Bill Keller for Dummies

12/10/2011 01:22 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2012

Add Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the august New York Times, to the list of intelligent people who have no problem admitting that, when it comes to matters of business and/or economics, they don't have a clue. In a recent op-ed piece for the Times, Keller confesses that he has long left the "intimidating matter" of economics to the Nobel Prize winners on the paper's vast staff while choosing to ignore the subject altogether in his own writings -- and we're left to assume his own life. But alas, things being what they are these days, such avoidance was no longer an option, he says. So, Keller tells us, he engaged in a "little tutorial" -- reading government reports and talking to economists who show "patience with economic illiterates" -- so he too could jump into the debate over how to fix our current mess.
Perhaps he shouldn't have bothered. Keller's main conclusion is that in our Internet-addled age, economic discourse has become so politicized and vitriolic that it's been rendered largely useless. Of course, there is truth to Keller's obvious observation. But he seems to be using it as something of an escape hatch.

Now that he has completed his tutorial, Keller appears content to put his head back in the sand and again leave economics to the Nobel laureates. After all, why should he spend time boning up on a subject that "has been ravaged by the same virus that has corrupted the rest of our national discourse"? As Keller puts it, "Something is rotten in the state of economics."
Keller is hardly the first media type to plead cluelessness when it comes to matters of economics, business or finance (though he might be the most powerful). Media critic Jack Shafer professed his ignorance back in 2007 and added that he's not embarrassed by it. "Why should I be? I can't be much more clueless than the masters of the universe who have lost their companies billions," Shafer wrote. Comedian-commentator Bill Maher admitted to his audience in 2009 that he has no idea what the Federal Reserve is or what it does, but he's pretty sure it's up to no good. Indeed, for the past few years, economics has been viewed as a hopelessly wonkish pursuit; uncool; suspect. And understanding any of it made you not just elitist, but a possible apologist for Wall Street. Uh-oh.

That impression has only hardened during the past few months as problems that economists first failed to predict, then failed to fix -- the financial crisis, the Great Recession, high unemployment -- ground on and a new economic disaster, the European debt debacle, began to rear its head. Now it's not only uncool to understand economics, but sort of cool to know absolutely nothing about it. After all, such blissful ignorance frees you to think outside the box and propose all sorts of kooky ideas without worrying about or examining their potential consequences. It's what enables Republican presidential candidates to call for the abolishment of the Fed or the Tea Party to claim that the country's debt ceiling doesn't need to be raised or Occupy Wall Street to demand that all personal debt be immediately forgiven. If it sounds good, say it, and who knows; maybe it will come true.

Pointing out the pitfalls of such plans, statements or arguments is largely fruitless. As the New York Times' David Carr recently wrote about Wall Streeters' suggestions that OWS protestors do not understand finance, "The protesters have a pretty good comeback: They may not know what a collateralized debt obligation is, but neither did the Wall Street guys selling them, and their ignorance all but upended the country."

Shades of Shafer. In other words, the supposedly smart guys in the room screwed things up so badly, can the ignorant really do any worse? Or, as Keller put it, something is rotten in economics. But even he realized that that doesn't mean it has nothing to offer. Keller reports that after his economics tutorial, he learned that "there really is a textbook way to fix our current mess": some sort of short-term stimulus, followed by spending cuts, increased taxes and entitlement reform. But these days, most people don't want to go near the textbooks. It's really too bad, since we're living in a time when it's never been more important for ordinary Americans, not to mention media types like Keller, to bone up on economics. Ignorance is not bliss.

Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.