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Lino Wehrheim, Im Olymp der Ökonomen. Zur öffentlichen Resonanz wirtschaftspolitischer Experten von 1965 bis 2015

Anselm Küsters
p. 181-186
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Lino Wehrheim, Im Olymp der Ökonomen. Zur öffentlichen Resonanz wirtschaftspolitischer Experten von 1965 bis 2015, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2021, 404 pages, 978-316160846-9

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1In April 2022, when this book review was written, Germany’s state of economic policy advice could be observed in the domestic reactions to Russia’s aggressive war in Ukraine. On the one hand, politicians and talk show hosts were quick to seek the advice of economic and other experts to evaluate the consequences of the war, particularly regarding the possibility of a German import embargo on Russian oil and gas. On the other hand, this economic discussion quickly became politicised, not least by how leading macroeconomists treated each other on Twitter and in other media, accusing their argumentative opponents of interest-driven scholarship and declaring their respective models—and the conclusions derived from those models—to be erroneous. Such a cacophony of voices leads to a kind of neutralisation of expertise and, ultimately, to passivity: some politicians could refer to economic expertise to justify an embargo, while others were able to point to conflicting studies to legitimise their caution. Regardless of which side one takes in this debate, the episode illustrates one more time that today’s image of economists is mainly shaped by the impression of a general ineffectiveness and helplessness—an impression that seems to have taken hold of the public perception of the profession since the financial crisis of 2008.

2Is this current crisis of economic expertise as new as it seems? Lino Wehrheim explores this question in his excellent and elegantly written study Im Olymp der Ökonomen (“In the Olympus of Economists”), accepted as a doctoral thesis by the University of Regensburg in 2020. He describes the perceived crisis “not as a genuinely new phenomenon, but as part of a historical development” (5, my translation from German). This hypothesis is pursued by examining a specific German expert body, the German Council of Economic Experts (Sachverständigenrat zur Begutachtung der gesamtwirtschaftlichen Entwicklung, SVR), which seems appropriate given that the Council has been repeatedly said to be losing importance. Established in 1963 and better known as the group of “economic wise men” (Wirtschaftsweisen), it consists of five economists—indeed usually men, with one member being nominated by the employer side and one by the trade unions—who advise Germany’s policymakers through annual and special reports, which also target Germany’s public in general. Wehrheim traces the significance of the SVR for the country’s economic policy discourse from a historical perspective, especially under the three aspects of “quantity, subject matter and tonality” (9). Conceptually, these aspects are brought together through the notion of “resonance”, which, according to Wehrheim, “represents a suitable analytical category for the investigation of the impact mechanisms of the SVR” (21) and “does not only mean reactions in the sense of a concrete consulting success ... but the fundamental attention for the work of the SVR” (original emphasis, 22).

3This research interest guides the source selection and the chosen methodology convincingly. To determine media resonance, Wehrheim evaluates the press coverage of the SVR based on 12,000 articles from five leading media, namely Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Handelsblatt, Spiegel, Wirtschaftswoche and Zeit. Similarly, the Council’s political resonance is evaluated via the minutes of the German Bundestag, which contain almost 5,000 references to the SVR. Given this large amount of textual data, it makes sense that Wehrheim limits himself to a “digital-historical approach” (24), which is done by using various methods of text mining, i.e. computer-assisted analysis of large text corpora that assumes that the frequency (and sometimes position) of specific words provides information about underlying discourses and sentiments. In the last decade, Franco Moretti’s quantitative literary studies have popularised this approach in the humanities under the heading of “distant reading” (Morreti, 2013). Wehrheim follows the state-of-the-art scholarship in the field by complementing this distant reading with subsequent close reading exercises, which thereby serve not only to substantiate the analysis with concrete examples but also function as a kind of “robustness test” in the statistical sense. However, the author did not consider potentially helpful oral history interviews with previous SVR members or archival documents, which implies that the close reading predominantly deals with those texts in the corpus previously identified as significant by the text mining metrics. Since Wehrheim is primarily interested in capturing the perception of the SVR and not so much in writing an internal history of the Council, this choice is certainly justifiable.

4The study proceeds in six steps. Following the introduction, the second chapter offers a more intensive examination of the functioning, strengths and weaknesses of topic modelling, a text mining method for structuring large amounts of text used in most chapters (more on this below). On this basis, the third chapter analyses the content of the annual reports, special reports and expert opinions published by the SVR between 1965 and 2015. According to Wehrheim’s analysis, the annual reports show a high degree of thematic and formal continuity. He aggregates the 70 topics identified by the topic model in the reports into 28 more general topics, leading to a thematical overview that is more robust than the more volatile individual topics initially estimated by the model. Many topics can be assigned to the four thematic areas of economic development, foreign trade, labour market and monetary policy (71), corresponding to the Council’s statutory mandate. Comparatively less discussed topics were social security, welfare distribution and the differences between East and West Germany (66). While economic development and foreign trade are described very consistently, the share of topics on the labour market increases over time; in the case of monetary policy, this share decreases. The consistency of the topics with the actual socio-economic developments since the 1960s (77, 98, 102, 114, 128, 143) can be understood as a form of external validation, which increases confidence in the estimated model.

5The fourth chapter—announced as the “heart” of the study (28)—uses again a mixture of text mining statistics and close reading to trace how the SVR has been involved in Germany’s media discourse since the 1960s. Theoretical and historical considerations suggest “that a media landscape increasingly oriented towards the financial market would express … an increased demand for economic information” (164), implying a gradually rising interest in the Council. However, the analysis shows that the high level of media attention that the SVR enjoyed until the early 1980s rapidly fell afterwards due to its perceived inability to suggest solutions in light of economic stagnation, unemployment, budgetary deficits and lacking reforms (172, 247, 263). Wehrheim explains the comeback of the SVR between the late 1990s and 2005 with a combination of media-effective Council appointments, a high presence of economic questions due to the reforms promoted by the red-green federal government and related media interest for economic experts. Another decline in resonance sets in after 2005, which, in turn, can be attributed to the personnel quarrels between SVR members (217, 249-278). The topic modelling analysis of the press corpus shows that most of the coverage follows the topics addressed in the Council’s reports surprisingly accurately, which is especially true if one only looks at the immediate press echo of the annual reports (206). The prevalence of the estimated topics refutes the intuitive assumption that the coverage of the annual reports is limited to the prominent growth forecasts that they contain. As in the case of the SVR corpus, the development of the estimated topic on the labour market is strongly correlated with the actual development of unemployment in Germany (231), which again increases confidence in the estimated model’s soundness. Frequent media coverage was given to the dissonance between the SVR experts and employers on the one hand and the trade unions and associated economists on the other, which was increasingly perceived as a “fundamental dispute between supply- and demand-oriented explanations” (240). Overall, the chapter shows that media response depended on the journalists’ evaluation of the Council’s competence, its perceived distance to the government and individual SVR members’ “media aptitude” (181).

6The fifth chapter deals with the “parliamentary footprint” (281) left by the SVR, which was mentioned at least once in about a quarter of all sessions of the Bundestag between 1965 and 2015. In a commendably open and reflective way, Wehrheim first explains why it was not possible to estimate a good topic model for the SVR references in plenary debates (288), which is why, in contrast to the previous chapters, he limits his analysis to descriptive statistics, key term extraction and, above all, close reading. The evidence collected by Wehrheim shows that the Council’s attention in the parliamentary debate follows the temporal pattern of media attention: While many references to the SVR can be identified until the mid-1980s, their number declined rapidly after 1985, only to make a brief comeback between 1998 and 2008. If one considers the size of the parliamentary groups, it becomes clear that especially the FDP, Germany’s liberal party, integrated the arguments of the annual reports from the 1970s onwards (293). For a long time, the SVR was mentioned almost exclusively in debates on its annual or special reports or the government’s annual economic reports (Jahreswirtschaftsberichte), but since the 1980s, it has also featured in the budgetary debates (305-313). Less surprising is the finding that the most characteristic feature of political references to the SVR was—and still is—the “cherry-picking” of relevant passages of the annual reports (316). Finally, Wehrheim notes that the discourse on the SVR became more polemical since the beginning of the 1980s and experienced, especially in the last two electoral periods covered by his study, a “rhetorical flattening” (rhetorische Verflachung, 331).

7The sixth chapter aims to generalise and contextualise the findings of the previous sections. To illuminate the broader significance of economic expertise for media and politics, it draws a quantitative comparison with Germany’s economic research institutes based on the digital tools offered by FAZ, Zeit and DWDS (Digitales Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache). The analysis suggests that the public resonance of the SVR was influenced to a large extent by overarching structural processes of scientisation and economisation, as these affected the resonance of the economic institutes similarly. Wehrheim identifies the downturn phases in the 1980s and the brief comeback of attention to the SVR at the end of the 1990s as particularly significant periods. Both turning points related to a fundamental change in the assessment of economic expertise, which also shaped the public’s view of the SVR. Despite similarities in their respective developments, however, the SVR had the “greatest resonance” in the Bundestag among the institutions of economic policy advice in almost the entire period under consideration (351). Regarding its future political and media resonance, there are, as Wehrheim concludes with a nod towards the Council’s economic forecasts, well-founded hopes for a “stable upswing” (364).

8The study entertains with a refreshing writing style, reflecting Wehrheim’s interest and experiences in journalism and breaks new methodological ground in several respects. The reader-friendly structure of the work is already evident from the nine tables and no less than 83 figures that substantiate what has been written. Apart from the introduction, each chapter offers a section entitled “The most important aspects in a nutshell” (Das Wichtigste in Kürze). The methodological potential of integrating text mining becomes apparent throughout the study. While most methods used by Wehrheim, especially topic modelling, are now well known within the field of digital humanities (as are their weaknesses), it is a great merit of his study to have brought these methods to a broader audience in German historical scholarship, which has so far been more concerned with the digitisation of sources than with their digital analysis. In the research context of the SVR, text mining methods are particularly illuminating because previous literature has assumed that meaningful quantification of thematic development, advisory success and reputation is impossible. Particularly noteworthy is Wehrheim’s creative use of the Herfindahl-Hirschman index, initially developed in the Industrial Organisation literature for measuring market concentration, for quantifying the “thematic concentration” of expert opinions (68, similar: 199, 296). In addition, the study repeatedly differentiates between “individual topics” (Einzeltopics), “aggregated topics” (Obertopics), “meta topics” (Metatopics) and “pseudo topics” (Pseudotopics) to distinguish between, respectively, the standard topic outputted by a topic model, the more general topics that Wehrheim creates by aggregating these individual topics, specific topics that have a high persistency over time and topics that might be seen as statistical artifacts because their meaning goes beyond thematic content (e.g. expressing a specific method used by the economic experts). This differentiation is a welcome contribution from an analytical point of view, although the plethora of expressions might pose a hurdle for readers less trained in the digital humanities.

9There are numerous points of departure for future research. Wehrheim does an excellent job of merging quantitative and qualitative analyses at several points in the study (see, e.g., 73-154, 231-249), which should serve as an example and guideline for applications of topic modelling in the humanities. Future work could expand on his results by quantifying the relationship of the estimated topics to relevant metadata, as is possible in “structural topic modelling” (Roberts et al., 2019). This method allows measuring how external observations about a specific text, such as the year of publication or the author’s name, affect the composition of the estimated topics. In this way, one could statistically explore whether minority votes semantically differ from majority reports, how the occurrence of minority votes changed the media’s language and to what extent the wording in annual reports reacted to the business cycle. As digital methods are often not yet precise enough to shed light on essential aspects of the SVR’s reasoning, like the underlying intellectual traditions and preferences guiding its analysis, there is also further scope for qualitative research. Given that the 2008 financial crisis has motivated critical work on the macroeconomic thinking of German economists and their alleged allegiance to ordoliberalism, it is vital to investigate whether such national specificities are reflected in the recommendations of a representative institution like the SVR. This might have even influenced the latter’s press coverage, as some media like the FAZ are known for their historical proximity to the Freiburg School and might have been more receptive to those reports that utilised an ordoliberal vocabulary.

10Overall, Im Olymp der Ökonomen impresses with a compelling combination of different fields of research—like the wide-ranging scholarship on economic experts, the contemporary historical research on the socio-economic upheavals “after the boom” and the economic literature on policy advice and the SVR—as well as innovative use of text mining methods in historical scholarship. Thanks to Wehrheim’s study, there are indeed well-founded hopes for a “stable upswing” at this exciting intersection of economic history and digital corpus linguistics.

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Bibliographie

Moretti, Franco. 2013. Distant Reading. London: Verso.

Roberts, Margaret E., Brandon M. Stewart, and Dustin Tingley. 2019. stm: An R Package for Structural Topic Models. Journal of Statistical Software, 91(2): 1-40.

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Anselm Küsters, « Lino Wehrheim, Im Olymp der Ökonomen. Zur öffentlichen Resonanz wirtschaftspolitischer Experten von 1965 bis 2015 »Œconomia, 12-1 | 2022, 181-186.

Référence électronique

Anselm Küsters, « Lino Wehrheim, Im Olymp der Ökonomen. Zur öffentlichen Resonanz wirtschaftspolitischer Experten von 1965 bis 2015 »Œconomia [En ligne], 12-1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 09 août 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/oeconomia/12425 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/oeconomia.12425

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Anselm Küsters

Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory, Frankfurt am Main. kuesters@lhlt.mpg.de

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