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How the expert class got Trumped & Berned

It's the stupidity, stupid.

For the nation's public policy experts, the 2016 presidential race has proven to be an increasingly demoralizing lesson in the imperviousness of the American voter.

Trump supporters await the arrival of Republican Presidential frontrunner Donald Trump at a campaign rally on April 23, 2016 in Waterbury, Connecticut.
Getty Images
Trump supporters await the arrival of Republican Presidential frontrunner Donald Trump at a campaign rally on April 23, 2016 in Waterbury, Connecticut.

"The gap between what the candidates are saying and the complexity of the problems is mind-boggling and disappointing," said Democratic former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, who is now director of Indiana University's Center on Congress. "I find myself distressed that this gap is so large, and I don't think it will change."

The current election, with its populist zeal, has only served to add — as Donald Trump might say — another 10 feet to the wall between the ivory tower and Main Street. And given the amount of fantasy claims — from Trump's mass deportation plans to Bernie Sanders' universal free college proposals — that fly free on the campaign trail, social scientists are confronting an intellectual crisis.

Worse yet, as the nation's first responders, they are finding themselves woefully unprepared.

"The gap between what the candidates are saying and the complexity of the problems is mind-boggling and disappointing." -Former Rep. Lee Hamilton

"Many of us feel powerless against it," said David Autor, a labor economist at MIT who serves on the executive committee of the American Economic Association. "We feel we can train our students, but our students aren't the public and we don't know how to school the public."

The challenge is by no means new: The callowness of the American voter over the years, produced a library of academic research, media reportage and exasperated-sounding book titles. What it hasn't produced is much in the way of an organized effort to inculcate the low-information, high-mistrust voter.

Now, with a presidential election animated by anti-establishment fervor on both sides of the political divide, the practitioners of social science are feeling particularly hard up.

It has traditionally been the case that conservative policy experts would clash with liberal policy experts in a conventional war of ideas. But with Trump and, to a lesser extent, Sanders, this election has repeatedly found policy experts scrambling to keep their own sides in check.

In February, a group of former Democratic White House economic policy advisors penned an open letter to the Sanders campaign, accusing it of making dubious economic claims about its domestic economic agenda. Among the concerns raised by the advisors was that Sanders was damaging the party's "reputation for responsibly estimating the effects of economic policies." Other liberal economists have voiced similar worries with the Vermont senator, but their chastisements have done little to curb his proclamations or stem the enthusiasm for his message.

Trump's campaign, meanwhile, has behaved like a reality distortion field for public policy. Last week, in an interview with CNBC, the presumptive GOP nominee proposed paying down the national debt by simply offering less than the full balance to America's creditors — a notion that drew rebukes from all corners.

The moment occasioned a round of "dire warnings" from analysts and think-tankers, but it also showed how feeble the expert class can be at marshaling its authority, even when it is in agreement.

"It is hard to know where to begin," confessed Autor.


With a few exceptions (most notably economist-turned-New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for example, social scientists have traditionally not been pressed into the role of public advocates for their findings.

"Many researchers, regardless of where they are publishing their work, treat every means of communication as if it is some background paper or academic journal article," said Jon Schwabish, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute." Schwabish, who worked at the Congressional Budget Office from 2005 to 2014, has made his specialty helping researchers and think-tank denizens "communicate effectively" with politicians and the general public. In particular, he focuses on the visual presentation of data, noting the successes of data-driven hubs like The New York Times' The Upshot and Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com.

Some experts who spoke with CNBC hailed a future where social science would be able to organize around its consensus views like climatologists did starting in the late 1980s, with the forming of the International Panel on Climate Change in 1988.

But Anil Kashyap, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, says there is actually quite a bit more consensus in his field than the general public may assume, and thinks it's important to promulgate it to the public. In 2011, Kashyap, began surveying a group of economists from around the country (and across the political spectrum) on popular questions of the day. The former has continued apace since and Kashyap says it has demonstrated quite a bit of agreement among scholars. But that is only step one.

"It is very hard for most economists to get your head out of the foxhole and say here is a mainstream view," said Kashyap, noting that the forum has made some notable cameos in media reports and congressional testimony. Autor, who is among the 40-some participants in Kashyap's poll, describes it a "good faith effort," but adds: "I don't think any of us think it has moved the dial in one direction or the other."