The best economists have dirty shoes

Posted on July 19, 2016

CN8A3G Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire England

Bolsover in Derbyshire is a good example of the importance of mixing statistics and talking to the locals

In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the UK foreign secretary commissioned a secret internal inquiry into why British diplomats had failed to predict it. One problem, the report found, was that the embassy in Tehran had little contact with people beyond the elites around the shah.

Subsequent generations of diplomats have taken this lesson to heart. They prize what they call “ground truth”: how things really feel out there; what people are really thinking. One former ambassador to Iran used to check whether his staff’s shoes were dirty. “If not, I knew they hadn’t been getting out of the embassy and meeting people in town.”

    The economics profession could learn from this. Look through a few spreadsheets on the UK economy in recent years and you might wonder why people have not been dancing in the streets. Unemployment is 5 per cent, the lowest in 11 years. Participation in the labour market is near a record high. Income inequality, far from rising, has actually declined since the financial crisis. Yet 52 per cent of voters have just chosen to leave the EU.

    That group is far from homogeneous and many were motivated by topics that have nothing to do with economics. It is clear, though, that some voters felt they had been left behind by the modern economy and had nothing to lose.

    Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, described last month how he encountered this “ground truth” when he met a group of charities in Nottingham, a former industrial city in the Midlands. When he started talking about the economic recovery they stopped him short. They did not see any evidence: homelessness, food bank use, mental health problems were all going up. “The language of ‘recovery’ simply did not fit their facts,” Mr Haldane said.

    Some economists will flinch at the idea of taking “ground truth” too seriously. They will say — rightly — that anecdotal evidence is almost always unrepresentative and can lead to the wrong conclusions. But so can data if you rely on it too heavily. Combine the two and you can tease out where they differ. You can also find clues as to why.

    A few months ago I went to Bolsover, a former mining town in Derbyshire whose economy looked fairly good on paper. Average wages were low but the proportion of people on jobless benefits had dropped below the UK average. Yet the man who ran the pub said he had made all his staff self-employed so he did not have to pay taxes or the minimum wage. The people in the church were giving sleeping bags to young men who had dropped off the benefits register and were living in disused garages. The women working in the shops said local retail jobs were part-time and the bus fare was too high to make it worth travelling to a full-time job elsewhere.

    Statisticians do their best to capture these subtleties. But there is a limit to how much you can learn about the economy by staring at a spreadsheet in a London office. And the bits you miss might be the bits that matter.

    Of course, there is “ground truth” to be gleaned from newspapers and other secondary sources, but there is no substitute for first-hand knowledge. Take Steve Eisman and his colleagues at the FrontPoint hedge fund. Michael Lewis, who wrote about them in The Big Short
    , described how they confirmed their hunch about the looming mortgage crisis in 2007 by flying to a glitzy subprime conference in Las Vegas. They chatted to the bankers, investors and rating agency guys who were making money from thin air. When they flew home, they doubled their bet against the US housing market.

    Michael Gove, the pro-Brexit former government minister, was wrong when he said we have had enough of experts. As the UK navigates an uncertain future, we need experts more than ever. What we really need is experts with dirty shoes.

    sarah.oconnor@ft.com

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