SYNOPSIS: Don't trust Policy Entreprenaurs: they're paid to professionally look the other way.
Oh, the outrage! The Web site maintained by Mobilization for Global Justice, the umbrella organization for last week's Washington protests, gave precisely one example of the economic evil the World Bank does. I looked into that story, and found that it doesn't quite have the claimed moral. Actually, the bank -- not always a lovable organization, to say the least -- in this particular case comes out smelling like a rose. But clearly, to say this in last Wednesday's column was terribly unfair. If a story confirms what the protesters believe, it is a telling example; but if it doesn't, explaining the truth of the case is a cheap shot.
And anyway, as a number of readers have informed me, everyone knows that I am a hired tool of global capitalism. This charge upset me greatly. In fact, I asked my masters for a raise, to 35 pieces of silver, to compensate for my hurt feelings.
But maybe this is a good occasion to talk about political bias in economic analysis. It is a real issue. But the corruption is more subtle -- and also more evenly spread across the political spectrum -- than my hate mailers seem to realize.
First of all, academic research in economics is by and large carried out without strong political bias. I'm not saying that what you read in the journals is always right (don't get me started), or that the researchers themselves are noble characters: successful economists, like successful academics in any field, are usually ambitious men and women with large egos. But the structure of rewards in a field in which top departments are constantly jostling for prestige favors cleverness and originality, not political correctness of any stripe.
While hired guns do not flourish at Harvard or the University of Chicago, however, in Washington they roam in packs.
Portrait of a hired gun: He or she is usually a mediocre economist -- someone whose work, if it didn't have an ideological edge, might have been published but wouldn't have had many readers. He has, however, found a receptive audience for work that does have an ideological edge. In particular, he has learned that pretty good jobs in think tanks, or on the staffs of magazines with a distinct political agenda, are available for people who know enough economics to produce plausible-sounding arguments on behalf of the party line. Ask him whether he is a political hack and he will deny it; he probably does not admit it to himself. But somehow everything he says or writes serves the interests of his backers.
Most of these hired guns work on behalf of right-wing causes: it's a funny thing, but organizations that promote the interests of rich people seem to be better financed than those that don't. Still, the left has enough resources to front a quorum of its own hacks. And anyway, love of money is only the root of some evil. Love of the limelight, love of the feeling of being part of a Movement, even love of the idea of oneself as a bold rebel against the Evil Empire can be equally corrupting of one's intellectual integrity.
How can you tell the hacks from the serious analysts? One answer is to do a little homework. Hack jobs often involve surprisingly raw, transparent misrepresentations of fact: in these days of search engines and online databases you don't need a staff of research assistants to catch 'em with their hands in the cookie jar. But there is another telltale clue: if a person, or especially an organization, always sings the same tune, watch out.
Real experts, you see, tend to have views that are not entirely one-sided. For example, Columbia's Jagdish Bhagwati, a staunch free-trader, is also very critical of unrestricted flows of short-term capital. Right or not, this mixed stance reflects an honest mind at work. You might think that hacks would at least try to simulate an open mind -- that simply for the sake of appearances the Heritage Foundation would try to find some tax it supports, or the Economic Policy Institute find some trade liberalization it favors. But it almost never happens.
Of course, honest men can disagree, and they can also make mistakes. But it's still a good idea to tune out supposed experts whose minds are made up in advance. Or at least that's what they told me to say.
Originally published in The New York Times, 4.23.00