat away at the proper exercise of the very craft in which they made their name.

    As was said in a different context: “….lacking the means to make reasonable opinions interesting, [they] must resort to unreasonable opinions in order to get the reader’s attention”. Many Irish economists seem to fall into that trap.

    See the review in the FT recently of the book Future Babble: Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway, particularly this extract:
    “Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated distinction … divides pundits and forecasters into two kinds of beast – the fox who knows many different things, and the hedgehog who knows one big thing. Hedgehogs, he says, have a narrow range of expertise and tend to arrive at bold, bullish predictions. The forecasts of hedgehogs are simpler and more entertaining, so they soak up all the media attention. But they are much more likely to be wrong than foxes. With a wider range of data and disciplines to scavenge from, foxes tend to be more careful with their predictions, and to fare better as a result.”

    In a multimedia age, where the soundbite is king, voters can too easily confuse certainty with smartness. TV current affairs and news programme producers avoid panellists/interviewees who express views with caution, and choose instead those who have strongly held views of a black-and-white nature. They like hedgehogs (eg Morgan Kelly), not foxes.

    See http://puckstownlane.wordpress.com/2010/12/14/caution-celebrity-economists-ahead/ for my few words on celebrity economists.

    And see here for an example of that (seemingly) rare breed, a humble economist: http://puckstownlane.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/but-gregory-mankiw-is-not-a-hedgehog/

  26. @ Stringer Bell

    Watch out for the word ‘optimal’ too. It sounds great doesn’t it? Who could disagree with an ‘optimal’ policy? Why, only a fool. My policy is ‘optimal’ – yours is junk.

  27. Among the 8 you list [Barro, Rogoff, Mankiw, Summers, Stiglitz, Krugman, Blanchard, Roubini], some know more about fiscal policy than others (and some know very little indeed).

    If it’s really true that any of them know very little indeed, then the economics profession has done a poor job of quality control. Quite honestly, until you come up with a satisfactory way to distinguish knowledge from mere opinion I will stick with my view that economics is, in essence, just a specialised branch of philosophy — in the sense that issues are never really settled, just endlessly debated and refined. Of course that’s not to deny that some practitioners are far better than others and some are frankly wasters.

  28. Easy peasy, Rogoff.

    The best by far in a chess tournament I grant you. On fiscal policy, no better than the others AFAICT. But if there’s a way of showing his superiority that’s very relevant to the question.

  29. Something I have been asking myself for a while is what is the role of the economist?

    If it is to develop models that simplify reality in order to try to make sense of the world, one would have to conclude that in the main, such models are grossly inadequate. If these models are then used for forecasting or policy making, their results really need to be taken with a large pinch of salt and in times of stress, can be dangerously misleading.

    For example, how can it be that economists can differ so widely on a clean assessment of the issues currently facing the US economy, nevermind plausible and workable solutions? It is almost as if a bunch of doctors were arguing over the location of the heart in a patient suffering from a cardiac arrest.

    From this point of view it is little wonder that it is hard to tell the difference between serious academics and celebrity economists or that this difference matters at all (except from an academic point of view). At the end of the day, very few predicted the trouble we are now in and even fewer have a solid idea about how to get out of it.

    I am more inclined to agree with Kevin O’Rourke, that it is economic history that provides the most important guide to the future.

  30. Hear! Hear! It’s time to stangulate ALL economists for the mess they’ve created with their manipulative straight jacket ecometric models. When will they (finally!) admit that their knowledge is nothing more than book stuff:
    Mark omas has also come around to accept it by now. But Irish economists – Fitgerald (may be) was an anamoly – don’t seem to have grown out of their local pedagogics, as reflectedd in this blog daily.

  31. @Shay Begorrah

    +1

    @Richard Tol

    I had five people in mind. Four of them know who they are………..This piece is not about history, however. We need good advice now about how to get out of our rather deep hole.
    </blockquote

    Good advice?

    Get rid of the people that didn’t even see the hole and stop critiscing those that saw the hole, estimated how deep it would be, and firmly told us that it was not sand at the bottom that we would hit when we fell headlong and stupid into the hole.

  32. @actuary
    I am not sure what you mean by a ‘boom time economist’. For the past 10 years i have had no vested interest whatsoever in keeping the property boom going. In October 2005 I predicted a softening of house prices in 2006, but by the end of June 2006 prices had increased by around 14 % from that point. The market went totally berserk in the first half of 2006 and I certainly did not expect that or did not understand it. After that display of my lack of understanding of the topic i went with the tried and trusted ‘the trend is your friend’ mantra. I am quite happy with my analysis of EMU and Ireland in the 1990s which made my position with Bank of Ireland totally untenable and i am also happy with analysis of issues such as public spending, benchmarking of public sector pay, taxation and the creation of a ‘one winged bird’ called construction in the 2000s. I am not quite as happy with my failure to foresee the banking crisis or in my belief that Morgan Kelly was too pessimistic about the Irish housing and banking market in 2006 and 2007. I guess i am human and am not infallible, which is obviously a problem that you do not possess. I don’t remember too many people coming out in support of Morgan in 2006 or 2007. By the way, why do you throw out insults under a disguised name? Have you something to hide?

  33. In the public economic policy context Richard seems to place too much store in the volume of academic citations. (I have a good personal example of where I probably contributed to the failure of an application for research funding in the UK where the group of academics applying considered I had a useful contribution to make, but the anonymous referees were scathing at my lack of an academic reputation and citations. Irish academics wouldn’t have made that mistake.)

    The best way of separating the wheat from the chaff is to put protagonists of conflicting policy advice head-to-head before a Dail Cttee. Let them marshall and present their arguments and evidence, give them opportunity for rebuttal and counter-rebuttal and allow questioning by, and requests for clarification from, Cttee Members. The Cttee will then be able to form a view. And the Cttee should have the resources to conduct and commission its own research.

    Bringing them in one by one just allows Cttee members to ‘grandstand’ and grab their place in the ‘media sun’. Adversarial disputation and contestation on the basis of theory and evidence is what is required, but it is rarely practised. It tends to be the norm in regulatory hearings in the US and Canada, but is rare elsewhere.

    The bullshitters and spoofers would get found out very quickly. But it would never catch on here as bullshitting and spoofing are art forms.

  34. @ Dork of Cork,

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought Ireland was predominantly limestone rock. Sandstone in the south, Granite in the east and other metamorphic rocks in North + West. But the central midlands I believe is mainly limestone.

    Hence while a lot of precipitation may occur in Ireland, that does not mean one can collect the water easily, as in a limestone environment the water is able to escape in underground rivers etc.

  35. @Desmond Brennan

    “It takes a certain level of flair and charisma to attract notice in the busy media market. ”

    No it doesn’t. Any gob5hite or idiot can become a celeb these days. Jedward would be a classic Irish example as would that economist feller…. what’s his name again?

  36. Keynes puts it quite well when writing on Alfred Marshall:

    ‘The study of economics does not seem to require any specialised gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.’

    So mathematician, historian, statesman, and philosopher. Not easy that.

  37. The cartoon on Pete Lunn’s office wall makes your point in fewer words. Either way one fails to disagree.

  38. Richard
    You sure GF coined the phrase btw? I think fisher was described as such way back when? And sachs more recently…

  39. @ Jim Power

    In October 2005 I predicted a softening of house prices in 2006, but by the end of June 2006 prices had increased by around 14 % from that point. The market went totally berserk in the first half of 2006..

    Interesting that you should say. I work in a company supplying the building industry (what is left of it, that is).
    Sales in January and February 2006 were particularly bad, with clear indications that the ‘boom’ had stalled. Of course it had stalled and of course several developers and banks knew it had stalled. So too should the DOF, if there was anybody awake in there.

    As I recall 100% mortgages were brought in about that time. The result. Sales took off again in March 2006 and went Berserk, as you say.

    The boom, particularly from 2005 was not an accident.

  40. @Richard
    This is petty.
    I respect people who offer solutions even when they’re wrong.
    If we had listened to DMcW we wouldn’t be in this mess.

  41. @Sporthog
    Cities in Ireland have large “relatively” clean rivers running through them – I presume Galway gets its water from the Corrib.
    As for the Midlands I thought it had a population density similar to the Australian outback with perhaps more dangerous animals in that unique ecosystem.
    Continental Europe directs large amounts of capital to water management – we don’t need anything like that expenditure but I presume it needs more then its getting.
    If the Irish cannot provide water to their cities they may as well abandon the concept of civilization entirely , head for the hills , suck Sphagnum and accept the Norse experiment was just a passing phase.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHY8isbz7sk

  42. Eureka
    It’s hard to know what the point is of the op. If Richard has a problem with points being made then he should comment on those points rather than say certain classes of people shouldn’t comment on certain things. It’s effectively an argument from (self defined and self arrogated) authority, using the blog as a bully pulpit. But, when your the 163rd or whatever best economist , you csn do that.
    It might be better if more citizens were to take to the airways roadways and fairways..

  43. ….Experts play an important role when democracies make difficult decisions.
    ….

    What democracies you are referring to?

    Name one!

    Europe is governed by a castrated political class that has drawn from experts…. wrong…. that is manhandled by the lobbies in Brussels.

    I am sick of experts… and celebrity economists, but not only that, economists jabbering their ideologically infested mantras per se.

  44. @jimpower

    Fair enough. Wanted to make what I think is an important point about conflict of interest. Shouldn’t have personalised it.

    “boom time economists” referred to economists who were prevalent then rather than a derogatory term.

    Apologies.

  45. @Richard T

    “It is therefore important to recognize who has expertise and who has not. ”

    I am fairly sure it is more important to recognize who has good judgement and who has not.

    Academics are often the only people who can assert that in some objective manner (citations etc), they have the greatest “expertise” – the narrower the field the truer.

    Where the big mistakes have been made – particularly wrt Ireland, it has not been through the odd slight bit of sloppiness or inaccuracy or lack of precise technical expertise, it has been in the failure of those following economics to take a broad enough, coherent view and get things even slightly correct.

    Churning out academic papers that pass peer review guarantees nothing about judgement.

    David McWilliams has probably published sod-all in the academic literature. So too Warren Buffet or Hugh Hendry along with loads of other people who those who have been long-term consumers or fellow originators of economic analysis would bother to listen to.

    So in a way Richard I think you have it wrong.

    But in a way I also think you are right.

    How on earth can people who rarely actually make real financial decisions and whose biggie was to make a leveraged purchase of property during one of economic history’s biggest bubbles pontificate with evident certainty when phoned by a journalist eager to fill time space to satisfy the newly found financial curiosity of the by and large very naive public. Is there a self-awareness deficit at large or what?

    There is nothing wrong with discussion, education, argument, foresight, speculation, even “musing” – that is what the country was short of, but there is something wrong with brow-beating, celebrity certainty, because most of the public will not see through it.

  46. @ Richard Tol

    I may be the world’s 163rd best economist, but I can only claim expertise in matters energy, environment and climate

    How very modest of you.

    And you claim “expertise” on the climate, eh? That’s one in the eye for the physical scientists! I bet they wished they taken economics instead of their fancy PhDs (free membership in the climate denialist GWPF as a perk).

    @ grumpy

    Churning out academic papers that pass peer review guarantees nothing about judgement.

    Yes, it does – it shows that you aren’t in the business of making wild claims that you can’t actually back up with evidence and argument. It is the very height of expertise.

    @ veronica

    How can you tell an ‘expert’ from a ‘charlatan’? Easy, really. The expert’s the one who gets rounded on by all and sundry because his/her views don’t sit easily with whatever winds of consensus are blowing

    This is the point where you claim that the moon is made of cheese, declare victory and open a bottle of wine in celebration.

  47. If we define ‘celebrity economists’, not by how well-known they are among their peers, nor by how competent and respected they are in their specialist fields, nor by how many papers they have produced, but by how well-known they are to the general public, then I would say that ‘celebrity economists’ are a peculiarly southern Ireland phenomenon. They are a product of the debased southern Irish (i.e. Dublin 4) media culture that has evolved in recent years, and which is brilliantly summed up by John Waters in today’s Irish Times as ‘a culture saturated in negativity and cynicism’, where ‘the urge is to denounce everything’, and in which ‘patriotism is inexpressible’. Our esteemed ‘celebrity economists’ are simply the economic component of that debased culture.

    ‘Celebrity economists’ do not exist and have never existed north of the border. The most distinguished economist north of the border, at least of my generation, is John Simpson. The academic economists on this site probably know him. He taught me for one year at QUB in 1966/67. But, in no way could he be described as a ‘celebrity’. I doubt if more than 5 per cent of the population north of the border have ever heard of him.

    Likewise in the UK. Could more than 5 per cent of the UK population name one UK economist at present? I doubt it.

    I was in the US recently and I asked a group of about 30 well-eduacted people at a mapping conference if they had ever ever heard of Paul Krugman or Nouriel Roubini. Only a couple had. These people might be ‘celebrities’ to those interested in economics, but the general public has never heard of them. A total contrast to southern Ireland.

    In case they take offence, I don’t consider any of the economists who post here, highly competent though thy are in their respective fields, to be ‘celebrities’ according to the definition I gave above.

  48. What I will say in Richards defence is that I haven’t seen him come out on a vast array of topics outside of his own field (last week he was on newstalk speaking about alternative energy costs & absolutely did the topic justice).

    At the same time, if expertise is quantified as something researched/published then he should be on the telly all the time having published 11 papers already this year – and in some cases it is outside of energy economics as was last years works on creating a property tax less an existing property database.

    On the flipside, one of the hallmarks of economic thought (and I’d expand this to philosophy/logic/rhetoric/ethics, mathematics, finance and perhaps theology) is the concept of objective and critical analysis of ideas or policy.

    This makes any economist an excellent analysis candidate irrespective of the topic, the question is really one of what the listener thinks rather than what any economist says because there is not an automatic implication of the commentary being ‘expert’ rather it must be ‘relevant’ and appropriate.

    People are not stupid and can discount what they do not find credible.

    This is where I think Richards argument falls down, firstly it would require demonstrable evidence that said commentary is flawed – and even if it is then it must be against some benchmark of what is right and we all know where this leads to when debating who is right or wrong!

    Expertise is not always the point, rather critical analysis is and expert levels of knowledge are not always required to do that, in instances where they are then his argument holds.

    Karl Whelan made the point well on his blog, although a cynic might think he is an economist arguing in favour of furthering the opinion of economists (KW that isn’t a dig – I still <3 u).

    Richards point is perhaps a level of frustration at people being ‘described’ as ‘experts’ by third parties when that mantle is perhaps unjustified on the specific topic- the question is: does the person it is said of believe that? If so it may be hubris, if not then perhaps they allow the discretion in order to further the debate. In any case, is it so dishonourable to contribute?

  49. @Karl
    There have been a number of incidents in recent weeks where an expert in a particular area happily talked shite about something else.

    If people believed them, they did a disservice as a they spread disinformation.

    If people did not believe them, they did a disservice as they damaged the reputation of their employer and the profession.

    Experts should be mature enough to recognize the limits of their knowledge.

    Within those limits, you should contribute where you can.

  50. Phillip II seems to have taken a lot of offence at this post eh? You’d almost swear he was a celebrity economist posting under a pseudonym who feels particularly targetted by this thread…

    @ Richard

    i believe a long while back i had a rant on here saying that when someone (ie a celebrity economist) becomes the go-to guy for the media looking for a quick and cheap one-liner on any manner of subjects, its probably not a good thing. You seem to concur.

  51. @ Richard

    it becomes a particular problem when certain celebrity economists don’t actually know what they are talking about, and end up creating an unrealistic public dialouge which Joe Soap assumes is true cos they heard it from a celebrity economist…(Ireland leaving the Euro, Ireland unilaterally defaulting, Ireland selling a deposit book…)

  52. @Richard Tol

    There have been a number of incidents where an expert in a particular area happily talked shite about something else.

    JTO again:

    Would you say that the thread you opened on this very site in summer 2009, claiming that there had been net emigration of 80,000 in the previous 12 months, fell into this catgory?

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