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The Secret Consensus Among Economists

If you follow the economic policy debate in the popular press, you would be excused for missing one of our best-kept secrets: There’s remarkable agreement among economists on most policy questions.  Unfortunately, this consensus remains obscured by the two laws of punditry: First, for any issue, there’s always at least one idiot willing to claim the spotlight to argue for it; and second, that idiot may sound more respectable if he calls himself an economist. 

How then can the quiet consensus compete with these squawking heads?  A wonderful innovation run by Brian Barry and Anil Kashyap at the University of Chicago’s Booth School Initial on Global Markets provides one answer: Data.  Their “Economic Experts Panel” involves 40 of the leading economists across the US who have agreed to respond on the economic policy question du jour.  The panel involves a geographically and ideologically diverse array of leading economists working across different fields.  The main thing that unites them is that they are outstanding economists who care about public policy.  The most striking result is just how often even this very diverse group of economists agree, even when there’s stark disagreement in Washington. 

That observation is the starting point for my latest column with Betsey Stevenson

Let’s start with Obama’s stimulus. The standard Republican talking point is that it failed, meaning it didn’t reduce unemployment. Yet in a survey of leading economists conducted by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, 92 percent agreed that the stimulus succeeded in reducing the jobless rate. On the harder question of whether the benefit exceeded the cost, more than half thought it did, one in three was uncertain, and fewer than one in six disagreed.

Or consider the widely despised bank bailouts. Populist politicians on both sides have taken to pounding the table against them (in many cases, only after voting for them). But while the public may not like them, there’s a striking consensus that they helped: The same survey found no economists willing to dispute the idea that the bailouts lowered unemployment…

How about the oft-cited Republican claim that tax cuts will boost the economy so much that they will pay for themselves? It’s an idea born as a sketch on a restaurant napkin by conservative economist Art Laffer. Perhaps when the top tax rate was 91 percent, the idea was plausible. Today, it’s a fantasy. The Booth poll couldn’t find a single economist who believed that cutting taxes today will lead to higher government revenue — even if we lower only the top tax rate

The point here isn’t that the panel of economists have all the answers.

Rather, they agree on the best reading of murky evidence. The folks running the survey understand this uncertainty, and have asked the economists to rate their confidence in their answers on a scale of 1 to 10. Strikingly, the consensus looks even stronger when the responses are weighted according to confidence.

I’ve never seen the disjunction between the political debate about economics and the consensus of economists be as large as it is today.  And I think this is incredibly damaging.  Instead of having a serious discussion about how best to end the current economic slump, Congress is gridlocked, as one of the major parties is blocking every effort to improve the economy, using arguments which are so far outside the mainstream that it is hard to find a single economist to agree with them.  The result is that Congress is doing nothing in the face of the tremendous suffering wrought by high unemployment.  And it’s also doing nothing in the face of a longer-run budget problem.  Indeed, fear that continued inaction will lead the US to walk off the “fiscal cliff,” may already be dragging the economy down. 

The optimist in me thinks that the new Economic Experts Panel may be a (small) part of the solution.  My hope is that journalists will come to see this as a useful resource—a way of checking whether political debates reflect serious disagreement, or something more cynical.  And hopefully this will lead us to focus on the more serious debates, rather than convenient and disingenuous talking points. 

You can read our full column, here.