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November 20, 2005
David Warsh, Proprietor


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New Kids on the Block

Economic journalism in the English-speaking world is well off its all-time peaks. Walter Bagehot (1826-1877), Norman Angell (1872-1967), Oscar Hobson (1886-1961) are long gone. In the 1950s, general-interest magazines flourished, supporting writers such as Daniel Bell, Robert Heilbroner and John McDonald.

But by the fourth quarter of the twentieth century, magazines were on the ropes, and the three most talented practitioners of the art were slaves to newspaper deadlines: Leonard Silk at The New York Times and Peter Martin and Samuel Brittan for the Financial Times.  Only the Economist‘s Norman Macrae managed to break free often enough to communicate a proper vision of the field, idiosyncratic though it may have been.

Although Peter Passell took over the Times “Economic Scene” column for a while (before leaving to join the Milken Institute), Silk never was really replaced. The paper’s talented economics reporter, Sylvia Nasar, left to write a book about John Nash. (She succeeded so well that her book, A Beautiful Mind, became a hit movie. Now she teaches at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and has been working for some years on second book, a broad survey of the history of economics, Grand Pursuit.) Silk’s spot is filled by a rotating quartet of economists and near-economists, which, while interesting, definitely is not the same.

And whereas Paul Krugman has added life to the Times‘ editorial page, he remains more of an economist than a journalist (he has regular flashes of intuition that illuminate the landscape even more thoroughly than ordinary scoops, and a brand-new college principles text finally ready to enter the market to boot). Silk, on the other hand, though he was a Wisconsin PhD economist, spent virtually all his career in journalism, perhaps because during World War II he begun his working life as a newsman, working for Yank, the US armed forces humor magazine.

To be sure, a community of excellent economic journalists is at work today in the periodical press:  Clive Crook at the National Journal (and the Economist as well), Michael Mandel at Business Week, Robert Samuelson and Allan Sloan at Newsweek, Alan Murray and David Wessel at The Wall Street Journal (and Holman Jenkins Jr. on the Journal‘s editorial page), Louis Uchitelle and Roger Lowenstein at The New York Times, Paul Blustein in the Washington Post, John Berry at Bloomberg News, Zanny Minton Beddoes at the Economist and Paul Solman at Public Broadcasting’s NewsHour. The Financial Times has columnists Martin Wolf and John Kay.  But taken altogether, their coverage, and that of many other reporters farther removed from New York, Washington and London, still is not enough to project a view of the discipline as a whole.

Inexplicably, the science press doesn’t support a single economics reporter, or at least none of whom I’m aware.  Given the resources that the news department of Science magazine has at its command, that is a puzzle, to say the least.

Recently a new generation of explicators has begun to appear. For example, Georgetown University professor Pietra Rivoli gives an especially beguiling account of some of international economics in The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power and Politics of World Trade. Then there is  Tim Harford, who writes a weekly feature for the Financial Times Weekend section.  He turns microeconomic gumshoe in The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor — and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car. (His subtitle suggests why this is such a difficult genre: I’ve bought lots of decent used cars, and horse traders solved the basic problems of the aftermarket centuries ago.) Charles Wheelan wrote Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science.  Daniel Gross writes the “Moneybox” feature at Slate and regularly contributes to the New York Times. Sociology and psychology inform Malcolm Gladwell‘s best-sellers to a far greater extent than does economics. (In The Tipping Point, Thomas Schelling appears only in the notes.) The most gifted economics explicator of all, Stanford University professor John McMillan (Reinventing the Bazaar: A Natural history of Markets) is a member of the older generation.

Herewith my four favorite representatives of the rising generation:

James Surowiecki, 38, had almost ideal training for the “Financial Page” column he writes for The New Yorker — seven years as a graduate student of American history at Yale and no dissertation in the end. “I read and thought about a lot of things I wouldn’t have had time for otherwise,” he says. He then made a swift segue into news, thanks to college classmate David Garner, one of the brothers who started The Motley Fool (an early Web-based source of financial news and self-improvement). Surowiecki turned out to be a natural, at large in an exuberant period when financial journalism boomed. In rapid succession came columns for Slate, New York and Talk magazines, and finally The New Yorker, where he writes every couple of weeks about whatever is in the news. In those columns he manages to blend background knowledge and skepticism in just the right degree — a challenge he didn’t meet to quite the same extent in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. It nevertheless marked a most promising authorial debut.

It was two years ago that the New York Times Sunday magazine sent Stephen J. Dubner, 42, to interview University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt, and, as Dubner says on his joint blog with Levitt, “Who Knew?” Their collaboration, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, has been a runaway best-seller. It shows what happens when you match an unusually smart young economist (Levitt is 38) with a high-octane magazine-writer. Half the profession is asking, where can I meet a guy like Dubner? (His previous books include Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family and Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper,  the story of the author’s pursuit of his childhood hero, football player Franco Harris.) The good news is that readers of Freakonomics get a vivid insight into the imaginative ways of thinking about differential incentives in non-pecuniary situations that won Levitt the Clark Medal, an award given every two years to the most promising American economist under forty.

The bad news is that they also get a highly-skewed idea of what goes on in economics, where several hundred researchers around the world are, one way or another, as ingenious as Levitt (and sometimes more penetrating)  in devising ways to make the social world to disclose its secrets. Freakonomics has much in common with another “new field of study” discovered with much fanfare by the Times magazine nearly twenty years ago, namely chaos theory. James Gleick, the author of that earlier best-seller made money on the Internet, wrote a biography of Isaac Newton, and says he is now at work on a book about the history of information. On Dubner’s agenda: a book on Jewish ethics, a book about Roland Fryer, Levitt’s student, and another book with Levitt, expected to take four or five years. They also write a regular column for the Times magazine.

Daniel Altman, 31, has two of the attributes the New York Times values especially highly — a PhD in economics (from Harvard) and a distinguished lineage (his father Sidney is a Yale biologist who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his part in the discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA). Despite a brief career at the Economist, Daniel Altman has little training in the news business. For that reason, his Neoconomy: George Bush’s Revolutionary Gamble with America’s Future proved to be a major disappointment (though not because Bush wasn’t a gambler). Before Bush took office, wrote Altman, “[T]he neoconomy was still just a dream held dear by a dedicated cadre of academic economists.” Immediately afterwards, however, the shadowy band began putting their plans in place, one camouflaged piece at a time. By 2004, their plan was “well on its way to transforming American society.”

What exactly is a “neoconomy?”  Apparently one in which government policy can affect the growth rate. (Like China, perhaps?)  Who exactly were the “neoconomists?” Certainly not Altman’s longtime Harvard adviser Martin Feldstein: “my respect for him and debt to him are both profound.” (Apparently not Feldstein’s Harvard teacher either; Dale Jorgenson’s name appears nowhere in the book.) Instead it was Feldstein’s other students who were at the helm: National Economic Adviser Lawrence Lindsey, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Glenn Hubbard, and assistant Treasury secretary for economic policy Richard Clarida. Somehow it all began in the 1960s with “a group of intensely mathematical economists” who replaced short-term Keynesian considerations with an interest in long-run growth.  But the only actual name besides that of Keynes that comes up in the chapter setting out the “neoconomy” concept is that of comedian Jerry Seinfeld. (Dogs have no pockets. No pockets, no money.) Altman left the Times to write the book, but now he has returned, with a great blank canvas before him. It may take some time to fill. A happy day, therefore, when the paper has added old pro journalist Joseph Nocera to its lineup — enough to make the Saturday paper worth buying by himself.

The sleeper among the new generation of economic journalists is Wall Street Journal reporter Jon E. Hilsenrath. For nearly four years, Hilsenrath, 38, has put a steady stream of stories about technical economics and economists in the paper, large and small, short and long, growing steadily more acute — a powerful demonstration of the utility of covering the beat. Nor is it Hilsenrath alone who puts the Journal at the forefront of daily economic journalism. Reporter Gregory Ip has become the consistently most interesting and dependable interpreter of the choices facing the Federal Reserve Board — a role that John Berry used to fill at the Washington Post.

It may be just a matter of time before Hilsenrath moves up to a bigger beat, or is drawn off into editing chores, as was Ip’s long-time partner on the monetary policy beat, Jacob Schlesinger. In that case, the likelihood is that someone comparably good will replace him — after all, the line of serious coverage of economics in the news pages of the Journal goes back to Blustein, Wessel and Murray. Besides the Post’s Blustein (and me, I suppose), the only other former Journal reporter still in fulltime economic journalism is the ebullient G. Pascal Zachary, now dividing his time between Business 2.0 and teaching. Wessel, whose Capital column appears Thursdays, is also deputy Washington bureau chief.

It may not be a golden age of economic journalism. The traditional means of support — advertising — has been too undependable for that, thanks to a cataract of technological change. But there are plenty of new rafts on the river. There’s even reason to hope that, before long, the worst of the turbulence will be past.

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