Pundit culture

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Dean Baker, "Brooks and Marcus on PBS News: Getting Just About Everything Wrong on the Economy", Beat The Press 8/3/2013:

The PBS Newshour won the gold medal for journalistic malpractice on Friday by having David Brooks and Ruth Marcus tell the country what the Friday jobs report means. Brooks and Marcus got just about everything they said completely wrong.

Starting at the beginning, Brooks noted the slower than projected job growth and told listeners:

"Yes, I think there's a consensus growing both on left and right that we — the structural problems are becoming super obvious.

Paul Krugman, "Structural Humbug", NYT 8/3/2013:

In short, the data strongly point toward a cyclical, not a structural story — and there is broad agreement, for once, among economists on this point. Yet somehow, it’s clear, Beltway groupthink has arrived at the opposite conclusion — so much so that the actual economic consensus on this issue wasn’t even represented on the Newshour.

Paul Krugman, "Is There Any Point To Economic Analysis?", NYT 8/4/2013:

So what we have here is an economic discussion working the way things are supposed to work — slower than I’d like, but still,in the end we did have the professionals concluding that one popular story about the nature of our troubles was wrong.

And the pundit class, it seems, paid no attention. Talking about “structural” sounds serious, or maybe Serious, so that’s what they say, even though the evidence is all the other way. And it’s not even “views differ on the shape of the planet” territory: PBS viewers weren’t even given a hint that the professional consensus exists. It’s as if you had a program on climate and only climate-change deniers were represented.

I once thought that the treatment of speech and language by the punditocracy was peculiarly irresponsible, so it's been paradoxically comforting to learn, over the years, that their treatment of other topics is also often reminiscent of the old Ask Radio Yerevan jokes:

Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it correct that Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev won a luxury car at the All-Union Championship in Moscow?

Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all it was not Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev, but Vassili Vassilievich Vassiliev; second, it was not at the All-Union Championship in Moscow, but at a Collective Farm Sports Festival in Smolensk; third, it was not a car, but a bicycle; and fourth he didn't win it, but rather it was stolen from him.

Successful pundits recycle rational inquiry through a sort of dream-time digestive system, excreting a compact mass of terminology, emotion, and associative connections that's suitable for fertilizing their social stratum's flower beds.  It's apparently a feature, not a bug.


  1. James said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 7:43 am

    And the punditocracy's "sins" in their use and abuse of language are mirrored in similar offenses committed by politicians, the latter to more deleterious effect. The need for politicians and policymakers to constantly answer questions or make extemporaneous statements on this, that, or the other thing produces at least some of the problems we face. Clumsy word choice or injudicious formulations offer reporters or political opponents openings to decry, disparage, or denounce the "offender," so that those brave enough to speak off the cuff find they must often "walk back" things they've said or "revise and extend their remarks" to clean up language messes their mouths have produced while temporarily disengaged from their centers of higher cognition.

    This phenomenon would be nothing more than a welcome if fleeting diversion from the weightier matters affecting us more directly and immediately but for the fact that such occurrences become grist for the various mills, those of pundits and journalists primarily, and can create sources of continuing friction that prevent leaders from concerning themselves with solving problems rather than doing rewrites of recent remarks.

    Of course, we could point to one benefit of such revisionism: it can occasionally cause offenders to figure out whether they really believe what they are saying, and can also help us see that, Yes, he really said–and believes X. Scary.

  2. MattF said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 7:59 am

    Here's a question: Where do the pundit class get their talking points? Not from their own expertise. Not from reading or talking to experts. Not from just making stuff up (because they all agree with each other, which won't happen accidentally). I'm not being snarky here (well, not much). I'd really like to know.

  3. Theophylact said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 8:11 am

    I think they all just read each other.

    [(myl) I gather that they talk to one another as well.]

  4. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 9:16 am

    I note that Mark Shields, PBS's anchor to windward, was absent on the evening in question. Mark has a marvelous talent for deflating David B. without leaving any visible lesions. Mark has more numbers in his head than David has in his Rolodex©.

  5. Cameron said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 9:53 am

    Quinion reminds us of a lovely 19th century word that seems more apt than "pundit". Those writers should best be described as slangwhangers: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-sla1.htm

  6. Jayarava said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 10:27 am

    In the world of economics it's the mainstream (i.e. Neoclassical) consensus that has caused all the problems we currently have. There is a desperate need to get contradictory information to people in order to undermine the consensus of fools.

  7. Aelfric said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

    Jayarava–Even if we accept that your premise is correct, reporting something as "the consensus" when it is not in fact so is sloppy reporting. Moreover, it's an argument shortcut, saving the slangwhangers the need to make any substantive points on behalf of their positions. I do not have enough knowledge to weigh in on the structural vs. cyclical debate, but I do know that reporting on a consensus which does not exist cannot be good for either side, and it cannot be good journalism. Thanks.

  8. MrFnortner said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

    Consensus is not unanimity, yet if Krugman and Brooks do not agree it might be worth exploring whether such a thing as a consensus even exists, whether the alleged consensus is correct (avoiding the fallacies of appeal to popularity and authority), whether accepting Krugman's claim at face value over that of Brooks is intellectually lax, and which of these two gentlemen are themselves correct economically, if either. It matters not whether Brooks himself or his handlers prepared his conclusion, but rather whether it is legitimate to dismiss his conclusion out of hand because he is a journalist. (I actually hold little affection for journalists, myself.)

  9. John Lawler said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

    @MrFnorter: It is legitimate to dismiss his conclusion out of hand, because it is the conclusion of David Brooks, Macroeconomist. The social sciences are not, shall we say, his forte.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

    Baker seems more circumspect than Krugman (i.e. Krugman is more "Brooks says X but the consensus of economists is not-X"; Baker is more "right now there's certainly no consensus agreeing with X; more economists thought X a few years back but now there's an emerging consensus toward not-X, as seen by the fact that so-and-so, for example, has revised his own position toward not-X"). So is there even a consensus about the supposed consensus? (Even if your default heuristic is that Brooks Is Generally Wrong About Things, the magnitude of the effect might vary from situation to situation, and I don't know which way the And-Ruth-Marcus-Agrees-With-Him factor cuts in terms of the likelihood and magnitude of Brooks being in error.)

  11. Ray Girvan said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

    It would be interesting to apply a similar analysis to coverage of linguistic issues in the media, where the pundits generally tend to be unqualified prescriptive peevologists, and we virtually never see the consensus of actual (prescriptive) linguists.

  12. Eric Miller said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

    I wonder how many times a year that bicycle-theft-in-Smolensk joke appears on Language Log. I also wonder when I'll stop laughing like it's the first time I've heard it.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 6:55 pm

    Should we also consider the possibility (cross-referencing the "crescendo" thread) that "structural" has a broad metaphorical meaning in the lexicon of tv pundits that is not entirely congruent with its technical meaning among academic economists?

  14. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 7:06 pm

    There's probably a legitimate language interest in this, as I think that part of what's happening is the disjunct between the lay and technical meaning of structural used in this context.

    The technical meaning is basically that there's a labor supply/demand imbalance between different industries or segments of the economy. The most obvious example of this, within the context of the last five years, would be that the housing boom diverted labor from other industries to itself and when the crash happened, there was a big surplus of labor trained in home construction and a corresponding big shortfall elsewhere. So the result would be an elevated unemployment rate and suppressed economic activity until the economy adjusts.

    That makes a lot of sense in the context of this recession and it was a very attractive view of it. However, the very nature of such a structural problem means that there's an imbalance, as described above, a high unmet demand for labor in some industries/segments/regions, which would be empirically available … and that has not and is not the case. There are no big segments of the economy that are starved for labor and therefore where unemployment is very low and wages rising. Unemployment and wage stagnation is pretty much evenly distributed throughout the economy. This is why the economic consensus has moved away from the structural story.

    In contrast, the lay meaning of structural in this context seems to be just a handwaving generalization that there's some broken parts in the functioning of the economy. This could be pretty much anything, fitting left or right political predispositions. It could be some industries strangled by government regulation or it could be run-amok Wall Street leeching the rest of the economy. Basically, it is that there's something broken that won't really fix itself on its own, thus the continuing recession or anemic recovery.

    Kevin Drum, just to pick an example from the left, is a left-of-center (just slightly left of center) pundit who's claimed that there are "structural problems" in the economy. Brooks is slightly right-of-center. When these pundits use this language, they are appropriating technical economic terminology and misusing it, but probably aren't aware of it. That is, because "structural" in this context seems like its meaning is self-evident, they probably (wrongly) inferred what economists meant with this term and now use it because it seems more authoritative than saying that "the economy is broken somehow". It's perhaps analogous to the lay use of "passive".

  15. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

    Funny that J.W. Brewer wrote and posted his comment while I was writing mine. :)

  16. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 7:34 pm

    I should have read Baker's piece before I wrote my comment — I'd only read Krugman, because I read him regularly.

    Brooks really did make an assertion as part of his overall argument that fits the technical definition of "structural" — he argued that technological change has outstripped the trained labor related to these technologies, creating a structural shortfall. But as Baker says, this would mean that there would be low unemployment in those industries with rising wages. And this isn't the case.

    So I think that Brooks's and perhaps the Beltway consensus of "structural" is a usage that is somewhere halfway between the lay usage I describe above and the technical usage. It's borne from the lay intuition that there's something big that's broken in the economy causing it to malfunction, and in its wide-ranging search for things that are "broken", things like technological change and automation are attractive candidates. And some of those things really are a technical structural argument — but because this is a lay, hand-waving invocation of the idea, it's ignorant of what such an explanation would actually mean.

    I've compared economics and language quite often as being examples of topics that everyone seems to think they know something about and which people think are amenable to deep comprehension merely through personal experience and contemplation. There's kind of a continuum of the incidence of false opinion stretching from language in one direction to, say, the behavior of quasars in the other. Economics is way over on this side by language; people just think they know things about the topic because it's supposedly self-evident. So while it's certainly true that macroeconomics as a field is contentious and inconsistent, the situation is greatly exacerbated by the fact that our civil discourse about it is dominated by poorly informed or almost entirely uninformed lay intuitive opinion. This is quite like public discussions of language, except that with language (for the most part) vital public policy isn't at stake.

  17. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

    @Keith M Ellis: I agree that lay folk overestimate their intuitive understanding of linguistics and economics, but these aren't regular lay folk, they're news folk, which I think puts them in a category of their own: news folk tend to be wrong about everything. (I mean, when you read news articles on topics that you know a lot about, how often do you find that they're accurate?)

  18. Chad Nilep said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 12:46 am

    @Ran Ari-Gur
    News folk tend to be wrong about most everything, but I think that is a consequence of the fact that they tend to talk about most everything.

    By comparison, I'm probably wrong about most everything except for a few corners where I have actual experience and expertise. In my daily life, I mostly talk about those few corners, so the bulk of what I say turns out not to be mostly wrong. If I were a news mensch, I would probably be called on to talk about the other things, too, spoiling my average.

    The one place where the mostly-wrongness of news folk really bothers me is in the "news analysis" pieces such as one sees on The News Hour or various NPR, BBC, or similar news-y programs. It is frequently the case that a newsreader will call on a panel of journalists and pundits to provide "analysis" of some issue. I always think to myself, "There are people who actually know about this topic. Why do we only hear the expertise of reporters and not, you know, experts?"

  19. Alex said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 1:53 am

    No, no, you cite this old Soviet joke wrong. It actually creates a hilarious meta joke, but anyway, I feel obliged to comment (probably at expense of some political correctness).

    First, it was never Radio Yerevan, but always Armenian radio.
    So, the AR jokes always concerned people named Oganesyan, not Ivanov.
    Finally, this particular one was about Oganesyan winning a Volga* at Sportloto (the state sport lottery) vs Hachaturyan losing a Zaporozhets* at cards.

    *Soviet car models

  20. David W said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 2:13 pm

    If job growth was "slower than projected" it means 1) that the PROJECTIONS were poor, which is the fault of the projectors, and 2) that there was some job growth. That's a good thing.

    On a related note, I am often amused when a report on a company says "earnings were flat". Suppose I own a company that makes $100 million profit a year, every year, without fail. I would be very happy with that. (It doesn't matter (much) what the total revenues are to make that $100 million profit.) Yet some reporters would try to complain that "earnings were flat". I'll take $100 million profit per year and not complain. Why does EVERYTHING have to grow?

  21. D.O. said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

    I think J.W.Brewer and Keith Ellis are on to something real, just want to through in one more thought (half-jokingly). The alternative to structural theory is notion of insufficient aggregate demand. That should sound really strange to a non-specialist because clearly we are not short on demands. We still want our paychecks, large houses, cars etc. If anything we want them even more now that they are harder to get. We simply don't want (or have no ability) to pay for them. And that's what economists call demand — the desire supported by ability and willingness to pay.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

    How does D.O.'s contrast between structural-problem and low-aggregate-demand-problem match up to Krugman's contrast between structural and cyclical? It would seem that in many of these contexts (whether academic or policy-wonk or pundit) one of the more important things to know about how someone is using word X is what they are thinking of as the not-X they are taking off the table by characterizing something as X. Of course there's the separate issue that I tend to think "cyclical" implies "will likely go away with the passage of time if you are patient and leave well enough alone" whereas Krugman may take it to imply "should be fiddled with by using such-and-such toolkit of policy interventions, rather than some other set of interventions which would be the appropriate response if the problem were structural."

  23. D.O. said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 7:08 pm

    @J.W. Brewer. I am not an economist and don't have real answer to your question, but aggregate demand is driving the business cycle according to Keynesians; so people might become confused or a bit sloppy when discussing these things and not name what they are talking about precisely or assume as obvious some part of the argument that others may contest. Anyways, apart from theoretical problems, the political battle lines are drown between Keynesian/cyclical/demand/stimulus side and ???/structural/regulation/deficit side. (I have no idea which academic economists represent the latter one).

  24. Bloix said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 2:53 pm

    Brewer and Ellis have it right. To an economist, unemployment can be either structural or cyclical. There is a fairly solid consensus by now that the present unemployment problem is cyclical, i.e., not structural.

    Brooks shows no sign that he understands this distinction; he thinks that "structural" is a metaphor, that it means a problem "deep" in the economy (another metaphor he uses), presumably as opposed to something on the "surface" (not part of the structure).

    You can see that he has no idea what he's talking about when he recommends across the board corporate tax cuts to remedy "structural" unemployment, although such cuts would have no effect if unemployment were structural. Corporate tax cuts are expensive and regressive, but they can be a plausible way to reduce unemployment because they increase the deficit and put more money in private hands, but they will reduce unemployment only if the problem is cyclical.

    And no one else on the show calls him on it because they don't know anything either.

    It's pretty common in discussions of the economy that various metaphors, often implicitly comparing the economy to some sort of machine, are deployed in ways that disguise ignorance and provide a veneer of reasoned argument to pre-conceived conclusions.

  25. W. Kiernan said,

    August 11, 2013 @ 8:56 am

    MattF: Here's a question: Where do the pundit class get their talking points?

    They sit down and say to themselves, "What can I write that will influence public opinion in favor of more tax cuts for millionaires?" Nothing else in the entire world matters, truth least of all.

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