Life among the talking heads

Tim Conley admits he does not have ‘The Number.’

He has ‘A Number’, even ‘A Really Good Number’ if you account for the limited information he worked with at the time. He realizes, however, after a few more months of research, he will have ‘A Different Number’ to present to the world. But he wonders if anyone will care by that time.

Such is the life of this University of Western Ontario associate professor of economics who recently resided at the centre of the partisan media universe, only to return to a comfortable anonymity 48 hours later. But for those two mid-May days, you couldn’t find a man more beloved by The American Right or more despised by The American Left than Tim Conley.

And to think it all could have been avoided if either side had bothered to read beyond the first three sentences of his paper.

Conley, along with co-author Bill Dupor of Ohio State University, set out to create an early estimate of the impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 (commonly referred to as “The Stimulus’) in the United States.

Signed into law by President Obama in February 2009, the act intended to create jobs as well as promote commercial and consumer confidence after the last economic downturn. The price tag for the measure ranged between $700-800 billion of taxpayer money.

That act was the latest in a parade of government-funded measures to buttress the economy against a persistent recession. In February 2008, President Bush pushed through a $152 billion stimulus package targeting consumer spending. In September 2008, the auto industry received a $25 billion bailout. Then in October 2008, one month before the presidential election, the Bush team pushed through a $700 billion financial industry bailout.

Fueled by discontent over the previous measures, as well as a change in the national party leadership, the 2009 act has marked a bitter political divide from the start. No Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, and only two in the U.S. Senate, voted in favour of the measure.

The subject remains an ideological dividing line today. Political futures, including quite possibly the president’s, will be on the line over the public perceptions – not necessarily the facts – about the success of this bill.

Despite the certainty of the spin on both sides of the issue, Conley knew it was too early for definitive answers about the success or failure of The Stimulus. But he thought early numbers might offer some clue to the truth. ‘We weren’t expecting to capture everything,” he says. “But if the story people have been saying is right, and the recovery is this 800-pound gorilla, you gotta be able to see some evidence of the 800-pound gorilla running around somewhere. Maybe we’ll discover it’s 100- or 300-pound gorilla.

“But if it’s really this giant, big, huge recovery then it should be obvious.”

In the resulting 36-page paper, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: Public sector jobs saved, private sector jobs forestalled, the researchers uncovered a bit of statistical truth beneath mounds of political rhetoric. Generally speaking, they found the act generated government jobs, and decreased in the private sector. Their much-discussed numbers say, in the third sentence of the paper’s abstract and beyond, the act saved 450,000 government jobs while destroying/forestalling 1 million private-sector jobs.

“Bottom line, we found some evidence that spending was associated with expansion of government jobs, government workers. That’s as obvious as it can get, I suppose. Gee, you give money to the states and they fire fewer teachers, keep on more employees,” Conley says. “It would be very distressing if that didn’t happen.”

The following pages provide a detailed outline of the findings spelling out an environment where questions still remain. Conley admits putting a number to a fluid subject such as this is always tricky, and a bit troubling. “There is a small amount of information available right now. I’m trying to be very clear with that,” he says. “There’s lots more data we’re going to be looking over the next few months. There’s a lot more going on.”

That fact should be self-explanatory to anyone who reads the paper. In fact, the opening line of the paper’s conclusion reads: “Much work on the effects of the ARRA remains to be done.”

But again, that involves reading beyond the first three sentences.

“People have kind of taken too much into “Oh my goodness, they got ‘The Number.’ Not only didn’t we get The Number everyone should know we didn’t get The Number. Later on in the paper we give ranges for various estimates. Oh, that’s inconsequential’.

Even still, nobody may have seen the paper if not for a bit of Internet happenstance. Rejected for publication by the targeted journal, the paper was sent to a handful of fellow economists for notes. Then on Friday, May 13, a link to the paper was posted, without comment, by Harvard University economist Greg Mankiw on his blog.

That started the clock on Conley’s 15 minutes -or 48 hours – of partisan media fame.

“I guess the entire world reads his blog, because it just went nuts from there,”he says.

Maybe not the whole world. But the fact is a punditry exists – both of the professional and pajamaed partisan kind – ready to pounce on the latest of any hot-button information. And they don’t get any politically hotter today then ‘The Stimulus.’

Right-wing radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh saw the paper confirming The Stimulus as a “money laundering operation,” although he called Conley a “Harvard economist”; Nobel laurete and left-wing economist Paul Krugman called the paper’s premise “stupid” in a blog post. Dozens upon dozens of popular blogs took turns praising or pounding on Conley. Even the simple act of using Google to call up his own website, a top search return for the phrase “Timothy Conley” until last month, has now become an adventure in navigating a blogosphere minefield.

Being a Canadian-based researcher, he didn’t receive the brunt of the emails and telephone calls. That was reserved for his Ohio State colleague. But as an Illinois-trained economist who like 3.4 million people in Illinois and 69.4 million people across the country supported Obama, Conley would have made the perfect posterboy for growing decent around the president.

But he wouldn’t have anything of it; Conley opted to duck most attention.

“I just didn’t have any way to figure out who I could trust” he says. “I didn’t want to fan the flames of partisan debate on this at all. That’s premature.”

Then, as quickly as the attention arrived, nothing. “The only good thing about it (the modern media machine) is the thing dumps you out after five days,” Conley says. “They just stop.”

Conley’s fleeting fame spotlights the drive-by nature of the mainstream news cycle, and also the blogosphere, who once railed against the big boys for the same sin of shallowness.

“Seems to me the right-wing and left-wing ideologues who pick this stuff up don’t bother to read anything; they aren’t interested in understanding what actually happened. They have a story about what happened and they want to find pieces that confirm what they already want to say,” Conley says. “I fit the narrative on both side.”

Narrow fields of study rarely find their way onto wide broadcast channels. And when they do, the reports often come with shallow and/or completely inaccurate readings of the research. Economics, given its often timely nature, is even more vulnerable as it is filtered through a heavily partisan media.

This situation creates a different barrier for getting important research delivered accurately into the hands of the population. “I think it is important to communicate with the broader public about things. (With this paper,) we really didn’t think that’s what we were doing,” Conley says. “The way in which I am used to qualifying statement as an academic, I am pretty clear isn’t going to be adequate when somebody doesn’tt have that certain background.

“You want people to have the information, but not get too carried away about it.”

The confusion surrounding this paper, Conley says, stems from an abstract written for an academic audience coupled with being read by a mainstream audience unwilling to read beyond the first three sentences. But even then, he still feels this information needs to be in the public arena.

“Kind of defeats the purpose of scientific knowledge, right? You cannot tell anybody? That’s no good,” he says. “So, I am surely going to anticipate a blogosphere hit for whatever I do in the future for this particular topic. It won’t change the way I execute the actual research, but it will certainly change the direction of the abstract. I am going to try to make it as much as I can that without an economic background anyone can understand what’s going on. I’m just not sure how to do that yet. But I will certainly try.”

Conley and Dupor plan to “crank out” another paper on the topic this summer. What awaits them this time is anyone’s guess.

“My biggest question right now? Is it possible to have a typical scientific discussion about results for this topic. I am not sure it is,” he says. “It’ll be very interesting to see what happens.”


Read University of Western Ontario associate professor of economics Tim Conley’s paper, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: Public sector jobs saved, private sector jobs forestalled.