Saturday, January 26, 2008

I think the markets are up today, Jim

Bringing my coffee and computer down the TV room to watch Chelsea v. Wigan just now, I passed the common kitchens in on each floor with its own TV tuned to something different. One was on CNN, which had some woman's head over the banner "It's the economy...," surely beginning their day-long mind-numbing coverage of the South Carolina Democratic primary.

Thinking again about that John Meacham interview on the Daily Show, I think I figured out the right way to verbalize my distrust of economic prognosticators and forecasters. I can have nothing but academic admirations for actual economists, who try to make sense of rather abstract concepts and realities complicated by the fact that humans don't use what economists would consider perfect judgment. My reaction to talking heads on TV talking about "the economy" is twofold:

1. You don't actually know what "the economy" is.
2. Even if you have some idea, you don't know what it's going to do.

What they seem to think it is is a series of numbers -- the stock market, the housing numbers, the fed's interest rate -- that taken together tell you how "the economy" is doing.


During his Daily Show interview, Meacham said (correctly) that the media applies a narrative to the candidates based on the last happening, and if that doesn't hold out in the next primary, they invent a new one. That's not in itself a colossal problem; just like scientific papers draw a structure of order from a chaos of data, news stories apply narrative to otherwise discordant events. That's why elections are so much fun for them to cover -- like a sporting event, they will, in time, have a definitive result. The economy, however, will not. Yet it's treated as if it will, because that's the news paradigm.

Here's what economics coverage reminds me of: I was listening to a Brewers game on the radio last summer, and it was out of hand by the 6th, so Bob Uecker started telling stories, which is a beautiful thing in itself. (If you don't know the name, Bob Uecker played Harry Doyle, the Indians broadcaster, in "Major League." In real life, he's a baseball hall-of-famer and calls Brewers games.) So Uecker starts waxing about the really old days, before he was even in broadcasting, when technology certainly wasn't was it is today. Announcers couldn't go to the games and broadcast live back to their listeners. So they'd do "recreations." It was simple -- they'd take the line score of the game, which said what each batter did for the whole game. And the recreationist announcers would make up the details -- balls, strikes, managerial fits, groin pulls -- out of thin air. The people listening at home hadn't seen the game, so no one could prove you wrong. It was sheer entertainment.

That is what economic analysts on TV are doing. They can say anything they want about "the economy," so long as it matches up with the numbers in front of you. The whole business is so complicated that nobody at home can prove you wrong.

No comments: