Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Will belief trump facts?

Chrystia Freeland
Sep 2, 2011 14:59 UTC

You might call it the cognitive divide — the split between an evidence-based worldview and one that is rooted in faith or ideology — and it is one of the most important fault lines in the United States today.

President Barack Obama called attention to the cognitive divide, and reminded us which side he comes down on, at the beginning of this week, when he chose the Princeton University economist Alan Krueger to lead his Council of Economic Advisers.

Krueger is a labor economist, and at first blush, that focus may seem the important part of his résumé. Unemployment, after all, is still above 9 percent, and the president has said job creation is his priority. But when you talk to the insiders about Krueger, what they emphasize is his mastery of data and his utter commitment to the truths it can be coaxed to tell.

Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury secretary and a Harvard economist, described Krueger, his former student, as a “total empiricist” and a “great data monger following the data where it went.” Lawrence Katz, a fellow Harvard economist and one of the pre-eminent labor economists, enthusiastically agreed: “Alan has an open mind and lets the data speak.”

Krueger’s passion for data runs so deep that one of his major professional projects has been, as Katz put it, “to actually improve the data.” Krueger was the founding director of Princeton’s Survey Research Center. When he can’t find the data he needs to answer a particular question, he goes out and gets it.

Halfway to a lost decade

Peter Rudegeair
Jun 30, 2011 19:58 UTC

At the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday, Chrystia interviewed the iconoclastic and polymathic economist Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Here is a transcript of some of the highlights of their discussion:

On the U.S. economy’s lost half decade:

JUSTIN WOLFERS: If you go back, you look at how bad the economy’s been for so long.  So the NBER says the recession started in 2007.  Actually it may have started as early as 2006… One of the difficulties is we keep revising what happened to history. And if you look at the latest revisions of history, our current understanding is the economy actually peaked in late 2006. This I’m sure is something you’re going to hear a lot about during election season, ’cause they’re going to call this again, you know, the Bush recession. They’re going to be very keen to get that story out. But, you know, the first part of 2011 looks like it’s pretty grim. It’s very hard to see– a lot of strong growth.  And certainly, you know, things are well below potential now. You know, people talk about a lost decade, and if you think about 2006 to the present, we’re halfway there. And if you want to be the real pessimist — and I’m not — I’m not this pessimistic. But, you know, if you look at things like median family income, it actually fell during the Bush years.  Which actually means if you’re the median family– we’re well past a lost decade.

On the Fed’s need for a new marketing campaign:

JUSTIN WOLFERS: See this is where we’ve got the branding all wrong.  So QE1 and QE2, they sound complicated.  What are they, they’re the government buying bonds to reduce interest rates.  What’s monetary policy, standard run-of-the-mill monetary policy?  The government buying bonds to affect interest rates.  We’re just changing different interest rates.  So let’s change all of ‘em and let’s keep changing ‘em.  There’s nothing–

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