Economists as Entertainers

According to researchers in Britain, more than half of the health advice that Dr. Oz gives is either baseless (there’s no evidence for his claims) or wrong (there is evidence, and it contradicts what he says). Julia Belluz at Vox tells us not to be surprised: “He is, after all, in the business of entertainment,” she wrote recently.

But the thing is, there are a lot of Dr. Ozzes out there, including in areas you might not consider the entertainment business.

Recently some conference planners tried to recruit me for an event in which I would be presenting the alternative view to that offered by the economists Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore. This would be the same Arthur Laffer who in 2009 warned us about soaring inflation and interest rates thanks to the rapid growth in the monetary base, and the Stephen Moore who was caught using fake numbers to promote state-level tax cuts in a Kansas City Star column earlier this year.

Obviously these “experts” appeal to the political prejudices of a business audience, but taking their advice would also have cost you a lot of money. So why haven’t their repeated pratfalls dented their popularity? Are they, also, in the entertainment business?

To some extent, the answer is yes. The economist Simon Wren-Lewis recently wrote an interesting piece on why the financial sector buys into really bad macroeconomics. He suggested that financial firms aren’t really interested in anything but very short-term forecasting, and that “economists working for financial institutions spend rather more time talking to their institution’s clients than to market traders. They earn their money by telling stories that interest and impress their clients. To do that it helps if they have the same worldview as their clients.”

Thinking about Dr. Oz also helps explain a related puzzle. Even if you grant that conservatives want alleged experts who toe the ideological line, why can’t they get guys who are at least competent? Why do they recruit and continue to employ people who can’t do basic job calculations, or read their own tables and notice that they’re making ridiculous unemployment projections, and so on?

My answer has been that anyone competent enough to avoid these mistakes would also be unreliable – at some point he or she might actually take a stand on principle, or at least balk at completely abandoning professional ethics. And I still think that’s part of the story.

But I now also suspect that the personality traits you need to be an effective entertainer working with not-so-much-fun subjects like health or monetary policy are inherently at odds with the traits you need to be even halfway competent.

If Dr. Oz were the kind of guy who pores over medical evidence to be sure he knows what he’s talking about, he probably couldn’t project the persona that wins him such a large audience. Similarly, a hired-gun economist who actually knows how to download charts from economic databases probably wouldn’t have the kind of blithe certainty in right-wing dogma that his employers want.

So how do those of us who aren’t so glib respond? With ridicule, obviously. It’s not cruelty; it’s strategy.