Italian economists on Twitter: the corrosion of expert authority

In Homer’s Iliad‘s the lame and ugly Thersites represents the uninvited speaker, who lacks the authority and yet intervenes in the assembly of the Achaeans

I really want to thank the many people who reacted to my piece on Italian economists, including Béatrice Cherrier, Nicola Giocoli, Jacopo Mazza, Daniele Condorelli, Ugo Panizza and Michele Boldrin who promised to rectify some of the mistakes that my piece contained. Based on the comments received, there are at least two additional points that I would like to make. Both delve on the distinction between laymen and experts, but the first one, in particular, addresses the issue of the public of the expert’s discourse, the second one discusses the roots of the expert’s authority.

A comment by Condorelli set me thinking:

Condorelli explains his use of jargon by insisting on the distinction between a specialist and a popularising scientific discourse. He would not have addressed the general public in the same way he thought he could address a colleague. He would be right if Bagnai was an average economist outside Italy. Take the Twitter profile of a reputed German economist, Isabel Schnabel or Lars P. Feld, of the German council of economic experts: they have relatively few interactions, mostly with colleagues, other experts inside and outside academia and policy makers, even when they comment on current issues in a popularising style. Not so Bagnai who engages in multiple polemics and often highlights the peculiarity of his communication style and praises the artistic qualities of his own prose.

It is the artistic quality of the prose, rather than the dull topics, that charms his readers – he claims:

Ma il fatto è che io non sono (solo) un politico: sono anche un artista, altrimenti Brilliant non pubblicherebbe i miei dischi e voi non sareste qui, dove non vi ha trattenuto il fascino delle partite correnti o del tasso di cambio reale (cioè dell’ancora ignoto, per voi, otto anni dopo…), ma quello della prosa (qui, qui, qui, ecc.). Scriverete sulla mia tomba le parole di Rilke: Er war ein Dichter und haßte das Ungefähre. Odio le imprecisioni. E siccome la parola è divina, alterarla non è solo poco professionale: è blasfemo.

This is not just a matter of style, though. The barriers between expert and popular readership are falling: everybody may read everything on Twitter and understand it in their own way

(an aside: Medieval authors were very well aware of the problem of polysemy of the text and multiplicity of readerships and therefore insisted on the literal, allegoric, moral or anagogic interpretation of a text).

My grandfather, who was born a century ago, did not know there were economists who talked about him and who claimed an expertise on his way of living. A peasant from Southern Italy, he had no idea Vera Lutz and the Italian Keynesians of the 1950s were discussing his consumption and saving rates or that the life of those like him were now analysed as part of a developmental paradigm (see The Birth of Development Economics: Theories and Institutions by Michele Alacevich on this).

Lots of people still live in this (blissful?) ignorance. But at least those with a Twitter profile are now aware that economist are talking about them. Despite their more or less deep ignorance of the economic discipline, they want to have a say, however inarticulate.

The situation reminds me of Jean Loup Amselle’s studies on the appropriation of French colonial anthropology by West-African people (Logiques métisses. Anthropologie de l’identité en Afrique et ailleurs, Paris, Payot, 1990). The anthropologists’ texts were not meant to be read by the people they described. But the West-Africans refunctionalised these texts (and the practice of colonial administrators) in creative ways that suited their goals. Whereas a clear-cut separation between investigators and the object of investigation was initially supposed, categories are now blurred and the people observed have appropriated the tools of the observers. Twitter readers with little or no economic background are now somehow aware of the feuds inside the economic discipline and appropriated if not all the tools at least some of the arguments.

Here an absurd discussion of causality and statistics between a couple of economists and a host of architects, programmers, web-designers:

Is this good or bad? Despite the frustration that I experience when reading conversations like this, I am optimistic. The involvement of the general public in this kind of discussion (and the patience of people like Jacopo Mazza and Alessandro Martinello) can lead to a more wide-spread awareness of the limits and potential of the economic science.

Experts’ authority

The second point I want to raise is connected to the first one. Ugo Panizza felt the need to explain one of his tweets (thanks again):

Apparently, he feels uneasy with ex-auctoritate arguments.  Are they up to the standard of economic science? Shouldn’t economists “reason away” their opponents’ objections, at least in principle?

Alberto Bisin, another NFAer, has pointed that explaining everything is unpractical: a professional economists is forced to adopt ex-auctoritate argument because he or she has no time to explain everything, respond to every irrelevant and naif objection etc.:

But we could look at this differently. Bruce Lincoln who is professor for the history of religion at the University of Chicago contrasted authority with violence and persuasion. In his Authority: construction and corrosion (1994), he clustered under the term authority, “the authority of those who are “in authority” (e. g. political leaders, parents, military commanders) and that of those who are “an authority”, such as our economists. He argued that:

In actual practice the excercise of authority depends less upon the “capacity for reasoned elaboration” as on the presumption made by those subject to authority that such a capacity exists or on their calculated and strategic willingness to pretend so… when authority is asked to explain itself and responds to that request by arguing in earnest rather than simply reasserting itself, it ceases to be authority for the moment and becomes (an attempt at) persuasion (p.6)

In a word, arguments ex-auctoritate are not simple shorthand for an explanation that cannot be given due to practical constraints. Just the opposite: when authorities are forced to explain everything, their authority is vanishing and it’s being corroded by competing discourses.

The topic of the decadence of expertise has been preoccupying experts worldwide for quite sometime now. It was even discussed by the former president of the USA, Barack Obama in a famous speech:

But what is corroding the authority of Italian economists in particular? In La chute de l’ordre dominant and in his forthcoming book La guerra di tutti, Raffaele Alberto Ventura, an Italian and French eclectic intellectual, argues that the decadence of the expert’s authority in Western World (whatever that is) is the result of the experts’ inability to fulfil their promises and deliver the expected growth. There may be something true in Ventura’s interpretation.

However unfair and absurd the typical accusations against mainstream economics may seem (it did not predict the crisis! It’s causing the sufferings of the Greek people! etc.), it is true that economics seems to be falling short of the exaggerated and unreasonable expectation that it somehow elicited (think of the then widely publicised One market one money report on the euro; here Gros’s partial retraction and Draghi’s defense of the report’s main message). Many people in Italy feel they have no reason to be optimistic compared to their (historically problematic) memories of a glorious past. What is all the economic expertise good for, then?

But it is not just economists. People are increasingly questioning other kinds of expertise, not just in Italy, but in the whole world. Let’s go back to Panizza’s tweet and look at its context. Panizza was responding to critics that were not targeting a fellow economists but a famous immunologist. Roberto Burioni is a well-known public figure, a passionate critic of no-vax and anti-vax claims who is constantly engaged in polemics on Twitter and other media. When Panizza came to his rescue, Burioni had expressed his opinions on monetary politics and provoked a perfect twitter-storm by attracting the criticism of antivax and MMT supporters at the same time. Even if we agreed that Italians may have some reasons not to trust the expertise of mainstream economists (and I really think this is unfair), why would immunologists be targeted in the same way? The economy may have stopped growing, but vaccines haven’t stopped working.

We may need a different explanation for the general corrosion of expert authority.


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