If you’re a normal person – meaning someone who doesn’t follow the U.S. economy especially closely – you have no reason to care much about the news that long-time economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson announced his retirement this week. In fact, even though I follow the economy really closely, I don’t much care either about his departure as such, either.
Nonetheless, one point Samuelson made in his farewell piece in the Washington Post does deserve everyone’s attention, and that was the (reluctant) swipe he took at the character of economists. And this indictment presumably includes many of the discipline’s leading lights, because the observation was made in the context of his claim that they’ve taught him a lot, and because his position gave him regular access to so many of them.
But first, some full disclosure. I’ve dealt with Samuelson on a steady basis literally for decades, mainly because pundits like him have a powerful megaphone, and therefore convincing him that some finding made by me or one of my various colleagues was worth covering boosted the odds that policy makers would pay attention.
He’s been refreshingly respectful and reasonably open-minded, and occasionally took the bait. So I was grateful for that. Otherwise, he’s been a decidedly faithful transmitter of the national, and especially academic and think tank version of, economic policy conventional wisdom, including on trade policy. In that respect, I found him less impressive. The only exception that come to mind – he’s repeatedly, and quite emphatically, challenged the notion that the more immigrants the United States admits, legally or otherwise, the more prosperous the nation as a whole will be. (See, e.g.. here.)
As a result, although in his swan song Samuelson presented some major lessons he says he’s learned about the economy and life in general, they’re hardly gold mines of insight. But what he said about economists was a true shocker, and something to which everyone should pay attention – his fellow journalists first and foremost.
As implied above, Samuelson didn’t exactly relish being critical. For he began by insisting that “With some exceptions, most [of the economists in his Rolodex] are intelligent, informed, engaged and decent. In my experience, this truth spans the political spectrum.”
But in the very next sentences, he maintained that
“But it’s not the only truth. Another is this: Economists consistently overstate how much they know about the economy and how easily they can influence it. [Samuelson’s emphasis.] They maintain their political and corporate relevance by postulating pleasant policies.”
And a few column inches down, he added that “the quest for economic status and power pushes economists and their political sponsors toward exaggerated promises that lead to widespread public disappointment.”
In other words, according to Samuelson, the economists with whom he’s continually consulted (and who are mainstays for pretty much every other leading economic journalist and pundit you can think of) are generally nice people personally, but “consistently” they succumb to temptations to cast aside intellectual honesty. And the references to “political and corporate relevance” and “political sponsors” aren’t far from charges of outright corruption.
The 75-year old Samuelson closed this final column with an observation that hit particularly close to home for this 66-year old: “I am a man of the 20th century, but we are now facing the problems of the 21st century, which demand new policies and norms.”
I’m trying to keep up – how well I’m succeeding of course ultimately is up to you. But when it comes to identifying the need for new policies and norms, one area in which I think I’ve done a pretty good job has been pointing out that the economics and business press should do a much better job revealing the actual and potential conflicts of interests of the experts it repeatedly treats as dispassionate truth-seekers. (See, e.g., here.)
So it was gratifying to see someone as established as Samuelson reinforcing this case, however implicitly – even if he waited till he was walking out the door.