The Perils of Wonkery

  • Peter Frase

As the policy wonk has risen in prestige, we seem to have reached the point where this entire class of commentators is highly susceptible to what I’ll call “Charlie Rose disease.”

The economics blogosphere is buzzing about the errors that were recently exposed in an influential paper by Carmen Reinhart, Vincent Reinhart, and Kenneth Rogoff, which claimed that countries with high levels of debt tend to have slower economic growth. See Mike Konczal for the summary or here for the full paper by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin.

In short, the original Reinhart-Rogoff paper had three significant problems, ranging from cherry-picking data, to dubious weighting schemes, to — most embarrassing of all — an Excel spreadsheet error that accidentally left out several crucial data points.

The reaction of the left-wing peanut gallery has been to ridicule liberals for caring about this at all. Obsessing over the analytical missteps in this paper reeks of the preoccupation with having correct and empirically supported arguments, while ignoring the importance of power and ideology. For while this new critique of Reinhart-Rogoff just now became possible because they finally made their original data available, plenty of people pointed out earlier that the whole analysis rested on shaky conceptual foundations. It used a correlation to assert that high debt to GDP ratios lead to slower growth, ignoring the much more plausible theory that the causal order was the opposite, with slow growth leading to increasing debt loads. If the political elite in Washington failed to heed these criticisms, it wasn’t because they were unaware of them, but because the claim that debt leads to slow growth fit a deficit hysteria that was already entrenched. In other words, Reinhart-Rogoff was being used as rhetorical cover for a pre-existing position, not as an actual empirical aid to decision-making.

But rather than dismiss Excel-gate as much ado about nothing, maybe we can use it as a cudgel against the pernicious rise of the “policy wonk” as a model for journalism. As Bhaskar Sunkara noted in a recent article for In These Times, the wonk is a new iteration of American journalism’s obsession with “objectivity,” in this case filtered through the predilections of the “technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet.” The Reinhart-Rogoff revelations do more than just reveal the folly of relying on the wrong spreadsheets — they expose the shallowness and dishonesty that pervades much of the wonk-journalist milieu.

To return to a familiar whipping boy, let’s review the initial reaction to Reinhart-Rogoff’s paper last summer, over at Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog at the Washington Post website. A post by Suzy Khimm was entitled “Study: Long-term deficits are linked to 24 percent lower growth,” and it simply repeated the study’s claims without critique. For added truthiness, the post is embellished with a graph reproduced from the paper, demonstrating the difference in GDP growth between a group of low-debt and high-debt countries.

As we now know, that graph was based on erroneous data marshaled in support of a logically flimsy premise. But while the data errors wouldn’t be revealed for months, not everyone was fooled. Matt Yglesias — a writer often lumped in with wonks like Klein — dismissed the Reinhart-Rogoff paper as “confused correlation-mongering”, on the grounds that the reverse causal story about debt ratios and growth was far more plausible. (Incidentally, the way Yglesias approached Reinhart and Rogoff’s claims demonstrates how poorly he fits the mode of the Ezra Klein-style wonk-journalist. In contrast to the wonky preoccupation with empirical studies and pretty graphs, Yglesias has argued that “evidence is overrated,” and he often offers positions based on his own ideological predilections and reasoning from first principles.)

This is an approach that can get you into trouble in other ways, but it does sidestep one of the big problems confronting the wonk. The function of the wonk is to translate the empirical findings of experts for the general public. And he is supposed to be distinguished by an immersion in the details of studies and policy papers. But if the wonk wants to cover a wide range of subjects, they will necessarily have far less expertise than the people whose findings are being conveyed. Hence it becomes necessary to make a concealed argument from authority. When Wonkblog presents the findings of Reinhart and Rogoff without comment, they are implicitly telling us, “trust these people — they’re famous academic economists.” This is because they don’t have the ability to do what people like Paul Krugman did, and actually assess the correctness of the famous economists’ claims.

Performing this con on the public is dangerous enough. But insofar as the wonk gets high on his own supply, and starts to trust the findings of congenial academics without verifying, the temptation to take shortcuts can be overpowering. It’s easy to read the abstract and the conclusion of a paper and trumpet its findings, without looking too closely at whatever equations or models lie in between. This isn’t actually any more hardheaded than relying on one’s feelings, but it’s an appealing way to give one’s prejudices a fact-like veneer. That’s what seems to have happened to Ezra Klein’s understudy Dylan Matthews, who uncritically accepted some claims about the effect of teachers’ strikes on student achievement, which Doug Henwood was able to easily pick apart by actually reading the studies he was referring to.

This wouldn’t be so aggravating if the wonks were more open about their ideological orientation. If Yglesias promoted a study finding a relationship between strict occupational licensing and slow economic growth, I’d know to look carefully into the details, since his pre-existing views on that subject are well-known. With the wonks, though, close reading and an understanding of ruling class ideology are required to extract the political orientations that are guiding their judgment.

As the policy wonk has risen in prestige, we seem to have reached the point where this entire class of commentators is highly susceptible to what I’ll call “Charlie Rose disease.” It’s a malady named for the host of the eponymous TV show, who has always impressed me with his ability to convey an impression of knowledge and gravitas to his viewer. If you watch his show and actually listen to him talk, you’ll quickly notice that Rose is a shallow thinker even by television standards, and generally quite ignorant about the things he interviews people about. But everything about him — from his face to his cadence to his posture to his austere black-background set to having his show on public television — works together to produce the image of intellectual seriousness, even more than for most TV news hosts.

And so it is with the wonk — he needs to appear to be deeply knowledgeable about a wide range of obscure and technical subjects. But this entails concealing both one’s ideological biases and one’s substantive lack of knowledge, and relying on the borrowed prestige of academics and experts. In doing so, the wonk becomes the conduit for the experts, or more exactly a crucial means by which their authority is reproduced. The wonk takes the expert’s pronouncements at face value because they are serious, mainstream figures, and the fact that journalists do this reinforces their seriousness and mainstream-ness. One could hardly devise a better way of policing ideological boundaries and maintaining the illusion that the ruling ideology is merely bipartisan common sense.

The unraveling of the Reinhart-Rogoff “fact” about debt and growth was only unusual because the supporting research was unusually sloppy. In that sense, critics are correct that there’s nothing particularly special about this one case. But the very absurdity of the episode makes it useful as a means of unmasking the entire corrupt enterprise of policy wonk journalism and its “just the facts, ma’am” pretensions.