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How The Economist Got Its List Of Top Economists Wrong

The Economist just published a list of the world’s 25 most influential economists. Twitter — or at least the insular corner of Twitter where I spend an unacceptably large portion of my day — quickly noticed two things. First, everyone on the list was a man. Second, it left off someone who’s arguably the world’s most influential economist, period: Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen.

Now, there are lots of ways to gauge influence. Yellen’s academic work, for example, is respected but not groundbreaking. But The Economist’s rankings explicitly aim to track “clout outside the ivory tower,” as measured by media attention. How, by that measure, could Yellen not come out near, if not at, the top?

The answer: The Economist excluded “serving central bank governors.” That leads to some strange results, since the list includes not only former governors but also the presidents of the various regional Fed banks. There aren’t many contexts in which Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser is more influential than Yellen.

Still, one could argue that Yellen isn’t so much influential as flat-out powerful. So fine, leave her off the list. The rankings are still deeply strange. The top scorer, for example, is health care economist Jonathan Gruber, whose prominence in the media in recent months has been due almost entirely to the emergence of a video in which he said President Obama’s signature health care law passed in part due to the “stupidity of the American voter.” That isn’t influence — that’s a gaffe. Or take No. 25, San Francisco Fed President John Williams, an undeniably important economist but one who apparently scored higher because The Economist’s algorithm mixed him up with a discredited conspiracy theorist who happens to share his name.

There’s a larger point here. All rankings of this sort are on some level arbitrary — that’s why debating them is so much fun. But they shouldn’t be ridiculous. As Wall Street Journal economics reporter Josh Zumbrun tweeted:

Or, as I said in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek subtweet:

The point being: Metrics need to be grounded in reality. Yes, we should be guided by evidence, but our conclusions also need to make sense in the real world. Maybe Dennis Rodman really was better than Michael Jordan, but if your preferred metric doesn’t at least show Jordan as being pretty damn good — well, odds are your metric has a problem. As Carl Sagan famously put it, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

As for the lack of women on the list, well, that may have more to do with sexism in economics than sexism at The Economist.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.