Carmen Reinhart, who co-authored the best-seller "This Time Is Different," nicely sums up the economics business in a NYT profile:
"There is so much inbredness in this profession," says Ms. Reinhart. "They all read the same sources. They all use the same data sets. They all talk to the same people. There is endless extrapolation on extrapolation on extrapolation, and for years that is what has been rewarded."
To be fair, it ain't easy being an economist these days. The times are confusing and unpredictable. But Reinhart has a point: So many of the forecasts and analyses read like they've come out of the same laptop. Just a few months back, much of the chatter focused on better-than-expected recovery. Now, it's a slow-growth recovery and the possibility of a double-dip. Oh well, wherever the wind takes them... and whatever conclusions provide as little pushback from their bosses as possible. Reinhart's co-author, Kenneth Rogoff, tells the economist lamppost joke:
A drunk on his way home from a bar one night realizes that he has dropped his keys. He gets down on his hands and knees and starts groping around beneath a lamppost. A policeman asks what he's doing. "I lost my keys in the park," says the drunk. "Then why are you looking for them under the lamppost?" asks the puzzled cop. "Because," says the drunk, "that's where the light is."
Of course, the only thing worse than an economist mimicking the conventional wisdom, is a reporter who quotes the economist. Doesn't anyone tell these poor schnooks that just because someone picks up a phone doesn't necessarily make him or her qualified to comment on anything (other than why they have enough time to pick up the phone). Alissa Quart gets into the whole expert thing at CJR:
As long as I can remember, "the expert" arrived through news articles, inevitably a guy at that smart-sounding think tank, a famed professor of social science, a renowned author. The expert quote arrived toward the second half of most pieces, wafting out of some glorified institution, as iconic and predictable as Colonel Mustard in the board game Clue. Structurally, the expert quote is supposed to act as the inarguable voice of reason, getting rid of any doubt left in our minds or splitting the difference between extremes. As the poet Philip Larkin writes of such voices, "Ah, solving that question / Brings the priest and the doctor / In their long coats / Running over the fields."
It should go without saying that experts seldom have the answer - just an answer that is often ill-formed and misleading. Especially infuriating is to see the same old "experts" cited year after year. A couple of local business stories I read this week quoted people I thought were either dead or long since retired. Who knows - perhaps their perspectives added to the pieces. But I sort of doubt it. The likely reason they were in the stories is because their names have been on the newsroom Rolodex for decades - and, of course, because they answered their phones. Good luck getting at the truth that way.