The Role of Experts in Public Debate

Yves here. How experts, as in economists, are still wrapping themselves in a mantle of jargon and supposed superior insight to promote policies that screw workers.

By Sandwichman. Originally published at Angry Bear

Jonathan Portes asks, “What’s the role of experts in the public debate?” He assumes it is his prerogative, as an expert, to define that role:

I think we have three really important functions.

First, to explain our basic concepts and most important insights in plain English. Famously, Paul Samuelson, the founder of modern macroeconomics, was asked whether economics told us anything that was true but not obvious.  It took him a couple of years, but eventually he gave an excellent and topical example – simply the theory of comparative advantage.

Similarly, I often say that the most useful thing I did in my 6 years as Chief Economist  at DWP was to explain the lump of labour fallacy – that there isn’t a fixed number of jobs in the economy, and increased immigration or more women working adds to both labour demand and labour supply – to six successive Secretaries of State. So that’s the first.

Second is to call bullshit.

O.K. I call bullshit. What Portes explained “to six successive Secretaries of State” was a figment of the imagination of a late 18th century Lancashire magistrate, a self-styled “friend to the poor” who couldn’t understand why poor people got so upset about having their wages cut or losing their jobs — to the extent they would go around throwing rocks through windows, breaking machines and burning down factories — when it was obvious to him that it was all for the best and in the long run we would all be better off… or else dead.

I call bullshit because what Portes explained to six successive Secretaries of State was simply the return of the repressed — the obverse of “Say’s Law” (which was neither Say’s nor a Law) that “supply creates its own demand,” which John Maynard Keynes demolished in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and that John Kenneth Galbraith subsequently declared “sank without trace” in the wake of Keynes’s demolition of it.

I call bullshit because when Paul Samuelson resurrected the defunct fallacy claim that Portes explained to six successive Secretaries of State, he did so on the condition that governments pursued the sorts of “Keynesian” job-creating policies that the discredited principle of “supply creates its own demand” insisted were both unnecessary and counter-productive.

But the lump of labor argument implies that there is only so much useful remunerative work to be done in any economic system, and that is indeed a fallacy. If proper and sound monetary, fiscal, and pricing policies are being vigorously promulgated, we need not resign ourselves to mass unemployment. And although technological unemployment is not to be shrugged off lightly, its optimal solution lies in offsetting policies that create adequate job opportunities and new skills.

[Incidentally, as Robert Schiller has noted, the promised prevention of mass unemployment by vigorous policy intervention did not imply the preservation of wage levels. Schiller cited the following passage from the Samuelson textbook,  “…a decrease in the demand for a particular kind of labor because of technological shifts in an industry can he adapted to — lower relative wages and migration of labor and capital will eventually provide new jobs for the displaced workers.”]

I call bullshit because what Portes explained to six successive Secretaries of State was not even Paul Samuelson’s policy-animated zombie lump-of-labour fallacy but a supply-side, anti-inflationary retrofit cobbled together by Richard Layard and associates and touted by Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder as the Third Way “new supply-side agenda for the left.” Central to that agenda were tax cuts to promote economic growth and “active labour market policies” to foster non-inflationary expansion of employment by making conditions more “flexible” and lower-waged:

Part-time work and low-paid work are better than no work because they ease the transition from unemployment to jobs. …

Encourage employers to offer ‘entry’ jobs to the labour market by lowering the burden of tax and social security contributions on low-paid jobs. …

Adjustment will be the easier, the more labour and product markets are working properly. Barriers to employment in relatively low productivity sectors need to be lowered if employees displaced by the productivity gains that are an inherent feature of structural change are to find jobs elsewhere. The labour market needs a low-wage sector in order to make low-skill jobs available.

I call bullshit because in defending the outcomes of supply-side labour policies, Portes soft-pedaled the stated low-wage objectives of the Third Way agenda. In a London Review of Books review, Portes admitted that “it may drive down wages for the low-skilled, but the effect is small compared to that of other factors (technological change, the national minimum wage and so on).” In the Third Way supply-side agenda, however, a low-wage sector was promoted as a desirable feature — making more low-skill jobs available — not a trivial bug to be brushed aside. In other words, in “driving down wages for the low skilled” the policy was achieving exactly what it was intended to but Portes was “too discreet” to admit that was the stated objectives of the policy.
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  1. dk

    I found this helpful in better understanding the economics discussed:

    Economist James K. Galbraith disputes these claims of the benefit of comparative advantage. He states that “free trade has attained the status of a god” and that “. . . none of the world’s most successful trading regions, including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and now mainland China, reached their current status by adopting neoliberal trading rules.” He argues that “. . . comparative advantage is based upon the concept of constant returns: the idea that you can double or triple the output of any good simply by doubling or tripling the inputs. But this is not generally the case. For manufactured products, increasing returns, learning, and technical change are the rule, not the exception; the cost of production falls with experience. With increasing returns, the lowest cost will be incurred by the country that starts earliest and moves fastest on any particular line. Potential competitors have to protect their own industries if they wish them to survive long enough to achieve competitive scale.”[42]

    Galbraith also contends that “For most other commodities, where land or ecology places limits on the expansion of capacity, the opposite condition – diminishing returns – is the rule. In this situation, there can be no guarantee that an advantage of relative cost will persist once specialization and the resultant expansion of production take place. A classic and tragic example, studied by Erik Reinert, is transitional Mongolia, a vast grassland with a tiny population and no industry that could compete on world markets. To the World Bank, Mongolia seemed a classic case of comparative advantage in animal husbandry, which in Mongolia consisted of vast herds of cattle, camels, sheep, and goats. Opening of industrial markets collapsed domestic industry, while privatization of the herds prompted the herders to increase their size. This led, within just a few years in the early 1990s, to overgrazing and permanent desertification of the subarctic steppe and, with a slightly colder than normal winter, a massive famine in the herds.”

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Galbraith, as always, is very succinct and readable. I well remember sitting in an economics lecture in the 1980’s when the Professor mentioned Galbraith and described him as with distain someone ‘who’s ideas were more popular with the public than with economists’. The snigger of agreement that ran around the students in the hall made me realise just how ingrained the ideology of economics was as I’m pretty sure I was the only one of the students who’d actually read any Galbraith.

      I’d also recommend Ha-Joon Chang as someone who is very readable on the topic of the many weaknesses of conventional ideas on comparative advantage.

      1. /L

        James K Galbraith is the son of the famous New Deal economist John K Galbraith.

        John K G:
        “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

        “In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain language.”

        1. /L

          John K G on The Art of Good Writing
          “I was an editor of Fortune under Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Inc., who was one of the most ruthless editors that I have ever known, that anyone has ever known. Henry could look over a sheet of copy and say, “This can go, and this can go, and this can go,” and you would be left with eight to ten lines which said everything that you had said in twenty lines before.
          And I can still, to this day, not write a page without the feeling that Henry Luce is looking over my shoulder and saying, “That can go.”

          That illuminate one “problem” in our age of internet, unlimited space to be verbose and no editors that de-obscure the writers “thoughts”.

          1. JEHR

            /L–This site is just wonderful! Anything you want to know about knowing seems to be here. Thanks for the great link.

            1. sgt_doom


              Wealth, Power and the Crisis of Laissez-Faire Capitalism, by Donald Gibson

          2. Norb

            I wonder if this phenomenon – the desirability succinct communication- was a holdover of earlier times, when accurate communication made the difference between life and death. Settling and developing a continent would place a high value on such purposeful human exchanges.

            Today, we are awash in branding and marketing intended to maintain the current order. The language is used to obfuscate, not clarify experience or goals.

            An expert in any field that has the ability to communicate in a general , popular mode, is of great value to society. Truth and understanding is its main function. Knowledge, or insight that cannot be shared is more often than not just an excuse to hide methods of control and exploitation.

            If citizens can’t get the generalities right, the specifics will be impossible to comprehend.

          3. craazyman

            Almost everything can go.

            I remember seeing a video of the photographer William Klein saying a master photographer is remembered for just a handfull of images. Maybe 10 or 15, tops. Out of probably at least 100,000 serius photos.

            Of course what goes is necessary fertilizer for what doesn’t go. You can’t avoid it. Hahahah. But you have to let it go anyway. Or your editor has to be williing to cut.

            I’ve noticed lots and lots of posts here could be a lot better if the post author had said the same thing in half as many words. Most wouldn’t lose any persuasion, if they had any to begin with. And they’d gain reader attention for the pruning.

            I’ve noticed many experts are especially bad at verbosity. Maybe they think somehow that quantity of words is a form of potency. Maybe that’s it. Also individuals with a grievance who write posts about their grievance. I know when I have a grievance it’s hard to shut up. I’m just being honest. I’ll keep rambling and rambling, repeating myelf and fulminating. Thankfully I know better than to write like that.

            Having saidd all that, Say was rite. If the supply of labor increases, that createes its own demand for jobs! How is that not completely obvious.

            1. Yves Smith Post author

              One of the reason many of my posts are long, as in for CalPERS, is the need to provide evidence, pre-rebut bogus arguments, and unpack legal issues. Most court rulings are pretty long for that reason.

        2. Loblolly

          Loblolly -The modern democrat is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; leveling the playing field for all but those who own the playing field, whom they refuse to acknowledge the existence of.

          1. wat stearns

            Ownership is a fallacy. The “playing field” is the Earth; no one owns it, or no one owns it any more than anyone else. Ownership is just an agreement, but it loses its legitimacy when people who no longer agree to it are forced to accept ownership by insane arbitrary accrual addicts due to militant policing.

            What does accrue naturally is personal production. I think this gets confusing with tenets of accrual and intellectual property, which can be used as excuses to seize other people’s production and withhold it from them for accrual transfers using the bogus exchange medium known as money.

            Native Americans had the right idea when they identified themselves as part of the Earth. Once you get dispossessed from this identification, then your definition of yourself can be framed in terms of accrual. The fallacy of ownership gets really clear for me when I think about “owning” the crystals in my possession. It’s kind of ridiculous to think of owning crystals, when I will probably not live to the age of 100, and the crystals, which are alive, will persist for millions of not billions of years. I have about 20 crystals, including the ones that I have outgrown during the course of my experience. I use them all for different purposes.

            What would I do with 40, or 400 crystals? I couldn’t use them, they would just take up space. Dispossessed of the Earth, people go insane, hoarding what they don’t need. Then, as Galbraith said, they spend the rest of their lives making up shit to justify withholding resources from people who do need them.

        1. shinola

          Thanks for the tip PK & thank you fd for the link to the review. I’m going to check this fellow out; sounds like he has some interesting things to say. One of the “things” that may apply to the above article:

          Thing 23: Good economic policy does not require good economists. Most of the really important economic issues, the ones that decide whether nations sink or swim, are within the intellectual reach of intelligent non-economists. Academic Economics with a capital “E” has remarkably little to say about the things that really matter. Concerned citizens need to stop being intimidated by the experts here.

          1. sgt_doom

            Although Ha Joon Chang is an excellent economist, I would also strongly recommend Michael Hudson, Michael Perelman, Steve Keen and E. Ray Canterbery — they are really great, along with Samir Amin of Senegal.

    2. Anonymous2

      A word of warning from the UK. Denigrate experts too much and you end up like us with government by people who really are inexpert. That is not an improvement.

      1. Mael Colium

        Ha! I think an anti brexiter just rolled the white eye.

        Strange that the awful things that the experts told us all would happen haven’t and don’t look like happening since the people called bullshit on the EU mess. Britain with or without those blokes in dresses up north will do just fine as they steer themselves out of the EU quagmire. I’ll take the people anytime anonymous – they have more common sense than the experts. Didn’t you read the article?

        1. sgt_doom

          Thank you!!!

          I remember back in the 1980s, when so-called “experts” were prattling about such nonsense as . . .

          “Computers don’t make mistakes, humans make mistakes!”

          Which was surely untrue as anyone with any real IT expertise back then would have explained that 97% or more of hardware crashes generate software problems (for obvious reasons).

          1. Synoia

            I believe the aphorism was – Computers don’t make mistakes, they just execute yours correctly, over and over again.

            hardware problems generally don’t cause programs to make errors, the programs just fail.

      2. visitor

        A major issue is that those incapable politicians do rely upon experts, but they have consistently selected experts not on their track record (such as how good economists were at predicting the evolution of the economy, or how good political scientists were at predicting the evolution of communist or Arab societies), but on whether pronouncements of experts corresponded to their ideological preconceptions and justified their intended policies.

        A bit like rejecting physicians’ diagnoses when they do not suit you and preferring the cure of a quack.

  2. voislav

    This is not restricted to economists, it pervasive in science in general. I can’t remember how many times I got a paper for peer review where I couldn’t figure out what the person was trying to say because they layered the jargon ten levels deep. This is in chemistry, so things are typically straightforward, no need for convoluted explanations and massaging of the data. But people still do it because that’s the culture that they’ve been educated in, a scientific paper has to be high-brow, using obscure words and complicated sentences.

  3. Steve Ruis

    I think it is as simple as: if you create something that justifies the behaviors of the rich and powerful, you have something to sell and willing buyers. If you create something that delegitimizes the behaviors of the rich and powerful, you not only have no willing patrons but you have made powerful enemies.

    It is the law of supply and demand for pretentious bullshit.

    1. Gman


      This is why conferring the grossly inaccurate, ill-deserved moniker of ‘science’ on economics is so disingenuous and dangerous.

      Like the bullsh*t business of corporate consultancy, many high profile ‘professional’ economists serve a dual purpose.

      As you say, lackeys employed either to confer some sort of professional legitimacy on the self-interested actions of their paymasters, or if needs be, to serve as handsomely rewarded whipping boys for their ‘unforseen consequences’….’this is not the outcome our models predicted etc’

      In the end it all boils down to net outcomes for those on the sharp end of these ‘harsh, but necessary’ decisions, and on recent evidence they are legion.

      Abe Lincoln’s famous quote has never been more pertinent,

      ‘You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.’

  4. Paul Hirschman

    So in the end, we wind up with Say’s Law anyway, since creating a “low wages” sector is exactly how Say’s Law functions–supply creates its own demand because declining wages means investment spending can increase, which keeps aggregate demand where it needs to be for full employment.

    This is the solution, we are told, to Keynes “sticky prices.” Jim Grant makes this very argument in his book about the “short-lived” crisis of the early 1920s. Leave workers exposed to starvation long enough and they’ll work for next- to-nothing. The solution to James O’Connor’s Fiscal Crisis of the State is to clean house in a big way, a very big way. Put everyone out on the street and start all over again. (Everyone but the 1% of course.)

    It’s Andrew Mellon’s advice for getting out of the Depression: “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… it will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people.”

    The Reserve Army of Labor saves the Capitalist Day, once again. (Except for the little problem that the 1% won’t accept their own liquidation, so Goldman Sachs and the rest must be exempted from the purging–which means that the purging can’t work.)

    Back to managing stagnation.

    1. Synoia

      Other People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people.

      There, fixed the missing word.

  5. sgt_doom

    Not too long before he died, Paul Samuelson said: “Maybe I was wrong on the subject of jobs offshoring.” (I.e., maybe offshoring all the jobs and dismantling the US economy wasn’t so intelligent after all!)

    Just finished a book called, The Death of Expertise, by a professor of national security (oh give me a frigging break!!!!), Tom Nichols.

    Biggest pile of crapola I have ever read! The author was also yearning for the days when “experts” were blindly followed!

  6. marku52

    It’s all a part and parcel of the meritocracy. If you don’t have a degree in Econ, your opinion doesn’t matter about why your job moved to China. If you don’t have a degree in Urban Planning, you don’t get to comment on how the city wants to tear down the park and put up condos.

  7. Altandmain

    The answer is that said “experts” have failed the general public miserably.

    Their advice helped lead to this 2008 Financial Crisis. The promise of neoliberalism was faster growth. It did not happen. Quite the opposite. It gave the rich intellectual cover to loot society. That”s what this was always about.

    Now people wonder, why they don’t trust “experts”?

    Then there’s the matter of the Iraq War. Another example. Many foreign policy “experts”, particularly affiliated with the neoconservative assured the American people that invading Iraq would be easy to do and lead to lots of long term benefits. Others insisted, despite evidence to the contrary, that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction. Now look at where we are. No WMDs, long and cost war, with no long-term solutions. Many of said “experts” later endorsed Clinton.

    We do not need pro-Establishment experts who sell themselves out to enrich themselves. We need experts who act in the public interest.

    1. AbateMagicThinking but Not money

      One of the things that gets my (‘western’, democratic) goat is the denigration of the expert – and here I must put in a qualifier – I’m talking about the expert who has not been bought.

      A symptom of the denigration of expertise, has been the ‘geek’ cultural phenomenon. In my opinion, this has been promulgated by those who finance and control popular culture as part of the capture of politicians, and politics. To actually think about anything in any depth at all has been more or less become to be regarded as something very strange – almost anti social.

      Politicians (who have no written qualifications for the immensely complicated business of running a country or state) are supposed to have perfect legitmacy because they have been voted in by the supposedly all-knowing electorate, and therefore have no need for expert advice. Openly using outside expertise just points out their lack of legitimacy. The same goes for corporate heads who employ management consultants.

      If a political opposition rolls out an expert to provide a counter argument to a policy, they are trying to use a device that has been socially discounted. Don’t listen to a geek, or friends of geeks!

      1. Outis Philalithopoulos

        What exactly do you mean by “geek” here? I’ve noticed the word used in a variety of ways. Some people use it in a way that is not incompatible with “thinking deeply about things.” I’ve even heard it applied to people who try to “think deeply about things” and are consequently stigmatized as “very strange” and “antisocial.”

        1. AbateMagicThinking but Not money

          The meaning has been blurred as you point out. Here in Brisbane there is an outfit called “Mobile Computer Geeks”. who I presume are adept in repairing personal computers. I imagine this company is staffed by people who are not considered socially maladroit by the majority of people. The word “geek” is a pejorative that has been welded to the idea of expertise – as my example demonstrates.

          Check out the TV programme “Big Bang Theory” for the archetypal geek.

          Also, often “policy-wonk”, but rarely “megalomaniac”.

          1. Outis Philalithopoulos

            If you are using “geek” as a “pejorative” that does not imply being considered “socially maladroit” (and some of the characters in Big Bang Theory are quite socially maladroit), then I’m not sure what negative aspects your “pejorative” connotation is trying to highlight. I’m not saying there isn’t a valid critique lurking here – what I’m saying instead is that the word “geek” doesn’t do the work of making that critique for you, and it might be more clear if you were to try to rephrase your critique without its assistance.

      2. Duncan

        I’m talking about the expert who has not been bought.

        So, how does the non-expert tell which experts have been bought and which haven’t? This is a serious, very important question. I’m all for experts and expertise; I think most people are. But when confronted with the problem of distinguishing real experts from the mock, they often pull out this facile and (I think) bogus distinction so that they can simply dismiss the experts they don’t want to listen to. The comments under this post tend to bear that out.

        1. JTMcPhee

          When I was playing lawyer, the kinds of cases I got involved with lent themselves to invocation of experts, on Econ, science stuff, tax, public policy and on and on. Duncan above made some critical reference to posters here in connection with “facile” distinction of bought experts from non-bought. One resource for “experts,” among quite a number, that lawyers would turn to, to find that expert opinion that would destroy the opponent’s case is TASA, where you can go to the menu and pick the expert that will give you whatever opinion you want. They are all bought, and most prefer to work for rich people’s lawyers– the pay is better. In the market economy, everything is for sale, and fraud gets a pass as “mere puffery.”

          There’s something to be said for reverting to trial by combat, or oath-swearing, or even ducking for defendants in control fraud cases…

  8. Synoia

    How experts, as in economists, are still wrapping themselves in a mantle of jargon and supposed superior insight to promote policies that screw workers.

    Well yes, but one could consider their claim to be able to predict the future outcome of a policy or actions suspicious in itself.

    We do know those with Crystal Balls have a poor track record of prognostication.

    Economists are the false prophets of our age. All they do is massage their language to attain the highest pay from the lords and masters, as did the wizards and fortune tellers of old.

    “Yes sire, she is the most beautiful woman in the world, and will bear you many male children…”

  9. bmeisen

    Can’t comment on the economics here, more than to suggest that de-skilling and de-qualifying might be phenomena associated with an Economics of Deplorability, which gets me to Isenberg’s “White Trash”.

    Yves linked to an interview with Angus Deaton from the Atlantic. The tip there to Isenberg suckered me, I went out and bought the hardcover, hoping that the expert historian would explain basic concepts and call bullshit. I should have read the title more carefully: “White Trash: the 400-Year Untold of HIstory of Class in America”.

    The history of class in America has been told, for example by Marx. He and his followers tell it better in fact than Isenberg: they defined “class” and argued/argue vigorously for the consequences of their definition. Isenberg doesn’t define the most important idea in her book! Her one effort is to mention that class hierarchy in the USA “…begins and ends with the concepts of land and property ownership.”

    Has wonderful citations for sources on pre-revolutionary, colonial America and no clear personal interpretation of the voluminous evidence she presents of efforts made by the elite to prey on the white human “waste” that was the majority of the first European exodus to North America.

  10. Sound of the Suburbs

    What do our banking experts say?

    De-regulate finance

    Derivatives make the system safer by spreading risk through the system

    Don’t regulate derivatives

    Remove Glass-Steagall

    House prices can only go up

    How did that happen? (2008)

    Bail out Wall Street and not Main Street

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