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Tuesday, March 30, 2004

"Economists Say"

Ever notice how whenever the New York Times begins a sentence with "economists say," it's usually followed by something mean, stupid, and right-wing? Well, I'm here to tell you that it ain't because "economists" are mean, stupid, and right-wing. In fact, "economists say" is usually followed by something so silly, almost no economist would ever say it.

Don't believe me? Let's go to the search engine.

In the last week, there were 10 articles in the NY Times that used the phrase "economists say" or "economists said." Seven of them used the phrase in a fairly reasonable way. They were articles in the business section about "up and down" economics, quoting "economists" as saying that the economy seems to be getting better or worse. For example, "the spending number was encouraging, many economists said." Typically in these articles, "economists" is a euphemism for bank macro forecasters tracking a particular sector or country: Japan, in the case of the quoted article. These articles generally quoted actual named economists as well.

Three of the articles, though, quoted "economists" as saying things that seemed pretty silly.

"Uptown Moving Upscale," by Josh Barbanel, 3/28/04, is a classic. Barbanel cites a decline in the number of apartments for sale and claims, "the limited supply of apartments [for sale] helped push up prices, but brokers and economists disagree on the cause." Here, "economists" presumably means the one economist that the reporter spoke to. But Barbanel simply misunderstands what the economist told him. The economist isn't quibling about the cause of "shrinking inventory of apartment listings," she just knows that inventories aren't the same thing as the "supply of apartments," and was probably trying to tell the reporter that his premise is wrong: prices are driven by more fundamental factors than inventories. "Prices get bid up anyway," said the economist, Rae Rosen of the New York Fed, "because the city remains such a magnet and a place that people want to be."

Although the "economists" in Barbanel's article say silly things (even though Rosen, an actual named economist, does not), at least they're not mean. But the "economists" in Samuel Len's "Strong Exports Bolster South Korean Economy" (3/24/04) are both dumb and mean. According to Len, "Economists say the credit card problem will be resolved only when more delinquents secure stable sources of income." The "credit card problem" is weak consumer spending by long-delinquent credit cart holders that is delaying recovery from the recession. So the "economists" are silly, saying that "stable sources of income" are necessary for economic recovery, which is just a tautology. They're also mean, since they seem to be denying that delinquent credit card debtors will be helped by a government bailout, which is apparently on the agenda in South Korea. The "economists" seem to believe that South Korean credit card holders need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps rather than accept government help. Of course, the only named economist cited in the article says nothing of the kind.

This post has run pretty long, so I'll simply quote the muddled "economists" from Richard Lezin Jones', "Through the Roof," (3/28/04). "Sociologists and economists say soaring real estate prices mean it simply costs more for a middle-class family to stay in the middle" No named economists are mentioned in the article.

Do other experts get this kind of treatment in the Times? I'd love to report that "Architects say that 3-story buildings are the most beautiful," or some such, but a search of the Times archive turns up no hits for "architects say" or "biologists say" in the past week.


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