Sunday, May 10, 2020

Politicians and academics

Tim Besley and Andrés Velasco have written an interesting article about the relationship between politicians and scientists in the current COVID-19 pandemic. They are both academic economists who focus their work on public policies, and therefore have a professional interest in politics. Andrés Velasco, now at the London School of Economics, had been in the past a senior minister in the center left government of Chile, and a (failed) presidential candidate. The article goes beyond the typical appeals of academics to heed the views of experts, and shows a good dose of respect for (good) politicians and political institutions. I especially liked this paragraph:

The fact that long before the virus hit most politicians’ credibility was at a nadir should not obscure another equally important fact: in modern secular societies, no one else can do the job of generating public trust. And if those modern societies are democratic, accountability is one key source of that trust. While the conventional view is that accountability is a constraint on political action, it is also an enabler. When politicians have announced lockdowns that impose economic costs, the public know that the politicians will ultimately be judged on whether the trade-offs are deemed to have been well-judged. Holding politicians responsible for a decision they have taken can enhance trust in that action.

Politicians and academics necessarily interact, and they should leave aside their mutual prejudices. Prejudices of politicians about academics include believing that academics have little work, know little about the "real world", and waste time instead of communicating with citizens with the "language of the street." Prejudices of academics about politicians include that they are ill-prepared, have bad intentions or are in general corrupt. The quote by Keynes, about men of action working on the shoulders of some obscure academic economist of the past, should be complemented by saying that often academics dream of being men (or women) of action, that is, politicians.
National-populism will not be defeated by delegating into the likes of Mr. Fauci, but by convincing public opinions that strong actions and interventions are needed to correct inequalities and fight climate change. So perhaps academics could focus part of their work on scientifically finding how to persuade public opinions of this. Politicians have a lot of soft knowledge to contribute to that.
They need each other and, also, they both need to remain modest and aware of their limitations. After all, in some way they are part of an elite that needs the trust and the support of many working people that are neither politicians nor academics. And many people are, or have been, both politicians and academics, like Andrés Velasco, although being successful on both fronts has proven very challenging for them.

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