Friday, July 21, 2017


Australian Conference of Economists, Special Session, Sydney, Friday, July 21, 2017

The notion that ethics has anything to do with economics, that economists should subject their professional behaviour to some sort of ethical standard, is such a foreign one that we have a long way to go in just accepting the idea, let alone finding a way to put it into practice.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, though I do have some strong opinions. And it probably won’t surprise you to know that, as a journalist, my work is subject to a clear and detailed ethical code, set by the journalists’ union, accessible on its website, endorsed by many media companies and updated as necessary. Journos don’t delude themselves that they merely explore a “positive” science, without resort to “normative” considerations.

There are two ways to think of the economists’ role. One is that it’s to provide the community with dispassionate advice about the best ways for it to go about achieving its economic objectives. The other is to explain/convince/assert to the community what its economic objectives should be, and hence the policies that must be followed to achieve them.

The term “economic rationalism” was in use long before the sociologist Michael Pusey took credit for coining it, but the growing influence of this Treasury-style thinking during the term of the Hawke-Keating government – the Australian equivalent of what people overseas call neoliberalism – was very much in this second, more missionary approach of telling governments exactly what policies they should and should not be following.

In my own career as an economic commentator it wasn’t until around the turn of the century that I found my own ethical anchor in the slogan, Serve the Reader. Although I haven’t stopped supporting those policies I consider to be better than others, I have switched my mission from trying to persuade readers of the rightness of the economic rationalist cause, to acting as a kind of theatre critic to economics, elucidating the strengths and weaknesses of economic theories and policies for the benefit of my readers. When I see someone – politician, vested interest, economist – using economics to pull the wool over my readers’ eyes, I’m on their case.

Which brings me to the main point I want to make and the main reason I was so easily enticed to be on this panel today. If ever there was a part of the economics profession where behaviour seems most in need of ethical standards it must surely be the relatively new industry of “economic consultancy” – economists who make their living providing economic analysis – usually in the form of econometric modelling – to paying customers, usually industry groups lobbying the government for or against some policy proposal, but occasionally the government itself.

Sometimes I think economic consulting is little more than the up-market end of the public relations industry. I suppose there must be occasions where these consultants provide their clients with analysis purely for their use internally but, for the most part, the analysis is sought so that it can be made public, complete with oversimplified press release, in order to influence public opinion and put pressure on the government.

Often the attempt is made to give this analysis greater authority and credibility by calling it “independent” analysis. I can’t remember ever hearing the economists who produced it contradicting this claim, but nor can I imagine how anyone who believes in the power of market forces could believe that analysis that’s the product of a commercial transaction – where the producer is hoping the paying customer is pleased with what they paid for and will make repeat orders – is in any way “independent”. Is it the behaviour of an independent authority to keep its mouth tightly buttoned while your client, and the politicians who agree with his cause, repeatedly misrepresent your findings to the public?

This lack of independence is just as much the case when Treasury or some other department is commissioning analysis on behalf of the government. Sometimes the government may be genuinely uncertain and in need of external advice, but it’s far more likely it’s after “modelling” intended to help it persuade the public and the Senate that the policy it has determined to introduce should be accepted. In such transactions, Treasury knows what policies it favours, it knows what the government wants to be told, and it has a fair idea which consultants will be more amenable to giving it and its political masters the advice they’re hoping for. Forum shopping is a vice not limited to lawyers. Why do you think successive governments have refused to allow the Productivity Commission to analyse the costs and benefits of the so-called free trade agreements they make? They know the trouble with the PC is that it really does consider itself independent.

You don’t need to be a modeller to know how easy it is for the modeller to get the results desired by the choice of model used and by tweaking the variables. And yet the results are so often presented to the public as though they are God’s immutable truth. There’s no accompanying acknowledgement of the chosen model’s strengths and weaknesses, no admission of the key variables that are driving the models results, no sensitivity analysis, no admission that the model is a combination of both empirically measured variables and mere economic theories about how the variables combine to produce the model’s much touted results. No admission that exogenous variables for the future are set quite subjectively. No admission that many economists would disagree with the particular theories underlying the model you used.

Sometimes cannier modelers seek to insure themselves against criticisms such as these by burying in the very fine print of their reports jargon-ridden acknowledgements of some of them. But they stay mute when their results are presented and debated in a way that makes clear these insurance clauses haven’t been read by the very people who should have read them, as it was always intended they not be. This is ethical behaviour? Caveat emptor makes it all OK?

But I suspect there’s a related, less commercially driven reason why the use of economic modelling in the public policy debate is more about bamboozling non-economists than enlightening them. The other explanation is that, consciously or unconsciously, economists seek to avoid the Wizard of Oz Moment, when we see behind the curtain and realise the powerful wizard is really just a little man shouting into a megaphone, using tricks to make out he knows a lot more than he actually does.

Consider just two examples. Although many economists bang on endlessly about the adverse incentive effects of high marginal tax rates, we purport to show the effects of major tax reform using a model that can represent income tax only as a flat-rate tax. Why? Because it has just a single, “representative” household. We use a model utterly inadequate to the task – because it’s the best we’ve got – and present the results as definitive without any up-front admission that we don’t have the tools to answer the question we’ve been asked.

Or, take the very common modelling practice of assuming a short-term Keynesian world and a long-term neoclassical world. We ask such a model to tell us the long-term economic cost of introducing the carbon pollution reduction scheme. It starts in equilibrium, introduces the disturbance of a CPRS, wobbles a bit, then starts on its inexorable journey back to long-term equilibrium. Then we announce to the punters that our modelling shows the scheme’s long-term cost in forgone economic growth is, fortunately, quite minor. Then we wonder why they don’t trust us.

They say forecasters have a lot to be modest about. I’d add they have a lot to be more ethical about.