Jane Jacobs, the tyranny of experts and Brexit

by Chris Bertram on May 16, 2017

Last night I watched Citizen Jane, a recent biopic about Jane Jacobs and her long fight against Robert Moses’s plans for New York. Of course, Jacobs was largely correct: Moses’s grand utopian schemes wrecked the ecologies of street and community and eventually produced neighbourhoods worse than the ones they replaced, whilst failing to solve even the problems, like traffic congestion, they seemed best suited to. But being already familiar with the substance of the dispute, and with Jacobs’s great work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, what struck me most forcefully was the rhetoric. On the one hand, there were the self-proclaimed “experts”, on the other, ordinary people with their lived experience, sceptical about whether the “experts” had their best interests at heart (or if they did, whether they shared the same conception of their interests). A great irony of the Jacobs case is that though she was right about Moses and his plans, the net result of her activism has not been, in the end, to preserve those neighbourhoods for the kinds of people who lived there then, but rather to give them an afterlife to be enjoyed by the people who can now afford to live in them.

The film made somewhat uncomfortable viewing, because the rhetoric around “experts”, the post-war urban planners, was so similar to that around Brexit. A year on, I’m more convinced than I ever was that Leave was the wrong decision, and more distressed about the loss of vital freedoms and the political fallout than I was then. Still, parallels are parallels. The European Union is a high modernist scheme often administered by “experts” who know better than the people (or peoples) what is in their best interest. The promise of the European Union, for real improvements in people’s lives, has been tarnished, to say the least, by the experience of millions of people both in the deindustialized North (northern England, Wallonia, Picardy …) and in the southern periphery. And as Peter Mair demonstrated in Ruling the Void, the last few decades have seen a disengagement of people from political parties and political life, reinforced by the sense that the experts (perhaps in Brussels) would take the decisions for them anyway, so what would the point be?

Scepticism about “experts”, memorably voiced by Michael Gove during the Brexit referendum campaign, has been much mocked by Remainers (including me). But that unwillingness to believe the experts, even when they’re right, isn’t based on nothing, but rather in the repeated overpromising of those who know best together with the failure of anything like the radiant future to arrive. The Euro is perhaps the worst example of a plan promoted by “experts” on the basis of their vision of the future which has had real costs for everyone outside the strongest economies such as Germany. (One of the reasons I passionately opposed Maastricht and ERM was reading a passage in another, slightly odd book by Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations.) One hopes that experts might learn the lessons of this, and recognize that Brexit is also the result of a loss of confidence for which they (we?) bear responsbility too and that continuing to push for utopian schemes without making a connection with ordinary people will only promote the populist reaction. Things to think about for “progressive” politics both in the EU and in post-Brexit Britain too: we won’t get anywhere unless we can talk to and eventually mobilize, many of the people currently tempted by the populist right (and now fleeing to the comforting embrace of Mother Theresa, freak lovechild of Stanley Baldwin and Eva Peron).

{ 113 comments }

1

Russell Arben Fox 05.16.17 at 11:45 am

The essential problem of post-1960s mass democratic politics: the populists are right, even when they’re obviously, substantively, wrong, because they speak a language that at least gestures as participation, plebiscitarianism, people-power, and all the rest, and that resonates. Jacob Levy’s wonderful Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom provides, I think, a productive way to think about this divide, and perhaps enable us experts (because, after all, who else but intellectuals read a blog like Crooked Timber?) to find a more respectful, less alienating, more humble way to contribute to political discussion. If we can’t, then I fear the left is going to move more and more in Jason Brennan’s direction, and a general anti-democratic, anti-participatory, defiantly pro-expert mentality will simply, in the face of Trump, grow stronger and stronger.

2

dave heasman 05.16.17 at 12:14 pm

I recall the residents of Ladbroke Grove & thereabouts disrupting the opening ceremony of the Westway in I think 1970. Noise, congestion, splitting a neighbourhood in half, years of construction chaos all for 3 miles of road to facilitate escape from London. Heseltine, wasn’t it?
And now that district has been colonised by Cameron and his ilk. Another great irony.

3

bianca steele 05.16.17 at 12:55 pm

Mishra’s The Age of Anger has made me pessimistic about this. If the choice is between experts who take science into account but leave things out that everyone can see, and left-behind people full of hate, it’s not clear what we’re going to get.

Reading Jacobs lately it occurred to me that she is already talking about neighborhoods of the well-off. I don’t think she was talking about the tenement slums not far from the Village where people were also keeping an eye on the street. (At least this doesn’t interest the journalists I’ve read.) She’s talking about a mixed middle class neighborhood that possibly has never lasted more than a decade or two in the same place, in a city like New York. There was an article a year or two ago by a young gentrifier in Brooklyn who was citing Jacobs to justify her annoyance that her poorer neighbors wouldn’t participate in her neighborhood-betterment schemes.

4

Z 05.16.17 at 1:03 pm

But that unwillingness to believe the experts, even when they’re right, isn’t based on nothing,

I think you are identifying one of the most vexing point of the current socio-political system: competent professional élites increasingly form their own coherent political force, which increasingly rules with its own self-interest in mind. For the rest of the population, voting thus becomes an exercise in choosing between competent representatives that will actively worsen their relative situation within society or incompetent ones that promise to break everything and will in all likelihood accomplish precisely that. The distribution of income or, as you mentioned, the actual policy results of the EU outside its German core would be prime examples to discuss but to take a less polarizing topic, I would like to mention the case of educative policies.

As is well-known, children of two parents with higher education diploma generally do well in school and are disproportionately represented in élite higher-education institutions. A trivial consequence which is nevertheless rarely spelled out is that such parents have a direct interest in schools not being too good: otherwise the family advantage accrued to their own children might become insignificant (in slogan form, school desegregation was not stopped because it wasn’t working, it was stopped because it was working).. I don’t think this fact is unrelated to the passivity (to be generous) of even nominally left-leaning or progressive governments in the face of increasing educative inequalities (think about what the two Obama terms achieved or failed to achieve for school segregation).

One hopes that experts might learn the lessons of this. [C]ontinuing to push for utopian schemes without making a connection with ordinary people will only promote the populist reaction

I fear that this ship has sailed. Professionals do not push for utopian schemes anymore and insofar as they believe themselves to do so, it is insincerely; they push for schemes that would lead to utopia for them. So I don’t think self-reflection is really the way to go. If the analysis above is correct, what is needed is quite mundanely an opposition: a countervailing political force able to challenge the political expression of the professional class (of course, such opposition would force self-reflection, which was perhaps your point). Personally, I have been totally convinced by Thomas Frank’s latest book concluding words: the first step in that direction is to “strip away the [political forces representing professional élites]’s precious sense of their own moral probity.”

5

Sebastian H 05.16.17 at 1:19 pm

This is a good post. I’d go a little stronger–many experts are let their personal interest groups and class prevail. So non-experts have to worry that if the experts are given too much power it will be employed decisively against them. The old idea of experts for the common good is tarnished if not completely destroyed.

6

Neville Morley 05.16.17 at 2:11 pm

The fact that, as you say, it isn’t based on nothing means we need to work on unpicking it further. Two obvious starting points. Firstly, #NotAllExperts – or rather, how far can this mistrust be traced back to certain and/or certain kinds of expert – the economists cheer-leading for the Euro, market deregulation and austerity, for example – which has then become generalised and appropriated by some with a vested interest in discrediting expertise (various sections of the media, for example). Secondly, how far have experts – of whatever species – tended to issue ex cathedra statements and expect awed compliance, rather than engage the wider public with evidence and explanation?

7

Paul 05.16.17 at 2:29 pm

Compulsory reading of Young’s ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ would be step one of my solution.

8

Mario 05.16.17 at 2:38 pm

Experts per se, or even expertise, are hardly the problem. Brexit, and similar subjects, are deeply political, and I think the reduction to expert knowledge is very often a way to derail political arguments, and frame them so that participation of the broad (affected) masses in these discussions become impossible.

Just today I found this great interview with Chris Arnade in Current Affairs that discusses these issues in the American context.

9

MisterMr 05.16.17 at 2:54 pm

My opinion:

a large part of right leaning politics is based on identity affinity, or pretense of identity affinity, basically because they can’t say they’re out for the rich.
This specific sort of identity politics is what passes today for “populism”, and shouldn’t be taken at face value: experts that have opinion that are liked by the “populists” are taken seriously.

That said, “experts” in such disciplines that are not 100% hard science should always be taken with a grain of salt, and often the experts that become more respected or liked are the ones that are useful to political interests.
And also, what Sebastian H @5 says is totally true.

Finally, the Euro, wether it was a good idea or not, was and is totally the opposite of an utopian project. It’s like saying that increasing taxes or lowering/rising the minimum wage is an utopian project: the aims might be utopian, but the action itself is a pragmatic action (as a mean for an utopian project).

10

Peter K. 05.16.17 at 3:23 pm

I think Chris Bertram hits on one of the central issues of our time and it’s not just about Europe.

In the U.S. it’s about the center left experts versus the left and everyone else. Hilary versus Sanders. Blair versus Corbyn.

We’ve had 40 years of neoliberal economic experts lecturing us about trade policy and globalization and we see the results. Stagnation and a rightwing populist backlash.

Trump, Brexit, LePen. Experts just argue by appealing to authority and try to shut down discussion. Anything that doesn’t agree with them they view as trolling.

11

Underpaid_Propagandist 05.16.17 at 3:38 pm

I think Chris Bertram hits on one of the central issues of our time and it’s not just about Europe.

In the U.S. it’s about the center left experts versus the left and everyone else. Hilary versus Sanders. Blair versus Corbyn.

WHO REPRESENTS THE LEFT IN THE U.S.?

We’ve had 40 years of neoliberal economic experts lecturing us about trade policy and globalization and we see the results. Stagnation and a rightwing populist backlash.

THINGS ARE BEING PRODUCED, DISPERSED, BOUGHT, TRADED. WHAT FORCES ARE LEADING TO ‘STAGNATION’? WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF STAGNATION?

Trump, Brexit, LePen. Experts just argue by appealing to authority and try to shut down discussion. Anything that doesn’t agree with them they view as trolling.

MANY ‘EXPERTS’/’MEDIA AUTHORITIES’ SEEM RATHER SPIFFY WITH THE FIRST THREE ENTITIES YOU MENTION. ARE YOU SPIFFY WITH THESE ENTITIES AND THE MEDIA? WHAT DISCUSSIONS ARE WE MEANT TO ENGAGE IN?

12

Sebastian H 05.16.17 at 3:50 pm

I have to admit to my only little bit of complicity–for quite a while (probably much of the 90s) I at least internally and sometimes vocally scoffed at people who raised concerns about globalism hurting too much. I really let myself get snowed by the averages which obscured the real picture. I think a lot the political resistance to experts comes from thirty years of people in the white collar classes and the cities telling everyone else that everything was going to be fine, or worse that they were crazy to think it wasn’t fine. When did Krugman come around to that critique of globalism? 2004 or so? So the whole period of say 1980-2004 or so involves such people hearing from an expert consensus that they don’t understand their own lives.

13

Sebastian H 05.16.17 at 3:56 pm

Sorry to double post. Part of the problem is how experts have let assymmetric burdening of costs get washed out in big picture looks. The same people who can’t afford to live in the biggest cities, get told that globalism is fine, and that they shouldn’t drive their car (why don’t they just take the subway?), and that the college they weren’t admitted to would have solved everything.

14

bruce wilder 05.16.17 at 3:58 pm

Jacobs’ last book, Dark Age Ahead, predicts collapse. It is roughly in the vein with the Joseph Tainter thesis that increasing but futile complexity (and therefore elite investment in “expertise”) precedes and “causes” the collapse of civilization.

Overall, the Tainter thesis runs like this: Elites, including the elite-supporting expert and managerial classes, are fed by extraction from below. As long as expertise can be applied to increase productivity below, this can be a good deal for everyone. But, even after the growth of productivity below slows or reverses, the imperative to extract in order to feed the elite and its experts, continues. If the experts find an innovative way to again increase productivity below, the situation can be saved, but if the experts can find nothing better in response to systematic problems and environmental challenges than to tighten the screws, well then . . . . secular stagnation or collapse follows.

Jane Jacobs’ take focuses on the qualities of the urban cultures that foster, or fail to foster, the kind of innovation that increases productivity. Her complaints are characteristically about the cultural sclerosis induced by suburbanization, about credentialism in academia, about the corruption of democratic politics by deep-pocketed interests and about the dominance in policy analysis of an extensively ignorant form of economics. She takes no separate notice of the extraction of surplus that makes cities possible.

The Euro is indeed an example of faulty institutional design by “experts”. I don’t know exactly what Jacobs would make of either the neo(ordo)liberal prophets of one currency on the German model or the pseudo-expertise of the Chicago-esque “optimal currency area” analysis, but I am sure it would be suitably scathing. Still, much of Europe remains trapped by the entailed complexity and in denial concerning its extractive purpose. Whatever the theoretical (de)merits of the Euro as a managed currency, the details of the complex technical specifications for payments and bank accounting mean that it is exceedingly difficult to even conceive of leaving the Euro for countries like Greece or Italy, which would manifestly benefit from doing so, if it could be done without acute crisis or enormous and protracted difficulty. But, apparently, it cannot be done in short order, without the hazard of acute crisis — at least certainly not without cooperation from the center that is highly unlikely.

Just so, with Brexit. It is fine to decry the knock taken to cosmopolitan spirits, but Brexit is running the ship onto the shoals because of the barnacled reefs of complexity hidden just beneath the surface that have been built by the experts in Brussels barring any other path but continued union. This mind-numbing complexity is what the hapless May must negotiate, aided by the insights of Boris Johnson and the like (as if!). It would be comical if it did not have so much potential for tragedy. It is not possible in any finite length of time to re-create a substitute of comparable complexity with which to regulate the trade relationship with the EU, and certainly not with European institutions that have no political capacity let alone political will to do so.

My point (and I know if you have read this far, you are wondering if I have one), is that beneath the sclerotic complexity of the experts is the slow grinding force of extraction bearing down on the populace. European Union, conceived of as a means by which technocratic expertise could amplify productivity at the bottom thru free trade and free movement, has peaked and turned, and now the project is tobogganing down civilization’s back slope, keeping in place an effective extractive regime even as the foundations of industrial civilization erode away beneath Europe’s privileged economies. Europe under the ill-named Peoples’ Party of grim technocratic centrists adopting the rictus grin of Tony Blair as an imitation populist appeal isn’t going to change that; they see their job as tightening the screws and that’s the job they will do.

Hoping that the expert technocrats could have a heart, could listen, could synthesize a populist appeal mistakes the extractive task they are now set, to separate the mass of the people from the means of production and claims on income bit by bit, so as to conserve the extracted surplus for the support the wealthy elite and their loyal servants, the experts.

Brexit may yet prove to be an example of matching the tyranny of the experts against the wisdom of the idiots, and one where it is difficult not to occasionally cheer the idiots.

Britain has some serious economic problems that it is almost inconceivable that she could address in a straightforward, transparently rational way. The financial sector that makes London the world’s capitol of capital and, therefore, enormously inconceivably wealthy is killing Britain politically and economically. There’s no direct way to knock it down or bring it under control. The hazards of economic collapse that would be thrown up as a defense by the City are unscalable walls and no siege could be sustained outside them. And, yet, Brexit may see the conservative party open an exit. Only in the chaos following in the wake of a ship of fools is such a thing possible. It is a peculiar thing to hope for, but it may be all those of good will have.

15

Guano 05.16.17 at 4:04 pm

Michael Gove said that people are fed-up with “being told what to do by experts”. I am fed up with being told what to do by people like Michael Gove, a man of no particular talent who is as guilty of making dubious ex-cathedra pronouncements as any expert.

I note that people like Gove (and his ex-boss Murdoch and the people who funded Trump and Brexit) weren’t much concerned about “experts” during the time when they were proposing the grand, utopian schemes that Jane Jacobs campaigned against. They appear to have got a bit nervous about “experts” when they have started agreeing with Jane Jacobs.

16

Raven Onthill 05.16.17 at 4:07 pm

Yeah. Think of all the “experts” defending neo-liberal economics. To much expertise in political advisors comes down to well-written prolix rationalization.

“In the meantime, the task is much harder: you must tell them the truth. You cannot lie to the working class, James, not even once. They will know, and they will never trust you again. Lie to the bourgeoisie all you want, because they will hear only what they wish, and to the aristocracy, because they will not hear at all, and certainly to the government, the organ of the other two. But never to the working class.” — fictional Fredrich Engels, Steven Brust and Emma Bull, Freedom and Necessity

I have a lot more to say about this, but I have to go deal with a literal physical incorrectly installed mailbox. Later.

17

engels 05.16.17 at 4:10 pm

Firstly, #NotAllExperts – or rather, how far can this mistrust be traced back to certain and/or certain kinds of expert – the economists cheer-leading for the Euro, market deregulation and austerity, for example – which has then become generalised and appropriated by some with a vested interest in discrediting expertise (various sections of the media, for example).

Yep—and I think quite a lot of those people weren’t really experts anyway but rather minimally qualified ideologues.

18

engels 05.16.17 at 4:31 pm

A good and amply-deserved takedown of St. Jane:
http://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2016/10/jane-jacobss-tunnel-vision/

19

Chris Bertram 05.16.17 at 4:53 pm

“I think quite a lot of those people weren’t really experts anyway but rather minimally qualified ideologues.”

If only the workers had a surefire way of telling the difference, so much unpleasantness might have been avoided.

20

Cranky Observer 05.16.17 at 5:05 pm

= = = The Euro is indeed an example of faulty institutional design by “experts”. I don’t know exactly what Jacobs would make of either the neo(ordo)liberal prophets of one currency on the German model or the pseudo-expertise of the Chicago-esque “optimal currency area” analysis, but I am sure it would be suitably scathing. = = =

I don’t have the book at hand to check, but I believe it was in Cities and the Wealth of Nations that Jacobs discussed whether or not the US should have established five different currency regions in the early 1980s to help balance job/capital flow being caused by the post-manufacturing transition – exactly the opposite of the Euro.

21

Stephen 05.16.17 at 5:06 pm

Be fair to Michael Gove, even if you think he wouldn’t be fair to you. What he said was that people have “had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”. I’m not sure how acronyms come into it, but the list of topics on which “experts” have got it wrong is non-trivial, particularly concerning the UK’s relationship with the EU. If we leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism we will be ruined, if we don’t join the Euro we will be ruined, if we vote Leave we will need a stringent Emergency Budget to prevent us being ruined …

Lord Melbourne memorably said after Catholic Emancipation, “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.” I think, but cannot immediately confirm, that he went on to say “And yet the wise men are still wise, and the damned fools are still damned fools”. I suspect that may be CB’s opinion: it isn’t Gove’s.

Great man, Melbourne. He also said “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life”. An odd sentiment for Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister, though a very understandable one for the husband of Lady Caroline Lamb.

22

Chris Bertram 05.16.17 at 5:06 pm

Incidentally, I think the fact that (many of) the neighbourhoods that survived as the result of Jacobs (and Jacobs-inspired) pushback have been colonized by the wealthy, hardly invalidates her insights, (which have continued to inspire others, including James C. Scott, beloved of this parish). After all, the other really important development of the last fifty years has been the growth of income inequality, which has enabled the wealthier to outbid others for those areas. That wasn’t clearly forseeable from the 1960s, indeed we are only starting to take full account of it now.

(Where I live, Bristol UK, the local Moses-ites (chief planning officer was a traffic engineer wanted to fill-in the docks in the centre of town and run a motorway through the city, Jacobs-style resistance stopped that, to everyone’s benefit.)

23

Chris Bertram 05.16.17 at 5:08 pm

@cranky, yes, that was the part of that book I was thinking of in the OP.

24

Stephen 05.16.17 at 5:10 pm

Re-reading the original post: I retract my suspicions about CB’s attitude to the Euro, obviously it is the same as mine and Michael Gove’s.

25

Chris Bertram 05.16.17 at 5:23 pm

… and Gordon Brown’s.

I’d rather have been in with the UK’s excellent euro-exemption deal rather than out (which will be a disaster). But I suspect that the EU medium-term now promises deeper Eurozone integration and possibly the loss of some of the eastern periphery. If rejoining requires the UK to adopt the euro, then it would be better to be in the EEA with Norway and Switzerland. That’s where I expect we’ll now end up, after a decade or more of self-harm on WTO rules or some such.

26

Manta 05.16.17 at 5:58 pm

About experts: would you have deferred to the expertise of doctors in the Middle Ages? Or to the expertize of Auguri during the Roman Empire?
Experts in actual sciences or medicine deserve to be taken seriously (and you should defer to their judgement on their fields). The reason is that we can see that science works, medicine works.
But economists?

27

AcademicLurker 05.16.17 at 6:17 pm

Manta@26: I had a whole rant prepared about how decades of economists dressing up their advocacy for the rich as Objective Science(TM) has ultimately corroded the public’s esteem for science as a whole, but I didn’t want to insult our hosts.

Also, I suspect that John Emerson already wrote that rant on this very blog years ago.

28

WLGR 05.16.17 at 6:40 pm

Since you mention Scott, this tension between Jacobs’ and reactionaries’ versions of anti-elitism reminds me of the equivalent tension in the anarcho-capitalist response to Scott’s criticisms of central planners in e.g. Seeing Like a State, in so many words the idea that Scott is just recapitulating Hayek or Mises. The important counterresponse is that neither the Hayekians contra Scott nor the Brexiteers contra Jacobs are actually striving in practice toward some radically decentralized ur-democratic utopia: the Mont Pèlerin Society and the subsequent neoliberal ideological project were conceived from the start as an almost quasi-Leninist top-down intellectual vanguard to seize political and cultural hegemony on behalf of capitalist markets, which by ideological sleight of hand doesn’t count as “planning”; similarly, national-chauvinist ideological projects from Brexit to literal Nazism channel what might otherwise be genuine rage against the very existence of an elite class into a sublimated struggle to define elite membership or non-membership based on immutable ethnonational affinity, which by ideological sleight of hand doesn’t count as “elitism”. To me this seems to be part of why, as many people have pointed out in many different contexts, our current mainstream ideological poles of neoliberalism and fascism complement each other so perfectly.

29

Shirley0401 05.16.17 at 7:19 pm

Bruce Wilder @ 14

Europe under the ill-named Peoples’ Party of grim technocratic centrists adopting the rictus grin of Tony Blair as an imitation populist appeal isn’t going to change that; they see their job as tightening the screws and that’s the job they will do.

I think this is probably true, and it’s a shame. I live in the US, and only have so much time for paying attention to the UK, but it seems an awful lot like Labor is currently doing everything it can do to torpedo Corbyn as fully and completely as possible, even at the cost of ceding even more ground to Tories and May, with whom they probably share as much in the way of core values as they do with JC.
The constituency of most Labor leaders seems, like most Democratic Party leaders here, to be certain sectors of the economy (and themselves and their party), rather than, you know… the people from whom they’d presumably like to be voted into office.
Their allegiance, as far as I can tell, is not even primarily the interests of actual people, at all. (Except, again, perhaps themselves.) I suppose it’s possible it once was, but most of them frankly seem so far gone I can easily imagine they don’t even realize the words they say don’t mean the things those words are taken by others to presumably mean.
What does “a healthy economy” mean? If you’re a regular person, it probably means something about quality of life, money in the bank, stable employment. If you’re an expert (or “expert”), it has to do with GDP and maybe inflation and maybe confidence levels of a certain subset of people.
I’m not an expert (or even an “expert”) about anything at all, but the moment I saw Trump as a real threat was when I realized HRC wasn’t going to back down from her insistence that the economy was doing fine. The implication, obvious to those of us who regularly interact with anyone who might conceivably vote for either Trump or HRC depending on anything either had done in the runup to the election (and who decide things like who becomes President), was that she was telling people their observations, their judgement, their lived experience, was simply wrong. That’s insulting, and they insulted her right back.
There’s a cartoon, somewhere, of an expert holding a chart or graph, insisting a building on fire couldn’t possibly be on fire, or a rocket flying overhead will never launch, because the numbers don’t add up. (But funny.)
When the sky is falling, and the falling-sky experts insist the conditions aren’t right for the sky to be falling, it’s natural for people to look for someone else to listen to.
Fool me once, &c.

30

John Quiggin 05.16.17 at 7:36 pm

Expanding on Engels and AcademicLurker, some subjects (those based on natural sciences) have experts, others (urban planning, anything military) have specialists. The specialists know lots of detail, which makes them sound like experts, but they don’t know any more than anybody else about the big questions in their field.

Economists and other social scientists are somewhere in between, but more towards the specialist end. Economists know a lot of things that non-economists don’t, but don’t (as a group) know anything about questions like whether Keynesian stabilization works, or what levels of tax and public spending should be,

31

Z 05.16.17 at 7:59 pm

Those who cannot read comments because they are in moderation are condemned to repeat them, so let me say that I am in substantial agreement with Sebastian H @5 and Mario @8 (the link he provides is an elaboration of the point I was trying to make about education).

On one small point, however, I believe I am in disagreement with the OP and several subsequent comments (e.g Neville Morley’s and Bruce Wilder’s): I don’t think the Euro as originally conceived and the current economic management of the Eurozone are best described as “government by the experts” in the way I would describe the Great Moderation™ or the ACA as “government by the experts” (I prefer “professional class” anyway). In the case of the Euro, it seems to me that the project was cultural and political from the outset (I remember that Henry dug up a quote of Schmidt to that effect) and that by now it is mainly a tool of political domination.

32

Mario 05.16.17 at 8:36 pm

JQ @30

Economists know a lot of things that non-economists don’t, but don’t (as a group) know anything about questions like whether Keynesian stabilization works, or what levels of tax and public spending should be,

The thing is that by phrasing the question this way, economists do not give much consideration to concrete outcomes for human beings. And that is the real, actual problem: treating people as if they were particles in some kind of field. That that approach makes sense from an intellectual point of view is fine with me, but when that collides with the real world, you end up doing things like laundring “people forced to leave the home towns they love” by the using the term “geographic mobility” (and then pretending it is a wonderful benchmark at which the nation should excel at). It should not be such a surprise that when experts engage in this kind of ignorance they get f-words (and worse) in return.

33

Howard Frant 05.16.17 at 9:13 pm

A naive American comment: I had the impression that the Euro was a political statement and that actual academic economists had a lot of reservations about it.

From the US, it’s odd to see Europe recreating the Articles of Confederation which, ahem, we got rid of in the eighteenth century.

34

Manta 05.16.17 at 9:27 pm

Expanding on Quiggin @30 comparison with military experts/specialists: I like the US arrangements, where the basic decision are explicitly political (and the generals are not supposed to comment on them), while the execution is left to the specialists
“War is too important a matter to be left to the military.”

35

Michael 05.16.17 at 9:32 pm

What seems to me missing in this discussion — and to a large degree in public life, both in the UK and US — is a strong, strongly expressed, and persuasive sense of public service, in government but elsewhere as well. True, many of the most single-minded utopianist experts feel themselves to be working in the public good, as do at least some of the most vocal populists. But my understanding of public service is that it requires a measure of humility that would mitigate some of the extremes on both sides, and enhance the sense of compromise, and of pragmatism, that were always such a strong part of, well, Pragmatism. In this respect Obama seemed to me to embody both a sense of public service and of pragmatism. A counsel of pessimism would reply that those qualities didn’t get him very far. A counsel of mild optimism, though, would say that he did often show how some expertise could be harnessed in the name of a more clear-sighted practicality, as embodied in the flawed ACA, which was still miles better than what was there before. And it would appear that just now — who could imagine? — that the stumbling Comey has become a beacon of (martyred) public service.

36

PatinIowa 05.16.17 at 10:25 pm

@Manta at 26: I’m with you on science.

But medicine ain’t science, at least not as practiced in the hospital I volunteer at.

It’s not as bad as economics, to be sure, but look at how old people die in the developed world. “Works,” is definitely not the word.

37

otpup 05.17.17 at 12:14 am

The distinction between experts in human/social sciences and the “real” sciences is not so bright and clear as one might think. Various scientific disciplines have serious evidence gathering problems and this often results in a corruption of the professional culture in terms of lowering standards of evidence (Gary Taubes highly detailed chronicling of this in nutrition and public health is enlightening, and disturbing, on this point). At least human sciences (except for econ probably) are conscious of the problem.

38

John Quiggin 05.17.17 at 12:41 am

@36 Medical specialists (in the usual sense) are often specialists in my sense of the term also. That’s particularly true of surgeons, AFAICT. They are experts at doing operations, but don’t have much of a basis for determining whether those operations actually do any good.

The whole Evidence Based Medicine fight can be seen as one of experts trying to invade the turf of specialists.

@37 and @32 Anything involving people is tricky. Research is one example of the general case.

39

JW Mason 05.17.17 at 4:13 am

I have to admit, I clicked on this half-expecting to find the opposite post — one downgrading Jacobs on the grounds that post-Brexit, skepticism toward experts is no longer wanted. Glad to find I was wrong.

40

Neville Morley 05.17.17 at 4:17 am

@Z #31 re Euro; yes, you’re right, no consensus of economists in favour of it, and definitely widespread opposition to the way it was actually implemented.

41

J-D 05.17.17 at 4:21 am

Economists know a lot of things that non-economists don’t, but don’t (as a group) know anything about questions like whether Keynesian stabilization works, or what levels of tax and public spending should be,

It seems to me that the answer to a question like ‘What should levels of tax and public spending be?’ depends on both factual considerations (what the effects will be of varying tax and public spending in various ways) and normative considerations. As a non-economist viewing economics from the outside, I think it likely that economists (or at least economists in the relevant subspecialty fields) know not everything but considerably more than I and other non-economists do about the likely effect of varying levels of tax and public spending and other such factual considerations, but I doubt that economists as a group have any deeper insight into the relevant normative considerations than non-economists as a group.

42

Raven Onthill 05.17.17 at 5:01 am

I think when we talk about the distrust of expertise, we quite rightly fear confidence games. A while back, on the 2016 election, I wrote:

When the crisis came, when we desperately needed to break up the big banks, return the bankruptcy system to something that allowed an honorable fresh start, and resolve the mortgage crisis in favor of the people whose homes were at risk, neither party was willing to do it. People were put out of their homes and left unemployed for years. Would you trust a ruler who allowed that? Why?

And of course there is Galbraith’s famous, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

There’s more to say about this, but, well, I’m not sure what it is yet.

43

Joseph Brenner 05.17.17 at 5:20 am

Jane Jacobs vs. the urban planning elite was clearly a case where the outsider-intellectual got it right. It’s just one case: if you really want to establish some general trend in populists vs. the experts, you’d need to look at more cases.

This gets to *the* central problem of our times: human beings are all in general weak reeds, and yet there are circumstances (social structures?) in which they do much better at evaluating information than others: Science works. Politics? Not so much.

We need functional mechanisms for evaluating communities of experts, so that the ones that generally know what they’re talking about come to be trusted and that the ones that aren’t are abandoned.

My impression, by the way, is that for some time now there’s been a reactionary movement in some architecture departments to try to defend Robert Moses’ reputation (He built all those parks! And he made the trains run on time– or maybe that was someone else). This is not exactly a rational argument, but if you find yourself tempted to take Jane Jacobs down a peg, you might want to consider the company you’re keeping.

Later gentrification of the West Village does not at all undercut Jane Jacobs achievement, if anything it vindicates it: if dense urban environments are so popular, then we should be building more of them, shouldn’t we? Then why are we still stuck with suburban car-first planning?

44

derrida derider 05.17.17 at 5:28 am

Without denying the overall argument about which is worse – the arrogance of experts or the ignorance of non-experts – it’s worth pointing out that politics really matters more than either.

A good example is the Euro. Most professional economists predicted its failure from the start (in fact the more neoliberal they were the more strident they were), and predicted it by the general mechanism by which it did in fact fail. But the politicians simply picked and chose their experts. Another example is austerity – “expansionary austerity” and an apocalyptic view of government debt were only ever the province of a minority of macroeconomists (and in most countries a small minority) – but again it suited politicians to pick and choose that minority.

What I am saying is that expertise or even modernism is not the big issue – the issue is who controls the popular memes.

45

Joseph Brenner 05.17.17 at 5:53 am

engels@18: “A good and amply-deserved takedown of St. Jane”
http://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2016/10/jane-jacobss-tunnel-vision/

I see lots of sneers and jibes, but I’m not seeing a killer takedown: She was white and not marxist, and Greenwich Village didn’t stop changing after she helped save Washington Square Park… is there anything else?

Just starting at random, in the middle:

“Her TED talk–quotable style has kept her in the public consciousness …”

Jane Jacobs had the complete opposite of a quotable style, I’ve looked through her stuff looking for Good Quotes, there’s nothing there like a extractable sound-byte.

“She was also chair of the Committee to Save the West Village, one of the few times when a neighbourhood managed to reverse its slum designation (hint: not a black neighbourhood).”

Oh my god, the fiends. How dare they take advantage of not being black.

“And if she did, it was motivated by a NIMBY-ish concern for her square, her sidewalk and her neighbourhood.”

Ah, she was just a NIMBY! (That’s why she generalized from her experience and pushed back against the Urban Renewal plauge everywhere.)

“Kanigel points to Herb Gans’s review in Commentary that named Jacobs’s mistake ‘the physical fallacy.’ It lets her ‘ignore the social, cultural, and economic factors that contribute to vitality or dullness.’ Ignoring them allows Jacobs to identify the characteristics of healthy neighbourhoods in formal terms: 1) mixed residential, commercial and industrial buildings; 2) short, pedestrian blocks; 3) mixed old and new buildings at various rents; and 4) enough density to create self-sustaining local businesses.”

Well yeah, that’s a reasonable summary of Jacobsianism. Is it supposed to be wrong? (And it’s “formal”, and there’s something *wrong* with that, I guess).

“She seems to have never really accepted that the suburban myth was part of American culture …”

What is this supposed to mean? Yeah, it’s part of the culture, but it’s misguided, which is the point. Criticizing suburbia without criticizing suburbia would be quite a trick…

“She never dared to question whether we must necessarily make money by providing housing.”

Yes, if only she’d gone full-on communist, then we could admire her purity and complete lack of public influence. Clearly Lev Bratishenko has never really accepted that capitialism is part of American culture.

46

MFB 05.17.17 at 8:28 am

It seems to me that what we have is not a tyranny of experts, but a tyranny of “experts”. By and large, to be really successful as an economist you have to agree with the ruling-class consensus; that was Keynesian between 1945 and 1975, so Keynesian economists were predominant back then, and because Keynesianism has something to do with the real world, much of what they said made sense (although much even of people like Galbraith needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt because of the dominance of a political agenda). Once the ruling-class went over to Neoliberalism, that was pretty much the end for economists as experts, because you had to continually pretend that black was white, good bad, up down and that two legs were good, but one leg was better. And then provide justifications for sawing that leg off and selling it, for the greater good.

It seems to me that science isn’t exactly the same, but there are disturbing parallels; anywhere there’s a truckload of money to be made out of telling lies or suppressing facts, lies tend to get told, and facts suppressed, in academic papers, sometimes with the tacit or even explicit compliance of the publications concerned. And this process seems to be increasing.

Anyway, I’m a bit scared of people appealing to science as a source of validation for their own awesome expertise; perhaps I read too much Althusser when I was little.

47

Chris Bertram 05.17.17 at 8:40 am

Experience suggests that there is no writing one can do here that is so clear that everyone will understand it, and no way of making everything so explicit that some commenter doesn’t fail to get the post. “Experts” is here a sociological category and it is an open question to what extent such people have genuine expertise. People who note that economists were sceptical about the euro are correct, but saying this is irrelevant to the sense of the OP since the pushers of the euro (senior European politicians and officials) , “technocrats” if you prefer, still stood in relation to the general population as “experts” who had the pretence of seeing the good better than that general population did. In that respect, the similarities to Moses and his ilk are clear. A longer post might also have said something about the BSE scandal as damaging to the prestige of “experts” and, indeed science. None of which is to deny that there is genuine expertise. Indeed I believe the claims made by most economists that Brexit will be a disaster.

48

Guano 05.17.17 at 9:17 am

Jane Jacobs was fighting against trends that, at the time, were seen as inevitable. My experience of campaigning about transport issues in the UK in the 1970s was that increased car ownership, suburbanisation and the redesign of urban areas to accommodate increased motor traffic were seen as inevitable trends. These trends had, de facto, become policy but nobody would take the responsibility for this policy.

At Public Inquiries into road-building schemes in London in the 1970s, objectors were not allowed to question the traffic projections, which were the basis for the claim that such road-building schemes were necessary, because the projections were government policy. When someone challenged politicians about this, they would say that the experts had said that it was inevitable that traffic would grown and have to be accommodated. When someone challenged the “experts” who produced the traffic forecasts they would say that they were based on continuation of current policies about accommodation of traffic growth (and there usually was an obscure footnote saying that): but nobody was taking responsibility for a policy of redesigning urban areas to accommodate motor traffic, because this was seen as an inevitable trend and those who questioned it were seen as Luddites.

Ditto globalisation. Ditto the Euro. Ditto nuclear power. Ditto many other high modernist projects.

The issue is that the shelf-life of these high modernist projects is coming to and end and difficult questions are emerging. Thus the finger-pointing at “experts” who, apparently didn’t warn us.

49

Mario 05.17.17 at 9:35 am

CB @47

Brexit will be a disaster from many important points of views, but some people will disagree with that on the basis that they want X so badly that they are willing to pay the price. X being that mysterious thing you want to find out by talking to the “people currently tempted by the populist right”. I fear that you are not going to like it.

50

MisterMr 05.17.17 at 9:50 am

@Chris Bertram 47
“Experts” is here a sociological category

Then the correct term would be “public intellectual”, not “expert”, and we could thus see this present moment as a battle between two groups of public intellectuals, one with technocratic pretenses and the other with populist pretenses.

I think that framing the story in terms of “experts” means already accepting one of the two narratives, the same way that accepting that one group is made of “technocrats” already accepts the narrative that their choices are made because of purely technical reasons (and not for class interest for example).

@Bruce Wilder 14
Capitalis by itself is an extractive system (like any system that has an elite and a lower class, since in the end is always the lower class that produces stuff), I don’t see what experts, technocrats or complexity have to do with it.
The EU didn’t create any complexity that is now preventing brexit, and the EU is not trying to force the UK in, rather it’s trying to kick it out. The problem of brexit is that it could work only as long as it gives an advantage to UK’s exports while reducing imports, but of course this would be a problem for everybody else so the UK faces other 27 nations with opposing interests, that now aren’t bound by the EU treaties to play nice with the UK. Blaming this on technocrats or experts is a way to hide the head under the sand.

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Guano 05.17.17 at 10:21 am

Chris Bertram – OP

“One hopes that experts might learn the lessons of this, and recognize that Brexit is also the result of a loss of confidence for which they (we?) bear responsibility too and that continuing to push for utopian schemes without making a connection with ordinary people will only promote the populist reaction.”

Yes, I agree. However my feeling is that experts no longer push for utopian schemes. Experts understand that we the world faces a series of wicked problems for which there are no utopian solutions.

The choices that the general population are permitted to make amount to alternative utopian solutions, or alternative sets of people who claim to have their interests at heart. Brexit is as much as grand utopian project as globalisation or ever-closer European union, but the general population only gets the opportunity to choose between these dubious alternatives.

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Peter T 05.17.17 at 10:24 am

“@Bruce Wilder 14
Capitalis[m] by itself is an extractive system (like any system that has an elite and a lower class, since in the end is always the lower class that produces stuff), I don’t see what experts, technocrats or complexity have to do with it.”

Side issue, but in fact more complex class systems are, in general, more productive. So it’s not JUST the “lower class that produces stuff”. Relatedly, more complex class systems also produce more misery (they are more productive, but have more paupers). And when complex class systems degrade, as Bruce says, they first become more extractive, then suddenly much less so as the top disappears.

That’s the historical pattern, but it’s so broad as not be to be a guide in these times – could be years, could be decades, could do a Quiggin and never happen.

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engels 05.17.17 at 12:48 pm

more complex class systems are, in general, more productive. So it’s not JUST the “lower class that produces stuff”

That doesn’t follow (alternatively: the existence of a social surplus makes it possible for some to live without productive effort).

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chris s 05.17.17 at 12:50 pm

AFAICT most people arguing for Remain did so on pragmatic grounds and were fairly explicit in saying so – they weren’t necessarily saying that the EU was *not* a huge beurocracy that required significant reform, but rather at this time voting Leave was worse than voting Remain. So it was quite possible to vote Leave while still being sceptical about the political elites who were running the European project.

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Val 05.17.17 at 1:01 pm

Joseph Brenner @ 45
Everything you said + the bit about her son had reading difficulties, so what could she possibly have to say about town planning?

But maybe you’re not familiar with the engels of CT? Anything that hints of feminism or women getting above themselves, he’s on it.

56

engels 05.17.17 at 1:03 pm

Brexit is as much as grand utopian project as globalisation

Maybe for some (?) but for most J think it’s more about returning to a lost golden age of blue passports, British jobs for British workers and public hangings.

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MisterMr 05.17.17 at 1:24 pm

@Peter T 52
“more complex class systems are, in general, more productive.”

Really? I think the feudal system was a more complex class system than the current one, but it was far less productive.
As it was much less productive, it was also less extractive/inequal, because the minimum share of production that had to go into subsistence for the lower class was higher.
This doesn’t mean that it was less unjust, it was by far more unjust, but in a different way.

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engels 05.17.17 at 3:55 pm

Anything that hints of feminism or women getting above themselves, he’s on it.

No I’m not, and that borders on libel (or would do if I wasn’t writing under a pseudonym). As a response to a link to detailed critique of Jacobs, it is profoundly stupid and unpleasant.

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Lemmy caution 05.17.17 at 5:52 pm

Not sure that Jacobs anti urban effirts efforts were all that racist

Urban renual means negro removal
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=T8Abhj17kYU

The Fillmore district in sf is an example of a particularly bad urban renual project in a predominantly black neighborhood. It was a huge mistake.

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engels 05.17.17 at 6:09 pm

… “What Jacobs valued — small blocks, cobblestone streets, mixed-uses, local character — have become the gentrifiers’ ideal. This is not the struggling city of working class and ethnic groups, but an idealised image that plays to middle-class tastes.” In the absence of true diversity in income and ownership, a simulacrum can be easily substituted. In my “up-and-coming” neighborhood in Washington, the superficially eclectic mix of bars and restaurants are owned by the same developer. Zukin points out that Jacobs’ fondness for buildings ran roughshod over the actual people who made up the neighborhood. A line from the excellent gentrification documentary, Flag Wars, set in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, makes the point clearly: “I just feel bad for the houses,” intones a somber yuppie, as he gazes upon the dilapidated buildings in which his neighbors reside. Moved by this sympathy, he and his cohort of gentrifiers pressure their poorer neighbors by anonymously reporting housing code violations. …

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bruce wilder 05.17.17 at 6:47 pm

MisterMr @ 50, 57

Feudalism emerged in the long period between the end of the Dark Ages and the High Middle Ages as an evolutionary economic competition between roving bandits and stationary bandits. Whatever the shares may have been of a meagre output verging on famine, the banditry tended to severely handicap the productive capacity of the system as a whole. Opportunities to economize so to speak on the costs of that handicap drove the dynamics of feudalism’s evolution. This should not be overlooked, anymore than the role of science and technology and, especially since 1880, professional management in a corporate framework, matched by the vast public infrastructure of the regulatory social welfare state, in organizing the modern political economy, should be overlooked. The modern class system of developed world economies, for all the egalitarian ideology, is enormously complex and, of course, functions on an unprecedented scale, as the planet is now inhabited by several thousand million people.

engels @ 53

See above.

Of course, a primary surplus in food (and, more generally, energy) is necessary to enable anyone to work at doing anything other than producing food (and energy). Even leisure.

The deep problem is that control is not an equilibrium phenomenon. There’s no end point, no stasis, no stable end of history where control and hierarchy are optimally traded off with anarchy or chaos to reach peak egalitarianism or peak hierarchy. That’s hard to wrap one’s head around apparently. Wait long enough and hierarchy will be the implacable enemy of progress and efficiency as well as justice and you won’t have to wait long, I’ll wager, because as the Lord said, all power corrupts.

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bruce wilder 05.17.17 at 7:01 pm

Where economists as experts are concerned, the sociological category, with its embedded tension between the reality of expertise and the ritual pretence of expertise, does not go far enough, imho. We need to take notice of the anthropological category and significance for the political culture.

Economists as specialists doing research may be genuine technical experts in their specialized area of research, but neoclassical economics as a doctrine — the core of economics as it is taught to college students and as an engine of the rhetoric propounded on op-ed pages — is more akin to a religious dogma than a body of knowledge, and the role economists play on the public stage is often more like that of the priests of a civic religion than as technical experts.

The sociological interest in the gap between scientific efficacy and ceremonial fulfillment of role expectations can apply to what a medical doctor does and generate useful insight. But, it isn’t a good fit to the role of the economist as priestly mandarin invoking the authority of both common and esoteric doctrines of no actual relevance. The economist might as well be a member of the Roman college of augurs.

The Euro has been a tool of economic domination and extraction of an often cruel and extreme kind, leverage by which a neoliberal regime in control of European institutions demolishes the primitive social welfare and labor protections of southern Europe and enables a fire sale of public resources. The language and vocabulary of neoclassical economics does not allow clear acknowledgement let alone discussion of the working let alone merits of this policy. It is all slotted into the dubious idea that increasing wage and labor “flexibility” is a path to greater efficiency in a system of markets (a system of markets that doesn’t actually exist in our world of large bureaucratic business enterprise). So, left neoliberals, who are relied on to provide “expert” critiques within the mainstream discourse, talk about irrelevancies while the main business of institutional reform is forced. To fatally handicap the ability of the public to understand and debate public policy is the main function of economics as a dogma and an engine of legitimating rhetoric employed by a priestly caste.

If Brexit is ultimately a disaster, it will be in part because the economists are not genuine experts capable, in the role of technocrats, of rolling out an alternative regime of regulated trade or routine capital controls or migration control. They won’t know how to advise on organizing cross-border inspection, certification and customs collection, so it won’t get set up in a timely fashion and the trucks will stack up at the Channel. They will not have any idea of how to manage tariffs, just as economists — at least the main body of non-specialists — are completely ignorant of the intricacies of corporate property ownership or the controlled extension of bank credit. It isn’t part of a “market economy” to have all these institutions, public and private, administering and managing.

On a more profound level, the economists will not be able to help anyone imagine a better future realistically. They refuse to supply a vocabulary or framework that refers to any thing people can observe or experience. Thinking thru how Britain might earn its way in the world is not going to be on anyone’s agenda. Our economists are the heirs to the winners of the last war, the one fought to resolve the problems of economic development that coincided with the two world wars, but our economists have only the vaguest idea of what those problems were, or how present institutional frameworks were designed to solve them. We will keep solving those now obsolete problems until the problems of our time unexpectedly overwhelm us.

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Chris Bertram 05.17.17 at 7:16 pm

@engels, it is reassuring that you (and Jacobin) can examine any question and arrive so easily at the answer you first thought of. Re a specific charge in the article you link to, that of

“Lambasting “planners” while ignoring the far more powerful real estate developers,”

I’d note both that it is far from clear that Moses was less powerful than real estate developers and also that the documentary I referenced in the OP had quite a lot to say about those same developers and their financial interest in the kind of development Moses pushed.

64

engels 05.17.17 at 8:21 pm

I’m not defending Moses or suggesting Jacobs was all bad but for context this is what slum clearance looks like in London today:

For everything that’s wrong with London’s housing and built environment, look to the Heygate Estate, and to what will replace it. Completed in 1974, its 1,200 homes housed more than 3,000 people in spacious, well-lit rooms with all the modern conveniences. Two decades later, its broken lifts, broken lights, piss-soaked corridors and violent crime came to signify everything wrong with the post-war approach to social housing and urban design. … Many of the residents mourn its destruction, even while admitting its flaws […] The Heygate Estate occupied a large site next to a major transport interchange in an inner London borough, and its residents had the temerity to remain poor while the land they lived on became more valuable. When people talk about the “social cleansing” of London, this is it. The classism and snobbery directed towards brutalism (but only when occupied by certain groups – see: the Barbican) compounded the Heygate Estate’s fate. Read through the stories from former residents, archived on Heygate Was Home, for proof that it wasn’t always considered a slum, or an eyesore, by the people who mattered.

Also #NotAllHighModernists

https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/central-hill-community/

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M Caswell 05.17.17 at 8:37 pm

Jacobs loved Greenwich Village and the North End. She wrote analyses of some things that made them lovable. But this was her error: under capitalism, no places should be loved.

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Collin Street 05.17.17 at 9:34 pm

The essence of a capitalist market is that only the most remunerative uses have a prospect of being profitable: any inputs that are in short supply will be bid up by people planning to engage in the most profitable use so as to offer them a minimal profit, and for anything less profitable than that the economics just don’t work.

Only projects that envisage the most profitable use will advance to actualisation. This isn’t a failure of “foresight”, and can’t be fixed by better-informed rich people: foresight doesn’t fix the fact that competition sucks profit out of an enterprise and that the most-remunerative project is the only one with profit left. It’s inherent in the bid nature of market economies. The boom-and-bust cycle is self-initiating.

The market cannot deliver us the communities we want.

67

J-D 05.17.17 at 10:07 pm

The deep problem is that control is not an equilibrium phenomenon. There’s no end point, no stasis, no stable end of history where control and hierarchy are optimally traded off with anarchy or chaos to reach peak egalitarianism or peak hierarchy.

That’s not a problem, that’s a liberation. Although admittedly:

That’s hard to wrap one’s head around apparently.

68

BenK 05.17.17 at 11:41 pm

It’s great to see someone wrestling with this.

69

Sebastian H 05.18.17 at 1:15 am

The insight that people over time might have at least plausibly rational reasons to have learned to distrust experts seems like a key first step in hopefully getting past that. Your post provides a good start.

70

JimV 05.18.17 at 3:36 am

Nils Bohr: “An expert is someone who has made every possible mistake in a narrow field.”

Which I read as, we learn by trial and error, and if we do so with a good memory (implied above as I take it), we will not repeat past errors.

By that definition, there are no experts unless a field is completely understood (for all practical purposes), as in, say, calculus, or numerical integration of differential equations, or the chemical properties of the known elements. In which case many who might be called experts are only advanced specialists. Experts who keep making mistakes are not experts.

However, Einstein said, “All mathematicians make mistakes; good mathematicians find them.” So that adds a little leeway, depending on the time limit for finding mistakes.

71

Val 05.18.17 at 4:06 am

engels @ 58
Obviously I wasn’t being entirely serious (or ‘it’s a joke Joyce’)

However if you’re wanting to sue me perhaps I should be more serious. Apparently there is a way that you can look at the history of comments from people on CT, but I don’t know how to do it, so I can’t produce evidence. My impression, however, is that anything said by a ‘middle class woman’ is pretty well automatically suspect to you – that is, it’s not what such people say, but who they are, that discredits them in your eyes. This was also shown in the article you linked to, which wasn’t about Jacobs’ ideas so much as who she was (including her implied failures as a mother!).

This coming from someone whose namesake was a very wealthy middle class man, leads one to wonder, what’s the operative factor that’s being criticised here …

72

Etv13 05.18.17 at 6:06 am

It doesn’t strike me as very useful to just say we should distrust “experts,” whether as a sociolgical category or otherwise. Surely it’s the experts, and not the populists, who are right about, e.g., vaccinations, climate change, and voter fraud.

73

reason 05.18.17 at 7:38 am

It seems to me that there is a lot of confusion about the Euro and the EU. They are distinct things.

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reason 05.18.17 at 7:40 am

The trouble with the Euro of course is that it is in principle voluntary but those with the most reason to leave it, can least afford to. It might be better for everyone if instead of Greece leaving, Germany did.

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lurker 05.18.17 at 7:42 am

‘If Brexit is ultimately a disaster, it will be in part because the economists are not genuine experts capable, in the role of technocrats, of rolling out an alternative regime of regulated trade or routine capital controls or migration control. They won’t know how to advise on organizing cross-border inspection, certification and customs collection, so it won’t get set up in a timely fashion and the trucks will stack up at the Channel.’ (bruce wilder, 62)
Most experts do not actually claim to be gods, able to work miracles, so blaming them for not delivering the impossible is a bit harsh. Especially when the possible (EEA) is ruled out by the very non-experts setting policy.

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engels 05.18.17 at 9:37 am

So the fact that I Iinked to a critique of Jane Jacobs by Sharon Zukin means I must hate middle-class women but the fact my screen name refers to Friedrich Engels means I must have no problem with middle-class men. Hope the PhD’s going well!

77

bianca steele 05.18.17 at 12:27 pm

@18

Jacobs apparently found that the Philadelphia slums of 1955 were “full of life”, like all poor people. Though do we even know she was looking at a slum, and not a plain old working class neighborhood? She wanted people to live in their traditional ethnic neighborhoods, and for herself liked neighborhoods that felt like old-style small town Main Streets (at least to her, at the top end of the neighborhood in terms of both income and education), but disparaged the small town (at least the way it feels to a young person or one not at the top in those things). Fair enough, but this kind of Impressionism, what the same article calls what a “Victorian gentleman scientist” used to do, is not actually science. (And given the chance, Jacobs might well have set herself as much against the “scientistic” as the “expert,” an option not conceivable in the 19th century.”

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Z 05.18.17 at 12:34 pm

@Etv13

Surely it’s the experts, and not the populists, who are right about, e.g., vaccinations, climate change, and voter fraud.

Yes, highly trained professionals with extensive experience are competent in their field whereas ignorant, bombastic populists are ignorant and bombastic. One can believe this and at the same time and without contradiction believe that the policy choices pushed by these highly trained and competent professionals have benefited and continue to benefit mainly themselves to the detriment of less educated, less economically dynamic segments of the population. One can, for instance, believe at the same time that EU policies are slowly but surely tearing several European societies apart and that Brexit is a terrible idea pushed for and implemented by careless idiots.

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Manta 05.18.17 at 2:32 pm

Krugman on the “experts” (or technocrats) at the helm of EU:

“I call foul. I know from technocrats; sometimes I even play one myself. And these people – the people who bullied Europe into adopting a common currency, the people who are bullying both Europe and the United States into austerity -aren’t technocrats. They are, instead, deeply impractical romantics.”

http://www.chron.com/opinion/outlook/article/Romantic-views-threaten-Europe-Paul-Krugman-2281150.php

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engels 05.18.17 at 3:05 pm

Thanks Manta. I was going to mention Krugman’s polemics against the ‘policy entrepreneur’ from Peddling Prosperity earlier. Running together genuine academic or professional expertise (however problematic that may be in various cases) with outright political hackery (not to mention left-wing anti-elitism with nationalism/racism/etc) as many people here do only helps the Right’s agenda imsho.

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Ronan(rf) 05.18.17 at 3:14 pm

“One can believe this and at the same time and without contradiction believe that the policy choices pushed by these highly trained and competent professionals have benefited and continue to benefit mainly themselves to the detriment of less educated, less economically dynamic segments of the population. “

This an argument similar to one made by Richard Reeves, who has a new book coming out on the topic

https://www.brookings.edu/book/dream-hoarders/

that might be of interest.

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engels 05.18.17 at 3:37 pm

It’s a bit frustrating how often comments get silently deleted by the filter now, especially if they contain links. Anyway, I wanted to echo Manta and Neville by pointing to Simon Wren Lewis’s blogs on ‘mediamacro’ (shan’t include a link this time…)

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Mario 05.18.17 at 3:57 pm

Z @78

But what do you do when you love your society and the smart options are gone? From that point of view, letting the EU continue to tear it apart doesn’t look like a smart option, either. Brexit is, in a way, a rational choice, as it at least has half a chance in hell of maybe, you know, perhaps by accident, preserving that which the Brexit voters cherished without being a complete wreck. On that axis, Remain provided no hope.

I’ve seen no discussion on how to preserve societies within the EU, or even the ecosystems in which people just feel comfortable and at home. Quite the opposite, whoever gives such a thing legitimacy is normally considered far right, which leads us to that uncomfortable spectacle of the left rallying against the electoral choices of predominantly poor people.

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Sebastian H 05.18.17 at 4:12 pm

Ok Krugman, but do we get to call people who advocated NAFTA/EU trade pacts for twenty years but assumed relatively quick adjustment times for affected workers and therefore didn’t bother spending any political time/capital on them till about five or eight years ago “technocrats”? Do we get to notice that our successes at their expense while talking about quick adjustments might sound like outright and self interested “expert” lies to them?

Krugman really seems not to understand how he personally, as one of the most influential trade economists of the period, fed into the problem. He was right about the average GDP gains but dead wrong about how the lower and middle classes would (fail to) profit. He pooh poohed the adjustment costs and time in favor of plowing forward. He now hangs his defense on caveats that he never put time or energy behind.

I did it too–though obviously I was never important. But understanding how that dynamic reflected our own self interest, and how our blind spots plus motivated self interest can look like “expert” lies is REALLY important to understanding the current political dynamic.

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Ronan(rf) 05.18.17 at 4:55 pm

“Ok Krugman, but do we get to call people who advocated NAFTA/EU trade pacts for twenty years but assumed relatively quick….”

Oh give me a break, Sebastian. The fact that every policy has distributional consequences isnt proof that ‘technocrats’ have failed (particularly considering most experts pointed out these consequences in advance)
You absolutely have not made the case that ‘the lower and middle classes’ have failed to profit from trade. (Rather than some sectors of the economy. For many reasons. One of the least important being trade)
The fact that someone, somewhere, has lost out due to policy X is not an argument against experts/technocrats/whatever.

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bianca steele 05.18.17 at 4:58 pm

From the quote @79: “But the fact remains that those visions are driven by dreams about the way things should be rather than by a cool assessment of the way things really are.”

It’s not obvious to me that this is a useful distinction. Is it a bad thing to have dreams about the way things should be? Is it not a valid criticism (Jacobs’ criticism, I’d say) of some bad technocracy to say that it doesn’t think enough about the way things should be?

It seems the distinction is really just “people who are right (IME) are real technocrats; people who are wrong are ‘romantics’ (which is the fashionable bad thing to call people who have that kind of wrong view)”. I like Krugman and his politics and so I’m reluctant to say that. But the alternative, that he’s describing the correct way to distinguish good science from bad, doesn’t seem especially helpful.

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novakant 05.18.17 at 5:53 pm

Quoting Krugman to disparage experts is pretty hilarious.

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etv13 05.18.17 at 6:28 pm

Z@78: I think there’s an important distinction to be drawn between critiquing policies on whatever specific grounds seem good to you, and broadly devaluing “experts” and expertise.

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Guy Harris 05.18.17 at 7:24 pm

Z:

@Etv13

Surely it’s the experts, and not the populists, who are right about, e.g., vaccinations, climate change, and voter fraud.

Yes, highly trained professionals with extensive experience are competent in their field whereas ignorant, bombastic populists are ignorant and bombastic. One can believe this and at the same time and without contradiction believe that the policy choices pushed by these highly trained and competent professionals have benefited and continue to benefit mainly themselves to the detriment of less educated, less economically dynamic segments of the population.

One should, however, perhaps speak of policy choices for particular issues.

For example, I’m not sure the policies pushed by actual experts for voter fraud in the US – i.e., it’s an extremely rare phenomenon, and most of the policies pushed by those who claim it’s a Real Problem do a far better job of voter suppression than voter fraud prevention, so we shouldn’t make voting more difficult – “have benefited and continue to benefit mainly themselves to the detriment of less educated, less economically dynamic segments of the population.”

Policies pushed by experts for economic integration might fit that description better.

As Etv13 said, “It doesn’t strike me as very useful to just say we should distrust “experts,” whether as a sociolgical category or otherwise.” – there’s “the experts in favor of {some particular policy}” and there’s “experts”, and, while for some policy, one can argue that one should distrust “the experts” promoting that policy, the notion that, for all policies one should distrust “the experts” seems a bit unwise. Etv13 then gave some examples of cases where those opposed to the experts are the ones who should be distrusted.

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bruce wilder 05.18.17 at 7:31 pm

lurker @ 75: Most experts do not actually claim to be gods, able to work miracles, so blaming them for not delivering the impossible is a bit harsh. Especially when the possible (EEA) is ruled out by the very non-experts setting policy.

The EEA isn’t substantively different from being in the EU from the standpoint of the EU’s “four freedoms”. The fundamental problem is that the EU, as presently conceived, disables democratic governance at the nation-state level of the movement of capital, people (aka labour), goods and services. The conventional, “neoclassical economics” ideology of mainstream economics embraces and endorses that kind of laissez faire policy, in a tradition that stretches back at least to the 18th century.

This embrace of what used to be called laissez faire is fundamental for many economists, a deep root of their political worldview and it has profound effects in shaping and elevating core doctrines of economics. As a matter of personal political attitude, many economists are deeply hostile to any notion of collective action to deliberately shape and manage the economic system. The Ricardian argument that comparative advantage makes “free trade” mutually beneficial and a globally desirable public policy has been elevated to the status of holy writ. Industrial policy is scorned. Monetary policy that is as passive and deflationary as possible is endorsed. Absolutely crazy notions, like the uncritical embrace of the “efficient markets hypothesis” as a fact of financial markets, are defended. And, so on.

It is not, in fact, a crazy notion, that a nation-state might usefully govern the movement of capital, goods, services and people. Nor, absent this dominant political ideology of mainstream economics, is it crazy that economists should make themselves experts in the technical details of, say the regulation of bank lending, deposit insurance, tariffs, industrial policies, agricultural policy, the mechanisms of financial markets and so on. In fact, specialist economists do sometimes make themselves expert in such topics, which in turn enables the practical training of technocrats (in much the same way as the academic study of biological sciences enables the practical training of physicians). But, the mainstream of the discipline is ideologically hostile to integrating their insights into the conventionally shared worldview of how the political economy operates as a system and this hostility handicaps the practice of policy economics at the highest levels. There’s a synergy I guess you could call it between the laissez faire ideology of mainstream economics and the neoliberal idealization of the EU around the four freedoms.

Somewhat ironically, the EU does manage a vast array of “technical” standards, mandating harmonization across the EU, and fake news (some of it written by Boris Johnson) about the standards setting process and its requirements and constraints played a part in propagandizing hostility to the EU in Britain.

But, the marginalization of economists qua experts, who maybe think Brexit could be a mixed opportunity and not an unmitigated disaster, starts with the core ideology of mainstream economics and its marginalization of those who would advocate public management of the economy.

reason @ 74: the Euro of course . . . is in principle voluntary

In strictest EU theory, it is an obligation of all member states to eventually accede. (Britain got an explicit exemption.) In practice, countries like Sweden, which does not have such an exemption, but have seen the carnage, have elected to delay indefinitely, but remain theoretically obligated.

On your allied point, yes, the responsible thing to do, from the point of view of undoing the damage done by the Euro in the least damaging way, would be to expel Germany from the Eurozone. Greece cannot withdraw unilaterally, and even if it were to get permission and support to withdraw in an orderly way, it would be at the cost of continuing much of the very pain it would be trying to escape.

Manta @ 79, engels @ 80

Krugman seems a typically untrustworthy narrator of who is a hack and who is not. This is general with Krugman, but has been acute with regard to the Euro. He loves the IMF’s (now former Chief Economist) Olivier Blanchard, who is not incidentally a fellow MIT PhD, and of course, on behalf of the IMF as Troika member, Blanchard dutifully preached “there is no alternative” to Greece. When speaking as a professional (rather than priest) in more purely technical terms, Blanchard’s analyses tend to run so far toward esoteric High Theory as to approach the nonsensical.

What Sebastian H @ 84 says about Krugman is true enough as well. Krugman may bill himself as a social “liberal” in the American sense, but he is a conservative economist, who embraces both the conventional ideology of mainstream economics and fellow members of the club. (The partisan railing against know-nothing Republicans and the wonky fresh water / salt water feud confuses people.)

The 2012 Guardian profile of Robert Mundell by Greg Palast is far more accurate about the nature of the Euro as an economic policy, a nature Krugman studiously ignores or scorns as somehow an unintended consequence of mistaken understanding.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jun/26/robert-mundell-evil-genius-euro

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Ben Philliskirk 05.18.17 at 7:53 pm

The whole problem with Jacobs’ argument in ‘The Death and Life…’, and many others of similar ilk that have appeared since, is that they assume that the likes of Robert Moses were operating as intellectual supervillains in some kind of political and socio-economic void. There were many reasons to oppose urban planning developments in the post-war era, but it must be acknowledged that planners acted within a context affected both by rapid capitalist socio-economic development and by political demands for infrastructure such as housing, roads and industry.

The arguments of many opponents of planning tended to assume that the ‘communities’ they were defending were self-evident, longstanding and unchanging, whereas the truth was that many were quite recent and were in a constant state of flux due to pressures outside of the local population’s control. In effect, though they helped to change the intellectual climate around modernism and urban planning, the likes of Jacobs did effectively pave the way for ‘Nimbyism’ and disabled much collective action by limiting it to the conservation of the physical environment. Jacobs’ constant insistence on ‘common sense’ solutions to difficult and deepseated problems disguised most of the underlying reasons for change in urban life.

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Z 05.18.17 at 9:01 pm

@Mario

But what do you do when you love your society and the smart options are gone?

Just to be clear, I am deeply critical of the policies pushed by the professional class and enacted on its behalf. I am, for instance, very critical of my President and his recent cabinet. But I think one should be fair to political opponents: they are very talented professionals with considerable expertise in their relevant fields and I trust them to be quite competent at designing and implementing the preferred policies of their constituency.

So what do you do? Well, as I wrote earlier, I think what you do is rather unglamorous and mundane: you build an opposition. In fact, I believe “how to preserve societies within the EU, or even the ecosystems in which people just feel comfortable and at home” is an excellent starting point.

(There is a wrinkle in all this, in that I think the precise question of EU and Eurozone policies, while obviously germane to this discussion of expertise in politics, also does not reduce to it and contains a purely cultural dimension that it would be wrong to ignore, but that’s for another discussion.)

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engels 05.18.17 at 10:36 pm

Krugman may bill himself as a social “liberal” in the American sense, but he is a conservative economist, who embraces both the conventional ideology of mainstream economics and fellow members of the club

Okay. I might have said ‘orthodox’ rather than ‘conservative’ but I think got that from the pop books and eg the swingeing attacks on eg Galbraith (for being a ‘belle lettrist’ or some such). I’m not defending his views, just think it’s inaccurate to lump people like him in with the architects of the Euro. Maybe a better example would be Stiglitz—another card-carrying expert who was polemicising against the Washington Consensus for years.

Iow: I think there’s a difference between good faith academic representatives of a fundamentally flawed field and the out-and-out opportunists who provide intellectual cover for things like austerity.

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floopmeister 05.19.17 at 12:49 am

bruce wilder 05.16.17 at 3:58 pm

Bonus points for mentioning Tainter! :)

Overall, the Tainter thesis runs like this: Elites, including the elite-supporting expert and managerial classes, are fed by extraction from below. As long as expertise can be applied to increase productivity below, this can be a good deal for everyone. But, even after the growth of productivity below slows or reverses, the imperative to extract in order to feed the elite and its experts, continues. If the experts find an innovative way to again increase productivity below, the situation can be saved, but if the experts can find nothing better in response to systematic problems and environmental challenges than to tighten the screws, well then . . . . secular stagnation or collapse follows.

That is one way of reading it, although you can also read it through a Malthusian/ complex systems/thermodynamic lens as well, which for me is the much more interesting way to approach his theory. Less political economy… more clearly complexity-focussed (in the Santa Fe sense of the concept).

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Peter T 05.19.17 at 2:24 am

I can see how someone can be an expert on, say, the immune system and so well-placed to advise on immunisation. I can see (and indeed know) people who are expert on the design of tariff systems, and so would be useful if one wished to implement or change one.

I can’t see how anyone could possibly be an expert in the same sense on what other people want, or on the welfare of a whole set of societies, or on how people like their cities to be. If you hand over the task of implementing your collective desires to someone, that person is by definition a politician.

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bianca steele 05.19.17 at 2:58 am

Krugman may bill himself as a social “liberal” in the American sense, but he is a conservative economist,

Whether his theory is best categorized as conservative or orthodox, I believe Krugman bills himself politically as an economic liberal, and Sebastian above criticizes him as such.

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Z 05.19.17 at 7:42 am

@etv13 “I think there’s an important distinction to be drawn between critiquing policies on whatever specific grounds seem good to you, and broadly devaluing “experts” and expertise.”

I don’t know if you realize this, but that is precisely what I have been arguing for in this thread: carefully distinguishing between 1) recognizing the true expertise of highly educated professionals and 2) pointing out that the policies they advocate for and implement (as a group) have been mostly beneficial to themselves. Trust what they say, but realize that what they do is (mostly) in their best interest and (often) to the relative detriment of others. Provided that this is your aim (because let’s face it, most of us are part of this group, so most of the policies emanating from that group is to our benefit), arguing for alternative policies should absolutely not be based on distrust towards experts (it is slightly annoying that this position can at least implicitly be attributed to me, when I explicitly wrote the exact opposite twice already in the thread), it should be based on defining aims and evaluating likely consequences. Not how, but to what end.

Guy Harris discusses voter fraud (implicitly in the US context, I’m guessing) as a counterexample to the general thesis that policies pushed by the professional class have been in their interest to the relative detriment of the rest of the society, but in fact it is a perfect example. Voter fraud and the far more prevalent phenomenon of voter suppression under the pretense of fighting against it should be total non-issues in a functioning democracy (and indeed they seem to be total non-issues in all advanced democracies except one). In the US, an enduring legacy of institutional anti-Black racism has made them an issue. If the highly educated cared one bit about the topic, a solution would be found instantly. However, as a group, they are also the one less affected, so in deeds if not in words, the only subgroup of them that actually care much about it are the one who stand to directly gain from voter suppression, and so the problem endures (and worsens in many respect). So yes, absolutely, the “experts” (scarequotes not because I doubt their expertise but because it evokes to me a far too narrow group) take on voter fraud and suppression is correct; the “experts” actual action are to the relative detriment of the rest of the population.

Ditto, for instance, for school social and racial segregation or for the management of the penitentiary system, not only in the US (problems much harder to solve, but for which solutions are known in theory and in practice but not implemented because they would be to the relative detriment of the professionals at least in the short terms).

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lurker 05.19.17 at 9:18 am

‘economists qua experts, who maybe think Brexit could be a mixed opportunity and not an unmitigated disaster’ (bruce wilder, 90)
There are always opportunities, and the Tories are seizing them. Google dementia tax for an example of how they will use the landslide victory this wave of nationalist euphoria is about to give them.

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engels 05.19.17 at 9:43 am

pointing out that the policies they advocate for and implement (as a group) have been mostly beneficial to themselves

I’m not calling for blind trust in experts but lot of this thread just sounds like public choice economics to me. Do you think it’s generally true re vaccinations, climate science or food safety?

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Dipper 05.19.17 at 10:08 am

I nominate Andrew Dilnot as a model expert. He speaks clearly within his area of expertise then leaves people to make their own decisions.

@ Lurker 98 – Dilnot was quite critical of the tories “dementia tax” yesterday – see https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/may/18/tory-social-care-plan-example-market-failure-andrew-dilnot

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engels 05.19.17 at 11:17 am

Ps. I should say I agree with 90% of what Bruce and others have written and defending Krugman is not really the ditch I would choose to die in. I just think by the standards of American punditry he’s been a positive force overall.

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MisterMr 05.19.17 at 11:39 am

@Z 97

“2) pointing out that the policies they advocate for and implement (as a group) have been mostly beneficial to themselves.”
Actually in the EU, as far as I know, the differential of income between a guy with a degree and a guy without a degree is falling, not rising, so if by expert you mean “people with high education” this would be only in the USA.
I think the point is that mostly “experts” were useful to capital, not to themselves “as a class”. I don’t think the “intellectual class” was particularly well served by the politics of the last 30 years, if you take a fixed parameter to determine the “intellectual class”, such as “everyone who has a degree” or “everyone who has a PHD”.

If you see the “intellectual class” as “pundits and people who are succesful in this moment, but not the ones who have education but didn’t make it to the big league” you are defining this class in such a way that it necessariously is taking advantage of the situation, but the problem is in the definition.

It’s like speaking of singers or actors: if we speak only of the ones who are famous, that are the ones most people are familiar with, it’s obvious that they are in an advantageous situation, but this is just a form of “survival bias”. If we speak of all the people who live or try to live as singers or actors, most of them probably have problems to make ends meet.

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bianca steele 05.19.17 at 12:32 pm

I just think by the standards of American punditry he’s been a positive force overall.

I agree. He’s probably the only credentialed economist Americans can name who opposes Republican policies and uses arguments from economics to do it. Kuttner used to be published in the Boston Globe, and there are a few others, but not many.

But that means for many Americans, including liberals, he’s “a voice of the left,” and when I see him declaring that liberals and the left are exactly what conservatives and reactionaries accuse us of, well, I wonder if I should rethink what’s going on here.

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Z 05.19.17 at 3:17 pm

@MrMister so if by expert you mean “people with high education” this would be only in the USA.

What I mean more precisely is the social group formed of people satisfying the following characteristics: 1) their degree places them in the top 20% of educational achievement in their country 2) their income places them in the top 20% as well and 3) they live in an economically and educationally dynamic part of their country (typically around dynamic cities with higher education institutions). These three characteristics are increasingly correlated (a relatively recent phenomenon), so they (plus their family) form a group which represents perhaps 10 to 15% of the population, and because of basics of electoral sociology up to 20% of the electorate (though of course their structural proximity to elite media and economic power gives them a far greater influence). I really don’t know much at all about Italian politics, but I would bet, for instance, that I could easily find Bologna on a map of electoral votes on Renzi’s referendum.

The highly educated but economically struggling youths you mention in your post, far from being typical members of this group, are typical political opponents of this group.

@engels Do you think it’s generally true re vaccinations, climate science or food safety?

First of all, I don’t think it is generally true at all about any topic, it is a peculiarity of our current socio-political system that élites (in the sense above) form a coherent political blocs that is able to rule; in other times and places, they were numerically too few, more politically split or had to rely on the support of other social groups or generally all of the above. More importantly, the three topics you mention (climate science, vaccination and food safety) are issues of political contention only for the nationalist reactionary force of contemporary politics (and then again, mostly only in the US, Marine Le Pen doesn’t deny climate disruption), so, crudely speaking, what you are asking me to do is to compare the professional class and Trumpism (this is explicit in your link to a Trump policy). As I expressed many times, including in my very first post, I believe that escaping this framework by building an opposition force to both is badly needed (I think you can work for yourself a translation in concrete policies on the topic you chose).

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JimV 05.19.17 at 4:49 pm

“Krugman seems a typically untrustworthy narrator of who is a hack and who is not. This is general with Krugman, but has been acute with regard to the Euro. He loves the IMF’s (now former Chief Economist) Olivier Blanchard, …”

https://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/austerity-and-the-greek-depression/?_r=0

Austerity and the Greek Depression
July 10, 2015

—-excerpts—–
Olivier Blanchard offers a defense of the IMF’s role in the Greek crisis. Basically, he argues that given the political realities, there was no alternative to requiring that Greece move into primary budget surplus, whatever the cost. This is surely true.

But how big was the cost? I’m with Brad DeLong in being highly puzzled by this assertion:

“The decrease in output was indeed much larger than had been forecast. […]”

Where is this coming from? I look at the data prior to this year — when we have indeed seen a crisis of confidence — and Greece’s output decline looks like just about what you should have expected given the austerity imposed. …

What this tells us is that the Greek program was infeasible from the start. …

So now what? A few months ago I thought that stabilizing Greece at a small primary surplus might work, in the sense that it would allow a return to growth even if it didn’t do anything to make up lost ground. But the creditors are still demanding a rising primary surplus over time, and balking at top line debt relief that might at least offer a clear marker of progress. If those are the requirements for Greece to stay in the eurozone, Grexit is inevitable.
—-end—-

I’m confused about who is the more untrustworthy narrator here.

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novakant 05.19.17 at 5:36 pm

There’s an interesting article discussing Brexit, experts etc. here:

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n10/alan-finlayson/brexitism

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bruce wilder 05.19.17 at 8:45 pm

Peter T @ 95: I can’t see how anyone could possibly be an expert in the same sense on what other people want, or on the welfare of a whole set of societies, or on how people like their cities to be. If you hand over the task of implementing your collective desires to someone, that person is by definition a politician.

Quiggin made a similar point upthread. It seems to me, though, that a lot of politics revolves around the preliminary sorting out and parsing of problems, so that if a problem can be framed in a way that it can be resolved by expert discretion, then the politics is about creating institutions that let experts qua technocrats dominate the management of the problem so framed.

It isn’t a hard choice to say a city “wants” a reliable system for obtaining and widely distributing potable water. Politicians are not going to be debating the desirability of a reliable water supply. And, voters are never going to be much interested in individually mastering the intricacies, either. The problem for politicians is mobilizing the political will in some scheme that mobilizes resources in a way that allows experts to design, build and administer a workable and working system.

Lots of polities do not seem capable of mastering the problem. Good luck finding potable municipal water in Italy, a country with a highly educated population and the among most sophisticated resources for engineering in the world. Bangkok in what surely must be challenging physical circumstances has drinkable water. Flint Michigan infamously had politicians condemn it to lead poisoning in a facially crazy scheme — I’ve seen the Flint river and no sane and honest person, expert or not, would think you could get drinkable water cheaply from that source — and many ostensible expert technocrats lodge in the Federal and State bureaucracies did effectively nothing to inhibit the politicians. Was it Bolivia that tried to turning water supply over to Bechtel in a privatization scheme? New York City and Los Angeles have huge and highly successful systems, but there are criticisms and risks. The present Mayor of New York has elected to risk the possibility of having to evacuate large areas of the city in order to conserve the resources needed to complete a new water tunnel by electing a more extended schedule than the previous Mayor.

What falls to the politicians is not so much a fact – value distinction, as it is the unfathomable risks and uncertainties and consequences — the residual of blowback and responsibility for responding.

It seems to me that economists and economics does offer “expert” advice on brokering that sorting out process, where a problem is parsed and framed, sorted and handed over to private business or public institutions or some hybrid network, with the unsorted residual remaining with political institutions. And, a lot of political struggling, with the backing of “expert” economists, is about structuring political institutions in ways that handicap the state as a resource for popular interest in their struggles with plutocratic interests — I am thinking of balanced budget amendments or supermajorities for raising taxes, trade agreements with investor protections.

The problem with the Euro and European Union institutions generally is the structure of that parsing and framing and sorting of responsibility, and where the residual of blowback and residual of power is distributed. Political will is captured somehow and technocrats are empowered to say, “there is no alternative”. A political rhetoric of “It’s complicated” and narratives of ad hoc moral justification (“Greek pensions!” or in other contexts, “racists!”) obscure the rough reality of the powerful doing as they will and the weak suffering what they must, with no recourse to democracy allowed.

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engels 05.19.17 at 10:39 pm

Good luck finding potable municipal water in Italy

Wha? Tap water in Italy’s fine, or was last time I went, including drinking fountains…

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bruce wilder 05.19.17 at 11:09 pm

JimV: I’m confused about who is the more untrustworthy narrator here.

From my reading of the blogpost you quote, Krugman cannot see Blanchard for who Blanchard is and therefore cannot tell his readers, and the blogpost you’ve quoted to my mind exemplifies my point.

What Krugman — and by Krugman’s reference, Brad DeLong — are doing in the blogpost you quote — is maintaining epistemic closure well within the established boundaries of the neoliberal dialectic. Krugman and DeLong are modeling how you can position your skepticism about the policy inflicted on Greece without leaving the mainstream fold; they are signalling their personal virtues as neoliberal economists without breaking with the guild.

Krugman agrees with Blanchard that there was no alternative for Greece — that is definitionally the neoliberal line and Krugman tellingly does not cross it. Krugman’s phrasing seems artful to me. When Blanchard says, “The decrease in output was indeed much larger than had been forecast,” I don’t see that there is any reason to question, as Krugman does, “Where is this coming from?” The forecasts Blanchard references as projecting too small a decrease in output are Blanchard’s own, that is, the official forecasts of the IMF issued in support of the policy as proposed. But, Krugman is side-stepping those forecasts and why Blanchard fashioned them in the way he did; he makes it into an idle puzzle for passive on-lookers to resolve well after the fact by the simple expedient of laying a straight-edge on graph paper.

When Blanchard opines “political crises, inconsistent policies, insufficient reforms, Grexit fears, low business confidence, weak banks, all contributed to the outcome” he is blaming the victim, of course, but he is also saying, the policy as proposed was not implemented as proposed: in vulgar terms, my forecast would have been right if the Greeks had done as they were told.

By being very gentle with Blanchard and by keeping his own intellectual focus strictly on macroeconomic fiscal policy, Krugman keeps the discussion highly abstract, and what is he abstracting from? What the Greeks were told to do, primarily. So-called “structural reform”: the Troika’s program was structured to extort a series of policy reforms of dubious merit (from the standpoint of being judged broadly welfare-enhancing) from the Greek government. In Krugman’s telling, the austerity’s contractionary effect is a sufficient explanator of gross performance; no need to look at the extortion or what was being extorted — all that is just noise. Pay no attention, he in effect says.

There’s really no strong justification, other than obscuring the nature of the Greek bailout, in arguing fiscal contraction as a sufficient explanator, because it was never a strategic variable. There’s no mechanism in the Eurozone for fiscal policy. (It is one of those institutional design defects that make the Euro the sharp-edged reincarnation of Polanyi’s gold standard and a means for Polanyi’s Market to wreak havoc.)

I am not saying Krugman’s analysis in the blogpost you quoted is wrong; I am saying it is idle and ill-conceived speculation that distracts from the real story of the Euro and the Greek bailout. The Greek depression wasn’t the unintended consequence of ill-conceived policy; it was a deliberately chosen means to an end, a means to extort so-called “structural policy reforms” from the Greek government by inducing desperation. And, Blanchard was one of the hacks extorting away.

What I get from the blogpost that you quoted is that Krugman cannot or will not see this, nor will he inform his readers about it. He is going to stay firmly inside the neoliberal bubble where Blanchard is a good guy and a reputable highly professional macroeconomist (and it is simply puzzling why Blanchard would be blathering about ” inconsistent policies, insufficient reforms”).

Check out Krugman’s blog, October 3, 2015 9:59 am for an entry headlined, The Blanchard Touch, where he gushes over Blanchard with descriptives such as “world-class” and “consummate skill” and “towering figure”. Krugman references work by the IMF research department under Blanchard’s leadership that Krugman assures us show that the policy of austerity is self-defeating. All the carnage in Greece was forgotten or forgiven, apparently.

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bruce wilder 05.19.17 at 11:49 pm

engels @ 108

Probably just dating myself. Florence made me sick as a dog in the late Pleistocene, and I have not forgotten or forgiven.

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engels 05.20.17 at 10:49 am

Fair enough. I’ve a feeling there’s a minimum standard throughout EU now (at the risk of starting a ‘what have the technocrats ever given us’ exercise :) )

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Antonin 05.20.17 at 3:15 pm

Fuck the experts already.

Feel free to moderate this.

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roger gathmann 05.21.17 at 1:39 am

When I think of transposing the questions raised by Jacobs about the community and expertise to the Brexit crisis, I’m put in mind of the long, excellent and depressing essay by James Meek that traces the shutdown of Cadbury’s Somerdale chocolate factory in Keynsham near Bristol and the translation of its functions to a mostly taxfree zone in Poland, an affair that displayed the worst of the synergy between private enterprise and the EU financed solutions to Eastern European “underdevelopment”. Moses, besides being an empire builder who, in the end, could think of nothing better than destroying the empire he built with ever more infrastructure, was certainly a product of an era of development economics. The great urban renewal projects in America were overdetermined by racism, a military strategy that arose out of world war ii (the government financed impetus to build the suburbs was part of the logic of removing populations (or useful populations, in the AEC phrase) from target cities, and the idea that the economy emerges in a straightforward structural order, from agricultural-centered to industrial, that defined what expertise is (resisting this meant not being an expert). Moses’s work hits all three areas. The problem with the EU is that what defines expertise in the EU’s governing and technocratic circles is similarly centered on what are clearly myths (for instance, about government debt and about privatization). Meeks’ article makes a good stab at showing, panoramically, just what is wrong with certain EU projects. Meeks doesn’t suggest that Brexit was right, but he does suggest that the way to work against Brexit is to understand what the EU has been doing wrong. That seems like a good idea to me.
https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n08/james-meek/somerdale-to-skarbimierz

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