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How Many Economists Does It Take …

I’ve spent a lot of time around economists the past few years, and a lot of time around journalists for longer than that. It strikes me that our work is often similar: have an idea; gather data; analyze, synthesize, and present your findings. There are significant differences, of course. To most journalists, especially those on deadline, the data that’s gatherable is highly incomplete. In part this is because the people with access to the data, especially in the realms of politics and business, are often disinclined to share the data that’s most meaningful. As a result, a lot of people are unsatisfied with political and business journalism. I say don’t be so quick to blame the journalists; I say acknowledge that the information asymmetries here are really problematic, and applaud the journalists who try to level the field.

It’s no secret that many people in business, in politics, and especially in academia complain about journalism — that journalists simply can’t or don’t understand the complexities of what they’re writing about, and render an incomplete or inaccurate picture. Often, that’s true. And often, journalists do their best with limited data.

I have never heard anyone complain about bad journalism as much as my economist friends. Sometimes I agree wholeheartedly with their complaints; and sometimes I think they misunderstand journalism as thoroughly as they claim journalists misunderstand economics.

So it struck me as noteworthy the other day when I realized that The New York Times has done something remarkable about the gulf between journalism and economics. As of today, there are at least seven PhD. economists who write regularly for the Times: the rotating “Economic Scene” quartet of Hal Varian, Robert Frank, Tyler Cowen (who began this month), and Austan Goolsbee (who began today, with a nice piece about France’s problem with iTunes); then there’s Paul Krugman on the OpEd page; the “Economic View” contributor Daniel Altman; and Steve Levitt, co-author of some column called “Freakonomics.”

Granted, all of these economists are writing columns, not beat coverage. (Altman used to be a reporter at the paper; I believe now he’s an outside contributor.) But still: what other academic discipline can show such representation in the Times or any other newspaper? Medical coverage is a huge piece of the Times’s franchise, and it employs an actual M.D., Lawrence Altman as a lead medical writer (I don’t know if he and Daniel are related); and another M.D., Lisa Sanders, writes an occasional “Diagnosis” column for the Times Magazine. But that’s still just two M.D.’s (that I know of) versus seven economists (that I know of).

This is all to say that I think it’s great the Times has so many economists writing for it, and I hope the paper thinks about extending this model to other disciplines of import. If nothing else, it might cut down on all the complaints from the academy.