Observers and students of the public role of economists should not overlook what’s happening in Italy. There is no equivalent militant engagement of economists like the current display by Italian economists on Twitter, although the new Fed nominees and the issues raised by MMT threaten to spread the perverse dynamics that we can observe on the ItaNet. No economist is immune to partisanship, especially on Twitter. Paul Krugman, for instance, shares his political views on the platform. What is truly peculiar about the Italian case, however, is the level of political ambition of the participating economists, how they established their public personae through blogs long before Twitter and traditional media, and the size of the readership involved in the ensuing Twitter-wars.
I am not interested in judging who is right and who is wrong in these economic debates. The main focus of this post lies in the entanglement between the rhetoric and social role of economists.
Caveat: Against the basic rule of historiography: I will not follow the chronology of the facts and focus, instead, of the type rather than the sequence of interactions. I have tried to be as precise as possible but I may have mischaracterised certain positions. Writing from abroad, I may miss the subtleties of the Italian language:
Who are the main contenders? On the one side, a number of economists who defend some kind of economic orthodoxy and are critical of the current Italian government. Many of them work outside Italy and some of them contribute to the blog Noise from Amerika (NFA). Some of them, such as NFA founder Michele Boldrin, are staunch defenders of free-market policies [edited version: a previous version of the post incorrectly stated that Luigi Zingales was a founder of NFA alongside Boldrin. Thanks to Boldrin for pointing out my mistake]. Others have more nuanced political positions, but in general they defend relatively mainstream economics.
On the other side there is a plethora of “autarkic” bloggers or micro-bloggers who are critical of fiscal discipline and austerity, criticise “mainstream economics” and are generally favourable to the current Italian government and against the Euro. Their main representatives are the former bank clerck Claudio Borghi and Alberto Bagnai, associate professor of economic policy at the University of Chieti.
Michele Boldrin and other contributors to NoiseFromAmerika tried to enter electoral politics in 2012 with the party Fare per Fare il Declino (Act to Stop the Decline) but their initiative failed miserably when the party’s frontman, economic journalist Oscar Giannino, was forced to admit he had fabricated his CV claiming a non-existing degree (both Giannino and Boldrin had an interesting and relevant engagement in pre-1992 parties, but we won’t discuss that here).
Nowadays, Boldrin and his colleagues popularize basic economic concepts in long youtube videos available on Boldrin’s channel.
Borghi and Bagnai were much more succesful instead. Riding widespread dissatisfaction with the euro, they joined the far-right party Northern League and are now in parliament. They chair the standing committees on economic and financial affairs of the two houses.
But the struggle is not only on policies, it easily spills over to more conceptual issues. Both the NoiseFromAmerika group and the Borghi-Bagnai-duo come with hosts of supporters and fans that create spin-offs and subthreads, rearguard skirmishes and diversive manoeuvers, as Daniele Condorelli lamented after polemising on the correlation between money supply and inflation with Bagnai and his retinue:
But Bagnai and Borghi’s supporters – often carrying an Italian flag in their Twitter handles – are much more numerous (even on Twitter) than NFA’s sympathisers. Bagnai’s fans often question the patriotic attachment of these cultural émigrés (ignoring that Bagnai’s party, the Northern League, supported the deepest cuts to university hirings in the 2000s and has therefore contributed to the Italian academic emigration ) and their use of English enconomic jargon. The “Amerikans” often write in a very awkward Italian. Is it because they are migrants (as Daniele Condorelli suggests)?
Or is it “awanagana”, the fantastic fake English spoken by Alberto Sordi in Un americano a Roma, as Bagnai claims?
Professional twitter trolls attack professional economists for not spending their time defending their ideas on twitter and resorting to ex-auctoritate (ipse-dixit) arguments:
To a great extent, Italian economists who intervene on Twitter do resort to ex-auctoritate arguments. Boldrin, Alberto Bisin or Condorelli teach in prestigious universities and publish in cool journals. Shouldn’t this count when talking about economics?
Bagnai counterattacks by comparing H-indexes with some of his adversaries while at the same time criticising rankings. He is not so much worse than them, even by their own metrics!
Some hilarious moments ensue: can you prove Harvard hirings are better than Chieti’s? asks @kotominekire9 (now a suspended account):
But the role of the public, of the “claque”, is not just to support and cheer their favourite experts in the battle. The public also often challenges the very role of experts akin to Brian Wynne’s case study on Sellafield nuclear accident.
Riccardo Puglisi, who is associate professor in Public Economics at the University of Pavia, and a frontmen of the “Amerikans” in Italy once questioned the credentials of Borghi and the behaviour of the media: How can they call Borghi an economist when he only graduated from a open university at 30?
This tweet triggered an incredible discussion on who is an economist. If everyone with a medicine degree is a doctor (not true, but somebody claimed that in the discussion), why isn’t a degree in economics or business or accounting enough to be an economists?
Aren’t we all economists since we manage our oikos?
The absurd result is that Ugo Panizza, professor of international economics at the Graduate Institute of Geneva can get caught up in a totally nonsensical discussion with a nobody on monetary issues (MMT? Alexander del Mar and the remonetisation of silver?) and is forced to invoke his bibliometric credentials in a way that seems to confirm his opponents prejudices:
Monetary issues are at the core of these twitter-wars and, for reasons that deserve to be investigated, they have always been central to the public understanding of economics. The Maastrich treaty and the “battle of ideas” around the Euro have only increased the importance of this topic in the public understanding of economics. The transition to the Euro in 2002 has been the trigger of a general mistrust of economists. The most dramatic rift between public perception and expert data opened when the Euro banknotes were introduced and people generally perceived an increase in prices that the aggregate CPI did not record. Mistrust of the experts is not new. What is new is Twitter.
While certain economists seem to have understood how to use blogging and microblogging to build succesful political careers, at the cost of the esteem of their colleagues, most of them are clearly struggling to convey the strength of their argument in a public space that they perceive as unfairly questioning their knowledge. Science has often claimed questioning everything as its hallmark, but there is no scientific legitimacy when a Cartesian demon does indeed question everything in 280 characters.