The story of the year is that voters across the Western world are rebelling against the judgment of “experts” of all kinds. People with advanced degrees, whether they work at colleges, newspapers, or government bureaucracies, are facing a crisis of authority as trust in institutions plummets and politics moves away from technocracy and toward the seductive simplicity of populism.
One possible reason popular majorities are repudiating the experts is that the latter are increasingly politically disconnected from the median voter. We’ve noted in particular the way this has played out in academia: While the public remains roughly split between Republicans and Democrats, social science professors have been growing more and more uniformly liberal since the 1990s.
But another reason is that, whatever their political views, experts simply might not be asking the right questions about how the world works. At the Economist, Ryan Avent highlights some ways that academic social science tends to fixate on number-crunching minutiae while giving short shrift to more fundamental questions about institutions, legitimacy, and political culture. Here’s one example, on the much-debated topic of macroeconomic policy:
Economists have spilt vast amounts of ink over the last eight years debating whether countercyclical fiscal policy is a useful thing, and when and how it ought to be applied. These debates have covered a lot of ground. What factors affect the multiplier on fiscal stimulus, for instance? When is fiscal stimulus a necessary complement to monetary stimulus? How does government debt affect long-run economic growth (and how does fiscal stimulus affect government indebtedness)? Economists had incredibly intense and occasionally nasty debates about these questions. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the crucial question regarding whether or not to use fiscal stimulus was a completely different one—which is more corrosive to the legitimacy of the institutions which make the prosperity of a liberal, global economy possible: a long economic slump, or a short-term stimulus so large that it inevitably leads to spending on low-return projects or lines the pockets of government-friendly firms? We were all tying ourselves in knots working out whether the multiplier on infrastructure spending was 0.7 or 1.2 or 2.5, when what we ought to have been asking was: what course of action is most likely to avert a crisis of institutional legitimacy that will leave everyone much worse off.
So for example, while economists could have a robust debate over the relative merits of austerity versus stimulus during the Greek debt crisis, they were less equipped to address the questions of trust and unfairness that ultimately made the German public reluctant to bail out the economies of the south. And while social scientists are confident that the economic impact of immigration is positive by many measures (all else being equal), they missed the profound political dislocation and upheaval that would result from episodes of rapid demographic change.
Part of the reason, of course, is that the straightforward quantitative problems are easier to solve. But as Avent says, “lacking the tools or theory to think through something does not mean that something isn’t important.” To restore their legitimacy in this age of unsettled assumptions, Western academics would do well to ask deeper and perhaps more difficult questions about human behavior.