Saturday, July 13, 2013

The role of experts

Prof. Krugman has been writing a lot lately about the "puzzling" fact that those who were wrong about what the economy needed and how it would respond have neither been held to account for their inaccuracies, or felt any need to acknowledge their errors. I don't understand his confusion. Experts and pundits are never faulted or punished for being wrong, only for being disloyal. This is as true of economic policy as it was about war. It is true in every political environment, whether in public or within private organizations.

Rick Santelli's job at CNBC wasn't to be right. It was to provide arguments and rationalizations for CNBC's viewers. It was to give depth to the views those viewers already held, to give them more sophisticated arguments to advance the views they would have advanced, anyway. He did that job well, probably because he held very similar views himself. His performance wasn't cynical. He used his intelligence as most of us do, most of the time, to make arguments in support of our convictions. His convictions aligned with his audience. He was a reliable ally.

Pundits and experts don't lose their jobs or their standing for being wrong. They never have and never will. They lose their jobs for failing to provide support for their political allies. Writers at the National Review will never lose their jobs for expressing a conservative view, no matter how wrong they are proven over time. They will never hold their jobs by expressing a liberal view, no matter how right that view turns out to be. They need to be clever enough to make their readers more committed to the program, they need to be witty enough to be memorable. Accuracy is completely irrelevant.

Perhaps Krugman reacts more strongly to this phenomenon within economics because the lack of responsiveness to the real world is taking place within his own field, because he feels that the failure of economists to lose status for behaving like other experts puts the field into disrepute, weakening the claim of economics to be a science. I fear there is nothing to be done, however. Economics is and always will be the study of wealth and its creation. Its recommendations will always affect the fortunes of the powerful, and the powerful will always find those with the ability to make arguments on their behalf.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

First, they came for the terrorists...

It turns out we've been building massive surveillance engines and stuffing them with phone data, social media conversations, search terms, and who knows what else. And it turns out that we're so afraid of terrorists that we think this is a good idea, even though the 9/11 attack killed less than a quarter of the number of homicides in any year from 2000 to 2010. And maybe it's even stopped an attack or two, in which case it's saved some lives.

If saving lives is the criterion for whether we should do this, however, I wonder why we'd stop there. Why wouldn't we use the same approach domestically? If we found people whose profiles suggested future murders, why wouldn't we go through their lives and contacts and find ways to get them off the streets? Wouldn't that be the responsible, prudent thing to do?