Anna Killick’s book Politicians and economists: the limits of technocracy makes for interesting reading, if you’re an economist interested in politics. The book summarizes a research project based on interviews with politicians engaged (currently or in the recent past) in economic policy issues, in five countries: Denmark, France, Germany, United Kingdom and United States. My main takeaway from the book is that politicians on average have little respect for economists – although for varying reasons depending on their country and ideology. For example, some see economists as political commentators, a comment made about someone like Paul Krugman in the United States. Others despair more generally of the lack of consensus in the economic councils. A quoted comment is that there have been no new big ideas in economics since Keynes, and no substantial progress, unlike medicine. Many commentaries complain about the inability of economists either to communicate effectively or to appreciate political constraints (the latter being something I wrote about – if the result of an economic analysis simply cannot be implemented, the analysis is at best incomplete.)
The book concludes: “The most powerful insight into politicians that this study offers is their unease with any further ceding of power to economic pundits…. they have been shaken by the populist protests of the past five years; Brexit, Trump, the rise of the AfD, the RN and the yellow vests. They have only one choice: to re-engage voters on economic issues, in a contested form, in the political realm. I agree that previously technocratic policy areas inevitably become areas of political contestation.
So why a paradox? Because the language and concepts of economics still wield such a powerful influence in many policy areas – a case Elizabeth Popp Berman made for the United States, or a debate on “the opinion of the Treasury” in the United Kingdom. And indeed, I would argue strongly for the importance of technocratic input in decisions about complex areas, with better communication and sensitivity to political dimensions. There are also many interesting details in the delivers – the specificity of the French, the much greater polarization of the Americans, the identity of the economists or currents of thought cited by politicians.