Economic Discourse Collapses in the Age of Twitter

Two Fantasy Intellectual stars, one from the center-left and one from the right, are unhappy

Matt Yglesias wrote recently,

But in economics, which I do know well, I think it’s a big issue. If someone tweets something you agree with, it is easy to bless it with an RT or a little heart. To take issue with it is to start a fight. And conversely, it’s much more pleasant to do a tweet that is greeted with lots of RTs and little hearts rather than one that starts fights. So I know from talking to econ PhD-havers that almost everyone is disproportionately avoiding statements they believe to be locally unpopular in their community. There is just more disagreement and dissension than you would know unless you took the time to reach out to people and speak to them in a more relaxed way.

And Tyler Cowen wrote recently,

Explicit schools of thought have since faded — but ideology has not. The new, often unstated dominant ideology is a mix of wokeism and center-left Democratic technocratic policy reasoning.

I am not sure that most economists, who come from many nations and cultures, endorse that approach. They just don’t work very hard against it, and so it is the unstated default norm. 

. . .It’s hard to argue that the political biases so evident on Twitter somehow do not infect the academic side of the profession.

As economics has become more ideological, it has also become less forthcoming about its ideologies. And that has led to less intellectual diversity and fewer radical new ideas.

(my emphasis)

Twitter’s mob mentality would be bad if it only suppressed extreme heterodox views, or if the effects were confined to Twitter. But in fact some very respectable economic thinking has disappeared from public discourse. Scott Sumner called this The Great Forgetting.

When dissent was welcomed

As of the 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that we could not have high inflation as long as the economy was far from full employment. But at the end of 1967, Milton Friedman dissented. He proposed a very different hypothesis, in which the trade-off between inflation and unemployment was only temporary. He suggested that after a while the economy would settle at a “natural” rate of unemployment, regardless of how much inflation had been generated.

Several years later, as the experience of the 1970’s played out, many economists came to agree with Friedman’s “natural rate hypothesis.” His monetarist explanation of inflation came to be very widely held.

Not every economist accepted Friedman’s views, nor would I insist that they should have. What I wish to emphasize is that Friedman was able to offer his hypothesis as an major address to the American Economic Association, and it kicked off an extensive debate. There was no social media mob to intimidate Friedman or other economists from advocating policies based on his analysis.

Today, such an economic debate is almost unthinkable. Both Yglesias on the center-left and Cowen on the right see economists silencing themselves in the face of Twitter mobs.

The Twitter mob, and mainstream journalists, have taken us back to 1960’s economic thinking. One can hope that they are right. Perhaps this time will be different, and we will not have a repeat of 1970’s stagflation. But many economists are concerned, and only a few of us have dared to speak out.

Consider The Helicopter Drop, in which I discuss the potential inflationary impact of recent deficit spending. John Cochrane and Larry Summers are two other economists who have made similar arguments. But others are keeping silent. There is nothing like the lively debate that took place following Milton Friedman’s address in 1967.

Improving Discourse

The mob mentality that prevails on Twitter is harming intellectual discourse. This is not just in economics. My Fantasy Intellectual Teams project is an attempt to reward public intellectuals who, like Matt Yglesias and Tyler Cowen, model a more detached and open-minded style of thinking.

I have noticed others who are attracted to the goal of improving intellectual discourse. Examples include Julia Galef’s book The Scout Mindset, Amanda Ripley’s book High Conflict, and Yascha Mounk’s substack Persuasion. I hope that some of these efforts bear fruit.