Economic experts

The Olympus of Economists.
A Digital History of Economic Policy Experts in Germany 1965-2015

Doctoral thesis, submitted in February 2020 at Regensburg University
At the beginning of the 2020s, the relationship between the public and scientific expertise is ambivalent. On the one hand, the public is seeking advice from experts more than ever before, while on the other hand, in times of fake news, alternative facts and opinion bubbles, experts seem to be less and less able to penetrate with their expertise. The Corona Pandemic is a very vivid illustration of this finding, although the crisis of experts in the postfactual age has been going on for some time, the Brexit and the politics of Donald Trump are examples of this. This crisis also affects economic policy expertise, which in Germany is still most prominently embodied by the Sachverständigenrat zur Begutachtung der Gesamtwirtschaftlichen Entwicklung (SVR), founded in 1963. However, if one follows the commonly expressed narrative, the “Olympus of economists” has lost most of its appeal compared to the “glorious years” of the 1960s and 1970s. For example, in a recent article, Jan Willmroth from the Süddeutsche Zeitung stated that the Council’s annual reports would receive only short-term and rather superficial public attention after publication in November.

But does this narrative of decline really correspond to reality in its linearity? And if so, how can this process be explained? The present study addresses these questions by tracing the public response to the SVR since its foundation, expanding the existing literature, particularly by looking at the 1980s to 2000s, which are only gradually coming into view in terms of contemporary history. The aspect of publicity is central here, since the SVR exerts its influence less through concrete economic policy recommendations, but, in Robert Shiller’s words, primarily through the shaping of economic narratives. Accordingly, the work focuses on two resonance spaces: the media, represented by the press, and politics, represented by the German Bundestag. In concrete terms, it is about three aspects: How visible was the SVR in the public debate? In which specific discourses did the SVR appear? And how has the public perception of the SVR as an institution changed?

Methodologically, the work breaks new ground by pursuing a decidedly digital-historical approach. With the help of various text mining methods, in particular so-called topic modelling, both the two resonance spaces and the SVR’s own publications are subjected to an empirical-quantitative evaluation, which is combined with a historical-hermeneutic approach. This approach of blended reading or digital hermeneutics makes it possible to look at the public resonance and the publications of the SVR – a text corpus of more than nine million words – in their entirety and to examine them diachronically. In this way it can be shown, among other things, that the decline narrative is indeed quite imprecise. Rather, it is possible to identify various “business cycles” of economic policy expertise, such as the boom in expert culture in the early 2000s, from which the SVR was also able to profit. It is also apparent that a combination of factors specific to the SVR, such as the composition of its staff, and overarching aspects such as general public confidence in economic policy experts, is responsible for the development of these economic cycles.