In defense of wonk-journalism

UPDATE: I originally posted the only lightly edited email from which this post originated. Later, I decided to tighten it up and post it to Medium. That edited version now appears below. 

One of the more bizarre responses to the ongoing Reinhart-Rogoff controversy is this one by sociologist Peter Frase, who takes the opportunity to “use it as a cudgel against the pernicious rise of the ‘policy wonk’ as a model for journalism.” In other words, this whole thing is kind of Ezra Klein’s fault. Here’s the gist:

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.

Though I don’t cover policy, the merits of wonk journalism are a favorite topic of mine. So I feel compelled to defend it. The easy reply to the critique is, “Fine, but what’s the alternative? Oh, that’s right. Better wonk journalism.”

But it’s worth getting a bit more specific to highlight why this line of argument is misguided. I read Frase as having two basic complaints:

  1. Wonk journalists hide their ideologies
  2. Wonk journalists don’t know as much as they let on, and so end up appealing a lot to expertise

Those two criticisms blend together in the piece, as Frase sort of seems to think that acknowledging one’s ideology lets you solve #2 by just admitting you don’t know what you’re talking about and falling back on first principles.He cites Matt Yglesias of Slate admiringly for doing as much:

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.)

But that’s not really what Yglesias is saying, as he clarified in a post about R-R and evidence. His point is more nuanced, that empirical evidence has to be weighed in light of other evidence, and in light of relevant theory:

In the absence of a plausible account of why a high debt:GDP ratio would cause slow real growth even in the absence of high interest rates, you would want to see overwhelming empirical evidence for the existence of such an effect before you believed it.

This doesn’t have much if anything to do with ideology. It’s simply a thoughtful point (that Ezra endorsed) about the weighting of evidence.

To the extent that ‘evidence is overrated’, it’s theory, not ideology, that’s underrated. And so I think Frase is wrong to conflate his concerns about wonk ideology with wonk expertise. Instead, let’s consider them in turn.

Wonk Ideology

I don’t know Ezra or most of the other wonk journalists in question. And those I do know, I’ve not asked about their moral philosophies. And yet I really don’t think this is that hard.

Here’s my guess: Yes, Ezra has an ideology in the sense that you have to have one to reason about politics. Fine, but boring. As I’ve written, that no one can be free of philosophy doesn’t mean people are all equally ideological. That post of mine gets into it in more detail, but you can sum it up like this:

The wonk class holds a conception of the good that is agnostic about the optimal size of government and which does not weight negative liberty higher than positive liberty. Done. If Frase thinks every Ezra post needs to come with some kind of technocrat disclaimer, or that he and others need to be more careful when they makes claims about “what the data say” then OK, fine. But it doesn’t really bother me.

Wonk Expertise

As for the critique that wonk journalists don’t know as much about the topics they cover as would be ideal, true! I and every other journalist can sympathize. But these folks clearly know much more than many beltway journalists who prefer not to wade into the stuff. Would you rather have a he-said/she-said insider type cover, say, the stimulus? Or would you prefer to read the wonk journalist? For me, the answer is clear.

Here we should pause and note some realities about media.

  1. Journalists have always been overstretched and unable to be true experts in their fields. We work around that because…
  2. You can think of the public sphere like a stack, with academics filtering info on to policy analysts, filtering info on to journalists, filtering info on to the public. Is some signal lost in that transmission process? Yes. But it works OK, and besides, what’s the alternative?
  3. Before answering that, remember: the public will NEVER read academic work directly with any regularity.

And so if Frase thinks the Ezra’s of the world need to know more, fine. But acknowledge that they know more than many, and answer the questions of a) what’s the business model? and b) how will you attract significant interest for this new uber-wonkiness from the public?

(I’ll note quickly that I think Frase underweights deference to expertise. But I’m familiar enough with the work of people like Philip Tetlock to recognize that topic deserves its own post.)

Conclusion

That an Excel error in an academic economics paper has gotten so much attention in the (digital) pages of outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times, Slate, and others seems to me like a great point in defense of wonk journalism.

Is it perfect? No. But it’s worlds better than the alternative.

In closing, I’d urge everyone to read this Matt O’Brien post at The Atlantic before criticizing the wonk journalists’ role in the R-R controversy. Talk about not taking experts at face value; he ran his own regressions to question the idea of a debt tipping point. Pretty solid for a journalist.