Expert Advice

David Glenn had a fascinating piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week about the struggle by academic economists to be relevant in the current fiscal crisis:

[N]ow that the dust is beginning to settle in Washington, many academic economists have the gnawing feeling that during moments of crisis, they don’t have much ability to sway public policy.

It’s a meaty piece that serves as a telling example of the broader problem of expert advice in government. The real money quote came at the very end, echoing a problem that I see in many areas that I cover as a journalist – the disconnect between the views of the expert and the realities of how the system works. The person speaking is economist James K. Galbraith:

“The question is not so much what economists need to say to policy makers, but what kind of policy education economists need in order to be able to intelligently understand the constraints that policy makers operate under.”


  1. John,
    Thanks for the link.

    In my small experience in being an expert on legislation, I have found that I have to build trust with the politician and their staff. I have to build trust long before the precipitating event.

    Then I have to understand not just the science (in my case) of the legislation but also some of the politics.

    Essentially, I have to act in a way that is heard clearly by the politician, just like Galbraith did.

    I have found very few academics or national lab folks who are willing to take the time to speak clearly to politicians or to build trust. It is easier and much less time consuming to say, “Politicians are corrupt jerks.” and then offer no advice or incomprehensible advice.

    Another part of the problem, for members of the House of Representatives, is that there is too little time and too few resources for the congressperson to actually understand a problem and its solution. P.J. O’Rourke’s book “A Parliament of Whores”, besides being very funny, points out how really impossible the work load of a standard Congressman is.

    As to academic economists in particular, in the past they have often been wrong. This bad advice has had huge consequences to the country. In addition the economist has had no skin in the game. The economist will not lose his or her job or even his or her grant if the economist makes a recommendation that causes the loss of many billions of dollars of wealth to Americans.

    So why would politicians, who are in the game for real, listen to armchair quarterbacks who have nothing to lose if their strategy is wrong?

    The only expert strategy that seems to have influence is to be patient, clear, sympathetic, and informed.

    This approach appears to work far beyond politics. 😉

  2. That last quote is fantastic.

    Really, I think everyone ever needs to understand the constraints policy makers act under. *fingers crossed* In an Obama administration, knowing those constraints is going to be key – with expectations so high, people are going to have to realize he is a mortal.

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