Surveying top economists about topical policy debates

21 Apr 2020

Romesh Vaitilingam, who has long advised the RES on the communication of economic research, introduces the IGM Forum at Chicago Booth, which conducts regular surveys of leading economists about public policy issues. The current focus of the polls is naturally on economic policy responses to the global health emergency.

For nearly a decade, the IGM Forum has been regularly polling some of the world’s top economists in the US and Europe for their views on topical issues of public policy. In recent weeks, with the global pandemic having the potential to cause severe economic damage, the need for such research-based expertise to inform national and international policy-making is more urgent than ever. The IGM has responded by establishing a webpage1 to collect policy proposals for mitigating the economic fallout from Covid-19, and initiating a series of surveys of its panellists focused on the economics of the unfolding crisis and potential policy responses.

Covid-19 and the economy

In the first half of March, as tumbling stock markets indicated growing fears about the potential economic impact of Covid-19, the first IGM coronavirus survey2 asked both the US and European panels about the likelihood of a major recession, and the relative importance of supply and demand shocks damaging the economy. The European panel members were also asked about the readiness of the economic policy institutions of the Eurozone to respond effectively to the potential damage from Covid-19.

The results revealed a broad consensus that there would be a sharp downturn in the economy, but less agreement on how prolonged the dip is likely to be. But over two-thirds of the European economists were highly doubtful of the readiness of Eurozone institutions.

Towards the end of March, as the number of claims filed for unemployment insurance in the US hit record levels; the total number of Covid-19 cases went past 100,000, already substantially higher than the totals in Italy and China; and parts of the country have imposed lockdowns, a second survey3 went out to the US panel. They were asked about the interactions between containment measures and economic activity, and the need for investment to support the medical response to the health emergency.

This time, the consensus was even stronger: 97 per cent of the 41 experts who voted in this poll agreed or strongly agreed that a comprehensive policy response to the coronavirus will involve tolerating a very large contraction in economic activity until the spread of infections has dropped significantly. Furthermore, 89 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that abandoning severe lockdowns at a time when the likelihood of a resurgence in infections remains high will lead to greater total economic damage than sustaining the lockdowns to eliminate the resurgence risk.

The experts were unanimous on the final question: all agreed or strongly agreed that the US government should invest more in expanding treatment capacity through steps such as building temporary hospitals, accelerating testing, making more masks and ventilators, and providing financial incentives for the production of a successful vaccine.

Origins of the IGM polls

The IGM economic experts panel was first launched in late 2001 to explore the extent to which economists agree or disagree on major public policy issues. To assess such beliefs, Chicago Booth professors Brian Barry and Anil Kashyap assembled a group of highly respected economists from top US universities.

Statistics teaches that a sample of, say, 40 opinions will be adequate to reflect a broader population if the sample is representative of that population. To that end, the panel was chosen to include distinguished experts with a keen interest in public policy from the major areas of economics, to be geographically diverse, and to include Democrats, Republicans and Independents as well as older and younger scholars.

The panel includes Nobel laureates, John Bates Clark Medallists, fellows of the Econometric society, past Presidents of the American Economics Association and American Finance Association, past Democratic and Republican members of the President's Council of Economics, and past and current editors of leading economics journals. This selection process has the advantage of not only providing a set of panellists whose names will be familiar to other economists and the media, but also delivers a group with impeccable qualifications to speak on public policy matters.

The IGM launched its European economic experts panel in December 2016 under the leadership of another Chicago Booth professor, Christian Leuz. As with the US panel,  the experts are all outstanding researchers.

They include recipients of top prizes in economics, fellows of the Econometric society and the European Economic Association, members of distinguished national and international policy-making bodies in Europe, recipients of significant grants for economic research, highly accomplished affiliates and programme directors of the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the National Bureau of Economic Research, and past and current editors of leading journals.

Sets of two or three questions for the two panels are emailed individually to all members, each phrased as statements on a particular topic with which one can agree or disagree. The experts are also asked how confident they are in their knowledge of the issue associated with the question. Panellists may consult whatever resources they like before answering. They may also include brief comments with their responses, or provide links to relevant sources.

The results of the polls have been widely cited in national and international policy circles, in economics textbooks and in articles by top journalists covering important economic debates. Prior to the crisis, they were due to be discussed in a high-level conference4 on the role of economics and economists in public policy and public debate in April. That event has been postponed but meanwhile, the IGM Forum will aim to inform global discussions of the economic implications of the public health crisis.

Notes:

1. http://www.igmchicago.org/Covid-19/

2. http://www.igmchicago.org/Covid-19/a-coronavirus-recession-a-new-survey-of-top-us-european-economists/

3. http://www.igmchicago.org/surveys/policy-for-the-Covid-19-crisis/

4. https://www.chicagobooth.edu/research/igm/events-forums/the-role-of-economics