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These self styled economists

by S. Akbar Zaidi, 25 October 2008

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Dawn, 25 October 2008

Everyone is an economist

PAKISTAN’S economic crisis and confusion, exacerbated primarily on account of unforgivable delayed responses by the incumbent government, has also revealed the rather sad state of Pakistan’s media and of its economists.

The huge media explosion, particularly in the electronic media but also the English newspapers, has revealed how bare Pakistan’s scholarly cupboard is, and how charlatans have been crowned kings. These days, given the deserved interest in both the global financial crisis and the domestic economic meltdown, all television channels have been giving extended time to information and views pertaining to such issues on their channels.

Today, the electronic media has made bankers, businessmen, stockbrokers and journalists experts on the intricacies of economic and financial issues of which most know very little. Personal anecdotes, and not even informed opinion, replace any sound academic or general discussion about Pakistan’s economy or about the international financial crisis.

Barring very few exceptions, most supposedly informed guests on these channels cannot distinguish between the capital market, capital investment or the capital account, yet speak with an authority which only reveals their complete ignorance. Stockbrokers hold forth on monetary policy, bankers and MBAs on fiscal policy, and journalists on an assortment of issues ranging from what they think the impact of raising (or lowering) the CRR and SLR would be to the impact of an IMF programme of which they know barely the basics and can claim no understanding.

In the 25 years in which I have taught and done research in economics in Pakistan, I have never seen so many people appearing in the public arena and being called ‘economists’. Most of these self-styled, or increasingly media-styled, economists have hardly written academic papers or books, yet speak with the authority of someone who understands how a complicated and complex social, political and economic system works. Many now call themselves ‘political economists’ which gives them license to talk about anything at all, without having understood what it is that makes up the discipline of political economy.

High journalism — and usually not even that — substitutes for scholarly and academic discussion in the media. Moreover, access to the Internet has made a cut-and-paste job far easier, and for many newspaper readers who do not scan more than just a single column, material which has been developed and debated in very different contexts is recycled as original.

Editors often complain about the huge dearth of ‘good writers’ and this is particularly marked in the case of economic and financial issues. While many articles or reports in newspapers simply provide a great deal of information, the inability of many writers to make sense of the data is an obvious and chronic problem. Given the format of the electronic media, even data and information are not a requirement, and with generalist anchors not even trained in the very basics of economics and hence unable to ask the right questions, both anchors and their guests make do with a few popular sound bites, talking a lot but saying very little. It is very seldom that one hears an informed discussion on the economy.

Yet, it is important to state that it is not just the media that is responsible for the low level of discussion or debate, but economists too are to blame. While there are a few competent and trained economists in Pakistan, many of them having worked in educational institutions and with practical experience, most shy away from the media leaving the spaces to be filled in by the excess supply of mediocrity that this country has to offer. In the long list of highly accomplished eminent economists who constituted some of the many committees set up by this government, very few speak to the media or write in the press.

Some of course, for numerous often petty reasons, prefer not to be seen as critics of the government and stay away. Others consider themselves to be ‘above’ such populist or frivolous activity, feeling that their time is better spent teaching, writing papers or advising government. Then there are those who hardly have the time any longer, given the huge commitments their lucrative consulting involves. Moreover, speaking publicly may require them to articulate an opinion which may cause any one of their donors to take issue. As one prominent economist said once when asked why he didn’t write: discretion is the better part of valour.

Nobel prize winners like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, to name perhaps the two most prolific, write regular columns in numerous newspapers in addition to teaching and their academic commitments which include writing articles and books. They write for a general audience and are immensely popular and critical of numerous issues. I believe, following the footsteps of such economists, there is a need for many of the best economists in Pakistan to intervene and shape public opinion and educate readers and viewers in the country.

There is a large audience out there, hungry for scholarly and academic discourse on issues which now affect everyone’s lives. More importantly, only those with understanding and scholarship can replace much of the nonsense that one reads or hears regarding the economy in Pakistan’s media.