Over 20 years ago, the Royal Economic Society (RES) – the world's oldest learned society for economists – set up a sub-committee on 'The profile of the economics profession'. The remit of the sub-committee was quite wide, ranging from the reform of the A-level curriculum to raising the standards of the economic debate in the public square. For some reason (probably as token Scottish member) I was asked to join, which I gladly did. The meetings turned out to be lively affairs, especially when compared to the rather timid recommendations eventually presented to the RES.
The immediate spur for the setting up of the group was the catastrophic decision taken by many universities to recognise A-level business studies as valid as A-level economics for admission purposes. The predictable effect (which showed university applicants to be more rational decision-makers than academic economists) was a massive exodus from economics to the much less demanding business studies, with the enrolment in the former dropping by 50%.
An interesting anecdote is that at the time, a public school economics teacher in the West Midlands enrolled his entire class also for A-level business studies without teaching a word of the syllabus. All his economics students passed with a minimum of a C grade.
The curriculum for economics A-level and Highers was (and still largely is) designed to put off as many students as possible from studying the subject and bears very little resemblance to economics as taught at university level. Instead of completely revising the syllabus, making it more relevant, more intellectually exciting and a better preparation for higher study, the RES commissioned a new chapter (on game theory) to be offered to A-level students.
On the issue of the lamentable state of the economic debate in the UK, I asked fellow member Evan Davis (the then BBC economics editor) why the British public was constantly fed the appalling diet of City economists
' garbage, whilst proper
academic economists were hardly ever given the opportunity to put across the profession's point(s) of view. I felt properly chastised by his reply: this was not a demand problem, as he and his BBC colleagues kept asking prominent economists to air their views. It was a supply problem, as virtually all academic economists did (and still do) consider public engagement to be beneath them and not part of their job description.
To this day, there is no professorship in the public understanding of economics in spite of the demonstrable benefits brought by similar posts in the case of science (Richard Dawkins, Marcus du Sautoy), risk (John Spiegelhalter) and even philosophy (Angie Hobbs).
The reason for this personal reminiscence has been the publication of a report commissioned by the BBC and written by economist Andrew Dilnot and broadcaster Michael Blastland (the originator of the excellent Radio 4 More or Less
programme) on the impartiality of BBC coverage of economic matters.
The actual title of the report is revealing in itself: Review of the impartiality of BBC coverage of taxation, public spending, government borrowing and debt
. The BBC (as well as the rest of the media) equate economics with (some aspects of) macroeconomic policy, neglecting the majority of economics research. To give an idea of the imbalance, consider the Honours curriculum at my own university (St Andrews): of the 30 modules taught in years three and four, only four (i.e., less than 14%) deal with macroeconomics. But even this underestimates the breadth of economics which is considered by some as an intellectually imperialistic discipline in so far as it applies its methodology not only to contiguous disciplines (such as mathematics, statistics, operations research, geography, history, philosophy) but also to more distant areas of research, such as biology, linguistics, computer science, etc.
The qualitative evidence in the Dilnot-Blastland report supports its findings and recommendations, which is hardly surprising. For example, it finds that most journalists have a poor understanding of basic economics (not as bad as Chancellors of the Exchequer being economics ignoramuses, as recent events have shown all too clearly) and that the general public (especially the lower socio-economic groups) finds the very meaning of economics stories impenetrable.
The BBC is widely and rightly regarded as impartial, but this does not mean bias-free. Reflecting the Westminster agenda, priorities and framing inevitably creates a pro-establishment bias. Good examples being the emphasis on income tax at the expense of VAT, when the latter is far more important for lower-income people and the unchallenged notion that tax cuts are good and government debt is bad.
The Dilnot-Blastland report is not without flaws; it does not mention Brexit once, even though the economics of Brexit should have given ample ammunition to challenge the naïve notion of impartiality as giving voice 'to both views'. As with anthropogenic climate change, the greatest majority of qualified experts are all on 'one side' and thus giving press/air time to both sides skews the debate. There is a simple solution to this implicit-bias problem: to allocate space to competing views in proportion to their scientific standing and to communicate to the public the relative weight of each. As a result, climate-change deniers not only would occupy about 5% of the available space, but also would be presented as the extreme outliers they are.
But perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the report is its failure to highlight the loss of quality in the public debate on issues that thanks to economics could be amenable to rational discussion and eventually to rational decision making, and instead are either left unscrutinised or trivialised by axe-grinding politicians.
Dr Manfredi La Manna is a Reader in Economics at the University of St Andrews