No, the economy is not like a baseball game, so let’s not cover them the same way

Target Field

I’m reading Frank Deford’s 2012 memoir, Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter. (Yes, it’s been on my reading list since it was published, and when it shows up as a Kindle Daily Deal for $1.99, that’s it. Oh, there’s Dyan Cannon’s Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant; better get that too, it’s only $0.99.)  Reading Deford reminds me of why I always wanted to write, and what’s wrong with business writing today.

My favorite writing appeared in Sports Illustrated.  SI arrived in the mail on Fridays and I immediately read it from beginning to end.  Roy Blount. Jr., Robert Creamer, Ron Firmite, Peter Gammons, Dan Jenkins, Kenny Moore, were my favorites in the 1970s, with Leigh Montville, Rick Reilly, Rick Telander, Gary Smith, and Paul Zimmerman joining the group in the 1980s.  I’m still jealous of Steve Rushin, growing up in Bloomington near Met Stadium and living the dream as an SI writer.

I gave up my subscription in the early 1990s and switched to buying the annual Best American Sports Writing series.  I’ve now got a complete set, from 1991 to 2010 in paperback and 2011 onward on my Kindle.

Sportswriting (Deford emphasizes that it’s a single word, unlike “editorial writers, movie critics, war correspondents”) is all about who was the hero, who blew it, who were the supporting characters, who were the villains and, most importantly, who won, and who lost.  The art consists of telling these stories in ways that entrance and entice readers to keep going, even when they know who won and who lost.

One of my great frustrations is that far too much writing about the economy, and economics, takes sportswriting as the model.  Yes, it’s an entertaining way to discuss the stock market, the rise of China, and a variety of other topics.  However, the sportswriting template builds in the fundamental truth that sports are zero-sum games.  Someone or some team wins, and someone or some team loses.

Economics doesn’t work this way.  Economic growth is not a zero-sum game; everyone can growth and everyone can be better off and it isn’t simply a trade-off between you and me, Minnesota and Wisconsin, or the US and China.

Yet this is the way much economics journalism is done today.  It’s the rise of China and the decline of the US; the death of the Rust Belt and the birth of the Sun Belt.  Play-by-play is provided by CNBC, just like ESPN; post-game analysis comes via the Wall Street Journal, just like the sports pages; and long-form pieces in Forbes and Fortune read just like the ones in ESPN: The Magazine and Sports Illustrated. It’s hardly surprising that Michael Lewis, he of The Big Short and Moneyball, Liars Poker and The Blind Side, is the lord-god of these two universes.

This perspective robs us of what’s going on. It turns income inequality into an us-versus-them story, when what’s going on is probably driven by forces acting on both the top 1 percent and the 99 percent.  It makes technological changes a tale of who will lose their job and who will benefit when the truth is that these forces will reshape all labor markets.

This is why I’m happy that Noah Smith, a professor at Stony Brook University, will be writing full-time at Bloomberg View. It’s definitely a loss to academia, but he comes to economic journalism as an economist, not as a writer who comes to economics with the idea of us-versus-them narrative as the template.

More of us need to join the fray and tell the economy’s stories using economics (and, especially, economic history) rather than taking sportswriting as the starting point.  Good luck, Noah, we’re all counting on you.