March 29, 2010
What Makes A Government Expert?
Posted by David Zaring

Anyone can, and should, opine on what the government should do in the future to avoid financial crises.  But who is good at it?  I ask because of this op-ed, by two economists on how a consumer financial protection agency should be structured.    Or consider the long proposal by an economics columnist that ran in the Times Magazine.  Heck, here's Krugman, while we're at it.  Economists love to suggest new regulatory structures (or, more often, why they will not work).  But, of course, they have no training in regulation, and the training they do have - in quantitative data analysis - has nothing to do with regulation.  So when you listen to economists, you're listening to amateurs.  But perhaps everyone is an amateur in making governance proposals?  Consider political scientists.  Sure, they should understand how regulation works.  But I don't think they do in a "here's the proposal you ought to enact" kind of way.  At least, I haven't seen much of that from them, and I suspect it is because they study governance institutions as they actually perform, not as they should be (and also because they are largely trained in quantitative analysis).  So that would seem to make room for lawyers, who do prescriptive work and do understand governance ... but, then, there's the question about whether those prescriptions are based in an identifiable skill set or just the musings of smart people.

I find it to not just be a dilemma of expertise, but one of the various intersecting disciplines as well.  But perhaps the Conglomerate's readership has found the dilemma to be less than dramatic?  Let me know in the comments.

UPDATE: Josh Wright responds here.  He observes that some economists think about incentives, including the incentives of regulators and regulateds (hence public choice theory, which I suppose I must concede ... a little).  But who doesn't think about these issues?  By that standard, novelists might be as good a bet as anyone ... and novelists don't claim to come by their authority on domestic regulation, by, say, modeling trade theory or doing macro research at the Federal Reserve.

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