Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Where Are the Economists?

So, the Dow plummets more than 500 points because Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Merrill Lynch teeter on the edge. Bad debt from an unregulated market has come back to bite us in the fiscal you know where, families are suffering stunning foreclosure rates, storied financial institutions are crumbling, 401k's are disintegrating, yet all we get is he said/she said posturing from campaign surrogates. Where are the economists?

This is not to pick on economists. When there are ethics issues, why do we not see philosophers? When global warming is addressed, why aren't the go-to folks climate scientists? Where were the biologists explaining the foundations of evolutionary theory and the supporting evidence during Dover? We whine and complain that political coverage never comes near an issue, but instead focuses solely on the horse race. Yet, with every other issue, we get a reduction of a different sort, we get nothing but partisan political spin instead of actual explanations from experts so we understand the basics.

I understand that MacNeil/Lehrer may not be the most gripping tv, but surely there should be a stable of media friendly experts who could clearly discuss the facts and basic concepts with multicolored USA Today type graphics that would capture viewers. Why don't we have Mr. Wizards for each and every field. We used to have medical doctors who would play that role for health stories, but even that has faded.

McCain's press person misrepresented Obama's tax plan and said that it violated economics 101. This, of course, is nonsense. If there was an economist there who could say, "You know, I teach economics 101...and 216, and 437 and supervise doctoral theses, and actually here is the real controversy...not the fake one you are trying to gin up," we would actually begin to have a thoughtful conversation. Once they knew they couldn't get away with the crap, the crap would stop. I understand that there are live debates within the economic world, but they are not the fault lines that the political sides actually play to.

But apropos of yesterday's post, because our press is made up of clubby politico insiders who don't do their homework and are afraid of flack for actually challenging nonsense, this sort of stuff slips by all the time. Certainly, the press in its push for ratings prefers chocolate to broccoli, but some of the blame is also to be placed on the Academy. We should be demanding our seat at the table. We should be outraged that our field is mischaracterized and that one of our colleagues is not there to correct the misrepresentations. Yet, this sort of thing is seen as unserious. If you are not producing work for your incestuous little academic clique, you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing. The notion that we have a responsibility to be public intellectuals has been lost.

But we do not need to emulate the American Bar Association and require pro bono media work of everyone. We should make it the intellectual community's responsibility. We should be developing great teachers who have a knack for clearly articulating issues and concepts with colorful metaphors and images who would learn how to be comfortable and easy to watch on the small screen and not just in the classroom. We should be making it easy for the media to know that they can go to us and have someone who will be informative and entertaining. Not all academics would be appropriate; indeed, the biggest names are not necessarily the ones we would want. The Surgeon General is not necessarily the most skilled physician. But we need an Economist General, and a Biologist General, and a Philosopher General, and, a Russian Political Scientist General, and, and, and...

If we are going to address the longstanding anti-intellectualism in this country, we need to normalize the intellectual. By humanizing smart people and painlessly making tv watchers smarter, the fear of "the elite" can begin to be addressed and the absurd positions that become widely accepted because of fallacious partisan spin could be undermined. The difficulty, of course, would be overcoming the false equivalence of star pundit vs. Princeton prof, but with a cooperative stance between legitimate experts and the media, a better media and a better informed electorate could result. Maybe. Well, like chicken soup, at least it couldn't hurt.