Economic policy and the media: Don’t omit the qualifications

I was on the John Williams show on WCCO Radio this afternoon (audio here) discussing Donald Trump’s economic policy speech.  I’ll be writing more in the coming days about the specifics of both Trump’s plans and Hillary Clinton’s.

For now, I want consider something else: writing about economic policy. I can’t stress enough that it is hard to do well and I admire those who do it well.  Robert Solow set out what have become my guiding principles in a 2002 interview with Douglas Clement of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis:

REGION: You once wrote a provocative essay with a wonderful title, “Why Economic Ideas Turn to Mush,” explaining how difficult it is to convey economic ideas clearly. It sounds as if you played that role between the staff and board of the Boston Fed, and you demonstrate it in the pieces you write, for example, for the New York Review of Books. What have you learned about how to maintain the integrity of an economic idea, yet still convey it clearly?

SOLOW: It’s the hardest thing in the world. It really is very, very difficult. What have I learned apart from the fact that it’s really difficult to do? Well, first of all, focus. Try to formulate an economic problem in a very clear, focused way. Try to answer one question at a time, and insist on that. And above all—this is really what’s difficult—at least I know that I tend to forget it: Don’t omit qualifications. Never claim more than you actually believe or can justify.

What makes that hard is that what people want—especially if they’re being fed it in sound bites on a television program or in a two-sentence quotation in The Wall Street Journal—what they want is something very definite. They don’t ever want those qualifications. And you must never let them off that hook. The interesting thing is that I think it’s useful. An economist trying to talk to the general public gains respect by insisting on the qualifications, by not appearing as a pundit, as someone who knows all the answers.

All my academic life I have tried to be a good teacher. I’ve spent a lot of time at it. And communicating economic ideas to the general public bears a lot of relation to communicating economic ideas to freshmen or sophomores. If you’re worth your pay you ask yourself before every class, what is the best way to get this stuff across to these kids? You have to ask yourself, what is the best way to get this across to the reader of The Region, or the Minneapolis StarTribune? Think of it as teaching. At least, think of it as teaching if you’re a decent teacher. [Laughs]

Think about it:

  • Focus.
  • Don’t omit qualifications.
  • Never claim more than you actually believe or can justify.
  • Think of it as teaching. At least, think of it as teaching if you’re a decent teacher.

That’s what I try to do when I talk to John Williams, Roshini Rajkumar, Gary Eichten, newspaper reporters, students, and the general public.  I hope I succeed.