The Age of Verbiage
The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos used to be the premier destination for renowned academics and public figures to comment on the state of the world. But nowadays, the destination is just a click away. Our social-media-driven news ecosystem is virtually drowning us in expert opinion, inundating us with so much verbiage that little room is left for thoughtful analysis and focused debate – the oxygen of healthy public discourse.
Consider, for example, how quickly and how often the expert consensus shifted throughout the Covid pandemic. China did a far better job containing the spread of the virus than many liberal democracies, until its draconian zero-Covid strategy demonstrated the failure of autocracy. And, despite the surge of infections in the weeks since policymakers abruptly abandoned the strategy, it is still possible that China will have fewer excess Covid-related deaths than the US. Others argued that polarised societies like the US would fare worse than countries with high levels of social trust, until Sweden became a cautionary tale. And India was considered to be performing relatively well until the catastrophic death toll of the Delta variant revealed the scale of the government's mismanagement – and the latter, too, seems slightly less severe in hindsight, following the country's successful vaccination drive.
Then there is the great US inflation debate. Initially, it seemed like Team Transitory – the inflation doves who predicted that prices would go down quickly – had it right. But then the persistence of high inflation vindicated the hawks who had called for the Federal Reserve to engineer a massive recession to restore price stability. Nowadays, the doves are flying high again, as inflation seems to be declining without the Fed having to inflict excessive pain on US labour markets.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine, soaring inflation, and the escalating rivalry between the US and China have given us the term "polycrisis" – the Financial Times' word of the year – to describe today's confluence of calamities. But the global economy seems to have escaped the worst, at least for the moment, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects growth to pick up next year. The Economist now speaks of a "poly-recovery." Similarly, the doom-and-gloom predictions that characterised the spring and summer of 2020, the height of the Covid crisis, did not materialise, and the world economy turned out to be more resilient than many had believed.
And remember the warnings of a "winter of discontent" in Europe and the looming threat of wartime energy rations? Instead, gas prices have been declining steadily since the summer. And many of the same analysts who predicted a few months ago that the Chinese economy was about to collapse were proclaiming that "China is back" just a few weeks later.
The current fickleness of expert consensus is rooted in a media environment that rewards instant theorising and glib generalisations as long as they are delivered with absolute certainty. When reality exposes the flaws in these hypotheses, the expert caravan simply moves on to the next topic without self-reflection or accountability, leaving viewers and readers dumbfounded.
To be sure, expert opinion is still valuable, despite its increasingly ephemeral nature. But experts inhabit the same world as everyone else, and thus are not immune to the cognitive effects of its frantic pace. Given that institutions like the IMF are tasked with providing real-time analyses and predictions in a rapidly changing environment, getting things wrong or having to pivot on a dime is an occupational hazard. And, arguably, the warnings and instant analyses might be responsible for policy actions that preempt worst-case scenarios. Howling like a wolf can sometimes keep the real wolf at bay.
Still, one cannot deny the fact that there are too many overconfident experts making too many predictions about too many issues too quickly these days. A basic economic principle is useful here: the 24-hour news cycle has created a huge need for expert opinion, and the market has simply created the supply to meet the growing demand.
But some correction is required. When he received the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, Friedrich von Hayek famously suggested that his fellow laureates take an economist's Hippocratic oath: avoid commenting publicly on matters beyond one's immediate expertise. Winning such a prestigious prize, he said, should come with a certain responsibility. The same could be said of all current purveyors of elite opinion.
While voluntarily reducing one's profile may not seem appealing to many experts and intellectuals, it is the only way to avoid debasing the public discourse. Without a modicum of self-restraint, the constant stream of hot takes might end up undermining the informed debate that undergirds all open societies. To paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein, whereof one cannot say anything of substance after considered reflection, thereof one must be silent.
Arvind Subramanian, a senior fellow at Brown University, is a distinguished non-resident fellow at the Center for Global Development, and the author of 'Of Counsel: The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley Economy.'