Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Posner to Romer: Where Are Your Academic Scruples?

Judge Richard Posner wrote a piece for "The Atlantic" yesterday questioning Christina Romer, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, on her August 6th presentation to the Economic Club of Washington DC titled, "So is it Working? An Assessment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act at the Five-Month Mark."

Posner challenges Romer on her answer to the group of economists as to whether the stimulus package, passed in haste in February by Congress, was in fact working. Romer answered "Absolutely." Posner finds this answer irresponsible coming from an academic and goes on to question why those who leave academia to pursue a public role don't retain their academic scruples:
I do not think her analysis is responsible, and I am concerned with the fact that academic economists, when they become either public officials or public intellectuals (like Paul Krugman), leave behind their academic scruples. (This is one of the themes of my book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline [2001])--and Krugman was one of my examples of the phenomenon.

and then again here:
This raises the question of the ethical responsibility of academic economists, such as Romer (and Krugman, and Lawrence Summers, and many others), who write for the media or join the government, either to adhere to academic standards in their nonacademic work or to make clear to the public that they are on holiday from those standards and that what they say in their public-intellectual or governmental careers should not be thought identical to their academic views.

Ouch! Posner makes it clear he agreed with the stimulus, at least in theory, but found the design lacking and the delivery "lazy." He challenges on a variety of levels Romer's claim the stimulus is working. I won't rehash the whole article because it is a worthy read. I have read a number of Judge Posner's legal opinions and found them straightforward and readable even for someone without a law background like myself. His economic blog is not always as straightforward, at least to this layperson anyway. I think this piece in the Atlantic is more approachable, however.

I respect Judge Posner immensely, he gives an honest assessment and puts his political opinions to the side. I appreciated reading why the stimulus could have worked had it been designed better. I have held the opinion it would have been preferable to do the tax holiday or no stimulus. Because I believe him to give fair assessments though, I give his opinion more weight than a partisan assessment.

This leads to his larger point, Krugman, Romer, Summers and Buffet, lent their credibility to Obama during his campaign. As Obama had no governing experience, their backing gave his economic plans some weight. When these same high profile academics allow their scruples to "take a holiday" in service of a political agenda, the layman will have difficulty discerning political spin from solid academic opinion. For example, the other night Krugman wrote an opinion on the public option and its significance to the Progressives. On Americablog, Krugman's opinion was touted because it agreed with a political point of view but given great weight because of his academic pedigree:
Not that Nobel laureates aren't intrinsically smart folks, but I think this analysis of the politics of the public option is particularly insightful.
Now that the Nobel laureate finds Obama's willingness to sacrifice the "public option" to come up short, the commenters start questioning Obama's intelligence:
He was a lecturer and has no published or scholarly academic papers.

I don't know where the meme came from that he is "brilliant" and "all seeing" and "highly intelligent." It probably came from the same place as "he's playing eleventy dimensional chess" and "he's 25 steps ahead of everybody else."

I think this whole "constitutional scholar" thingy is way overrated.

What is the definition of "scholar" when it comes to Obama?
Those comments look as though I might have plucked them straight from a right wing blog. In fairness, most left and right wing blogs become echo chambers to varying degrees. Opinions that agree are "genius" while those that don't are "stupid." This can certainly contribute to political discourse that becomes frenzied. Obviously there is more at play in our heightened political discussion, not the least of which is hyperpartisan media-types who both lament and ridicule an uninformed public. Still, Posner's point is an excellent one. An academic "on scruples vacation" might fool an uninformed public but they can't get past their peers. Posner didn't need a disclaimer to weed through Romer's discussion, but it would be nice if Posner didn't need to advise the "uninformed public" Romer's academic scruples were in Cancun for spring break.
UPDATE: Brad DeLong of Grasping Reality with Both Hands defends Romer.
Judge Posner's response to Prof. DeLong

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