Eli Dourado

Common mistakes made by economics journalists

Ezra Klein, a journalist who writes about economic policy, offers a list of common mistakes made by economists. Ezra’s list is not bad, but I can’t help but feel that turnabout is fair play. If economic journalists can tell economists that they’re doing it wrong, it seems only fitting that economists should be allowed to return the favor. So without further ado, common mistakes made by economics journalists:

  1. Referring to oneself as an expert in economics. Economists want to attract people to our discipline, so we refer to the “economic way of thinking” as something that anyone can do. Sadly, that is not true. Anyone can get a lot smarter by learning their first bit of economics, but non-economists interpret personal diminishing returns in this regard as knowing all there is to know. Real expertise takes a big commitment plus the right personal characteristics (including personality).

  2. Failing to distinguish between settled theory and open theoretical disputes. Price theory is settled. If price theory strongly implies something, that something does not need empirical support, though it may of course need to be interpreted properly. Macroeconomic issues such as the effectiveness of fiscal policy are not settled; these claims are in need of empirical support, which, it should be stressed, is not easy to come by. If it were, we would have settled the theoretical issues long ago.

  3. Gleefully citing behavioral economics as overturning the basic economic model. There’s a lot to like about behavioral economics, but mostly it informs us about small deviations from rational choice predictions, e.g., preference reversals when agents are almost indifferent in the first place.

  4. A preoccupation with public policy. Much of what is fascinating in economics has little relevance to the everyday political wrangling that goes on in the press. Even when something has policy implications, often the non-political elements of the theory are the most interesting. Why not spend some time on the good stuff?

  5. Coverage should correlate more strongly with importance of the topic, at least partially determined by the size of the economic distortion. No matter what side you take, union policy is relatively unimportant. The size of the distortion generated by immigration restrictions, however, is enormous. Your readers need to understand this.

  6. Too verbose. Would it be too much to ask to replace a few paragraphs now and again with a single equation?

This list would presumably be longer if I consumed more mainstream media. Got any more items? I’ll add, though I shouldn’t have to, that this list is not directed specifically at Ezra.