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I think it may be appropriate to re-post a comment you made a few years ago about the good Mr. Stanford:

"I've more or less given up on the biweekly column by the Canadian Auto Workers' Jim Stanford, whose columns invariably take the form of a game of 'spot the economic fallacy'."


There is one likely common factor between the chief sponsor ad for CTV Question Period (Slap Chop) and an academic intervention in the Canadian political arena - slicing and dicing. Not by any strength of intellect, but the sheer vile force of political machinery as wielded in such an American way by our Canadian leaders. The economists sanctified by the academic community will be accused of being in league with the foreign/egghead/torturer leader of the Opposition, of being seduced by the Ivory Tower rather than the concerns of The Holy Church Of Tim Hortons Guy and His Wife Soccer Mom, and the slightest error in their estimates (largely due to the government imposing the need to infer by not opening the books) will be ridiculed. Then the worst will happen - Jack Layton will praise them. Game over.

In A Few Good Men, there was "it doesn't matter what I believe, it only matters what I can prove". The PMO Communications apparatus reverses that onus.

Adam: Removing Jim Stanford from that list wouldn't change the post.

Mark: Huh?

Mark is correct. I have a tendency to shoot my mouth off at the local level about policy matters, and since I invariably end up critiquing Conservative thinking, I'm regularly labeled a Liberal hack. That's when you don't get shouted down and ridiculed by the forceful loud repeating of lies and nonsense paraded out as talking points by various political partisans. Its not an atmosphere conducive to rational discourse, or friendly to academic interventions.

I can appreciate your frustration - I think that the partisans of pretty much every party have written me off as being an ally of The Enemy. (For those of you who are curious, I am Anti-Partisan: political parties are the primary cause of stupidity in public debate.)

But how on earth did people like those mentioned in the quote from Newman's article manage to get the title of "respected economist"? By issuing press releases? Is that all it takes?

I don't know--if I wanted to learn about the nuts and bolts of some new policy initiative in Ottawa I wouldn't mind hearing from that list of economists--so few academic economists pay attention to Canadian policy on a day-to-day basis. We have teaching, research, and committee work (oh boy do we have committees) to keep us busy. If some of us do follow policy ups and downs in Ottawa, that's because it's more or less a hobby. On the other hand, for the thinktankers, it's their job to keep up to date on the details of policy issues in Ottawa.

However, for bigger picture questions like 'is it a problem to accumulate a lot of debt' or 'what do we know about the consequences of changing the trajectory of public debt', I think academics would have more interesting things to say.

In this case, those are exactly the sort of big picture questions that are being asked - hence my frustration.

"but the sheer vile force of political machinery as wielded in such an American way by our Canadian leaders."

I will never understand why Canadians have such a hangup about Americans. I've been to the USA, the people are outgoing, friendly and hospitable. I've never sensed or heard them framing internal policy discussions around what Canadians might think.

I'm trying to understand how a post about the composition of some sort of Canadian economic consultative group, turns into something about vile americans and their canadian lackeys.

I'll tell you one thing, it Europe everyone across the pond is called an "American", deal with it.

"I beseech you to make your voices heard."

Yeah, seriously people, what's wrong with you? I mean, who wouldn't want to be introduced on Global by MASCULINE VOICE guy and music from a Hollywood block buster space battle.

mick marrs,

I think the line about "the political machinery being wielded in an American way" was more a reference to the fact that the current government uses tactics commonly found in the American political world, but are relatively new to the Canadian political scene. I don't think it was a criticism of of Americans as a group.

Speaking as a non- academic, academic economists are useless when it comes to commenting on public policy. They just don't know how to assemble a convincing argument or how to make your ideas fit in he context of another organizations agenda. There is also the problem that spending your life lecturing 19 year olde leaves you poorly equipped to talk to another adult in a respectful manner as an equal.

I could also blame journalists here, but i'll leave my complaints about the hackish ignorance of Canadian journalists to another blog. Economist, heal thyself.

Standford is a hack for the labour unions. The others I'm not familiar with, what have they advocated lately? If you don't mind saying so, Stephen.


Question for the floor:

If you were asked to design such a hearing with 6 Canadian economists, which 6 would you pick thaat were both knowledgeable and would do well in such a format? As well, you'd need geographic diversity (i.e. they can't all be from UWO) and ideological diversity (i.e. they can't all be from UWO). Who would you pick?

@mick - I'm Irish so I don't quite have my Canadian hangups down yet. However, the point I was making was that the American system tends to impose binary discourse because of its biparty system - this is jarring in a Canadian multiparty context, especially in a minority government which in theory should govern with consent, when imported at the behest of American political consultants used by various Canadian parties.

With the discipline and to some extent the profession in disarray this seems an odd time to be playing "Who's a respected economist?" game.

Newman would write the sentence because the group of business economists he's listed are the main ones he used to comment on economic matter on his old show "Politics". All those listed deliver the "conventional wisdom" from a particular perspective and can be counted on to never really rock the boat so-to-speak.

Too bad the glorious leader of the day - Mulroney - dumped the Economic Council 'cause he didn't like some of its analysis re Quebec leaving confederation. It provided a good institution for Canadian academics to move back and forth between the university and an organization charged with providing recommendations on Canadian economic policy to the gov't. In effect seeing how to turn rigours analysis into material that could be consumed by Ottawa policy types.

Mike McCracken did a stint there working on a macro model of the Canadian economy. I don't think any of the others passed through it's doors. I noticed Newman didn't mention Jack Mintz I think he is still an academic economist, incidentally he is another economist who spent time at the Council after completing his MA and before he headed to the UK for his doctorate.

At least some of those 5 are good economists (to my knowledge). And you could easily pick 5 worse people. But it is a puzzle that no academic economists are listed.

Possible reasons:

1. Academic economists are specialists, and journalists need generalists who are well informed about current policy issues, the numbers, and the players.

2. Academic economists are accustomed to explaining things to students, and other academic economists, all of whom (except at the very beginning of ECON1000) already have some knowledge of economics theories, jargon, and the use of diagrams and math to explain and understand things.

3. Academic economists have very little incentive to act as public intellectuals, commenting on economic policy etc. It doesn't really get you anywhere, professionally.

The exception maybe proves the rule. Take Dick Lipsey, for example, who as you said Stephen, did sterling work during the Free Trade debate (with very little support). As an economist he's a generalist, with original research in both micro and macro. He wrote a great first year textbook, and so is used to explaining things in simple language. He was already an established scholar (and an old guy!) and didn't have anything to prove to anyone, or want promotion, publications, or anything.

But, you (and Kevin Milligan) have goaded me into action! I must do a post on prospects for the Canadian deficit.

Have no idea who Mike McCracken is (there's an FRB member by that name, but I assume we're talking about Canadians), but the others are all in Finance, for which Economics undergraduates often believe they are preparing.

What would you put together, though? Simon van Norden, Jean-Marie Dufour, Bob Evans, someone from the Fraser Institute, and maybe Frank Reid or (more likely, but I was trying to find someone active at UT) Daniel Parent?

It's a distinguished group--and certainly can be improved--but it's not exactly going to have the visibility or provide the comfort level that the list of "economists" with which you're correctly unhappy could.

Drummond is in a separate category than the others. He's a bank economist with finance department experience; was considered a candidate for Bank of Canada governor. He has a much higher media profile.

Nick: Commenting on positive policy for the government can get you many places professionally, such as appointed to the BoC or any other government department or agency. I think the only academic who has never gotten anywheres for being the government's cheerleader was Tom Flanagan, he rather stay at U of Calgary, but he's also a principled man.

I mentioned this in an earlier blog comment, but I will repeat it here as I see they have now posted the video.

Last Wed on TVO's The Agenda (TV Ontario - Provincial Crown Corporation public nightly affairs program hosted by Steve Paiken - the moderator for our last two Canadian Fed Leaders debates) had an interesting debate entitled: "The Limits of Economics". It had three American based guests - Kenneth Rogoff- professor of economics at Harvard University, Paul Kedrosky - Senior Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, Dan Ariely - Professor at Duke University, and Diane Francis - editor at large for National Post.

I don't know where these individuals fall on the spectrum of respectable economists, but I found the debate interesting, and worth watching.

Program here (debate tab):

I suspect getting on a program like this or followup ones for Canadian academic economists might simply involve contacting the producers of such programs and indicate that one is available to appear. The producer of this program had a blog on it, and based upon viewer comments, indicated areas of potential future programs. Have a look. I'm sure they'd welcome other suggestions as well, and a wider rolodex of Canadian economists.

Blog here (read producer comments in blue):


I think Don Newman is probably using frequency of comments in the mainstream media as a proxy for respect. And as the post and most commenters have suggested, it may not be a good proxy. But it's natural for a journalist to choose such a proxy; how is he to know what academics are respected by other academics if he rarely ever talks with academics?

It's puzzling and disappointing to me that academic economists in Canada have not taken a more prominent role as public intellectuals, especially through this great economic crisis. By contrast, in the US, Paul Krugman has become probably the most influential columnist in the country, and he is not alone (Joseph Stiglitz is another example). These academic economists cum public intellectuals have interesting things to say about most public policy issues, and have definitely raised the economic literacy of many intelligent Americans. At the New York Times, it is hard for the editorial board or the reporters to commit elementary economic fallacies when they know Krugman is looking over their shoulders, and might fillet them in his next blog post or column.

Meanwhile, here in Canada, the best of the media are at a more primitive level. Stories about the stimulus package never addressed basic questions like, "Is it too small, or too big, or just right?" The CBC usually reports or opines about fiscal deficits as if they are always intrinsically bad, as if they never heard of Keynes.

It is a great irony that, despite the less sophisticated public discussion of economic issues in Canada, the country has had better economic management. Chalk that up to a less dysfunctional political system, and probably a good heaping of luck!

Nevertheless, I would encourage some of you brilliant tenured economists to take a more prominent role in public affairs--you'll do your fellow citizens a favour.

It is a great irony that, despite the less sophisticated public discussion of economic issues in Canada, the country has had better economic management. Chalk that up to a less dysfunctional political system, and probably a good heaping of luck!

Actually, that is evidence in favour of the hypothesis set forth in the very first WCI post: academic economists don't get involved in public debate, because we have a hotline to the centres of power. We do good work there, but it isn't explained to the public.

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