By William Sweet
Brian A. Bethune, who joined the Amherst faculty as a visiting assistant professor of economics this fall, may not yet be a familiar figure at the college, but his name appears time and again in leading financial news sources. Bethune was most recently the director and lead economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass., and is a longtime consultant specializing in global macroeconomics and forecasting, monetary and fiscal policies, credit markets and business and industry cycles.
“We are delighted to welcome Brian to the department,” said Christopher Kingston, associate professor and chair of the economics department at Amherst. “His wealth of hands-on experience as an industry analyst and commentator will enable him to offer our students a unique perspective on the real-world application of modern macroeconomics.
Bill Sweet of the college’s Office of Public Affairs spoke with Bethune recently about real-world economics, his move to academia, and the good, bad and ugly of offering expert perspective to reporters on deadline. An edited version of the interview appears below.
Brian A. Bethune, visiting assistant
Q: In the first two weeks of the fall semester, we have seen your comments, and Amherst affiliation, in outlets such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, Bloomberg and Reuters news services and more. How did you get your name in these Rolodexes? How does one become a go-to guy in the financial news world?
A: In many respects, it’s serendipity. I happened to be a professional in a certain area of economics which deals with macroeconomics, the business cycle and current analysis, and that happens to be a very hot topic right now, mainly because the economy is not functioning that well. As we got into the teeth of the crisis back in late 2007, people in my field had to ramp up the level of coverage and the depth. From late 2007 to 2009, probably three or four reports were going out per week dealing with this situation. People in the financial press are tracking these issues, and they want expert commentary. Business cycle economists are in big demand. If they like the way you explain things, then they typically will go back to you, if you are viewed as somebody that can explain things in plain English.
Q: What are you getting asked about the most these days?
A: There’s a sense that the economy is still struggling, trying to extract itself from the crisis that we went through. There’s a fear that we could relapse. So that’s a clear problem. Then there’s a tremendous amount of pressure that’s now building up in the European situation, creating a lot of attention on how that’s going to pan out and how that could potentially impact the United States’ economy. The other thing, of course, that galvanized the markets and people was the downgrade of the U.S. Treasury debt [rating from AAA to AA+] on Aug. 5. That was one of these signature events that causes people to step back, recalibrate and rethink.
Q: Do you feel that the media do an adequate job of covering the economy? Is there some question you would like them to be asking, that they are not?
A: I try to steer them in the right direction, which doesn’t succeed as often as one would like. They generally have one track they’re on, one story they’re working on, and I have to try to figure out a way to move them off of that. In many cases, I’m able to say to them: “Look—that really isn’t a relevant question. What you really need to be looking at is this…” Quite often, they are responsive and will consider that. I usually deal with pretty good journalists, and they generally listen to what I’m saying. If someone just wants a ratification of their own view, typically they won’t call me.
One of the things that quite often comes up is [that] people have trouble understanding things that are really within [American] control, versus impacts that come from outside the country. The easiest example would be crude oil prices, [which] are determined in world markets. We tend to spend too much time fretting about where crude oil prices might be month to month, and that is more of a distraction. You probably want to be more concerned about what’s happening in domestic markets. For instance, the transportation industry does an amazing job of moving goods and services and people around with a lot of reliability, and it seems to find a way to adjust to the shocks without falling apart.
Q: Do you worry about being misquoted?
A: Often [reporters] will misinterpret something, yes. But you have to look at the total picture. Are they getting 80 percent of what your message is? If so, then you can’t fret too much about the 20 percent that they missed. If you did, then you may as well not even talk to them. Because it’s going to happen. It’s just part of that business. Usually these financial [reporters] are on very tight deadlines, and they’re trying to get something out quickly.
Q: Why academia at this point in your career? Why Amherst?
A: If you’ve spent as many years as I have in school, there’s always a desire, at some point, to get involved with teaching and research and that kind of thing, if the opportunity presents itself. When I graduated initially with my Ph.D. (in International Economics from the University of Geneva) I did teach, but then I got involved with private industry, which generally is pretty demanding, so you don’t really have the opportunity to do the teaching or research that you’d like to get involved with. I started to look at colleges that would be interested in having me there as a visitor or adjunct, and Amherst was really the best option for me. People like Geoff Woglom had been working in my field—I knew of his work—and that’s helpful, if you have that point of contact.
Q: What kind of things will you be teaching in your course “Topics in Macroeconomics”?
A: The course focuses in on some of the phenomena that we’re actually seeing in the economy: the business cycle, the dynamics, the types of problems that people are looking at. For instance, I do have a week where we deal with international [economics], and China’s economy is explicitly called out as a subject matter. Any senior course in macroeconomics needs to deal with that issue. How did China create this situation where they are seemingly able to create a lot of economic success? There has to be a new statecraft that deals with these new players. China in particular, Brazil, India—they are all becoming economic powerhouses, and I don’t think that we really know how to deal with that in a very effective way. We’re still using the old political/economic models that are, in many respects, obsolete. There’s [an] interdependence that’s evolving the same way that the interdependence of the U.S. and Europe evolved after the Second World War. We need to peel back the onion of the Chinese economy.
Q: For professors who might have an interest in doing the kind of expert commentary that you do, could you offer any suggestions or advice?
Q: What do you say to a professor who might feel this is too much showboating or blowing one’s horn—that it’s beneath him or her?
A: Then you probably stay out of it. On the other hand, you could look at it this way: If you are really and truly an expert in your area, then the American public deserves to hear from you. Otherwise you will leave the field to the showboaters to garner even more of the stage. The classic example is in economics: [commentators] that I call “doomsters,” who are constantly saying it’s the end of the world, the economy’s melting down, and they’re constantly carping on a negative theme. There’s always an audience for a negative view. I look at that and say, “Why should the American public be hoodwinked by this guy?” I think we have a responsibility, I have a responsibility, to make sure that people don’t get a very biased view.
Q: Can this kind of exposure benefit the academic expert?
A: Yes. Let’s say the college may not be getting as much recognition as it should for the kind of work that’s going on [here]. Then it can be very beneficial to the college program—to the faculty, for the students—because if it improves the profile or the visibility of the college, then [students’] job prospects are enhanced when they go out on the job market. A college that is more engaged in current issues is going to be viewed probably more positively.
Q: Getting back to politics: Is it realistic to expect that a president can have a true effect on the economy, and should be applauded or blamed for economic changes?
A: Part of the problem we run into is [that] the politicians themselves are sometimes not clear; they’re not frank with the American public. I think, generally, right now— because of the evolution of the world economy, the growth in the world population and the complexity of the interactions among economies—it’s very difficult for any one individual or even a group of individuals to get their arms around this. I think, to some extent, these expectations are out of line with the reality of what can be done. This all too often exacerbates the underlying political cycle: the expectations are too high; then people are disappointed; and then that leads to [leaders being voted out and the start of] another political cycle. And does that really get us anywhere? Probably not. The irony is, if the economy is doing well, the politicians tend to look good, even if they may not be doing a very good job.
Q: That’s it for my prepared questions. But since I have an economist here, I have to ask another.
A: Everybody does this. [laughs]
Q: I just want to hear you say again that we’re not doomed.
A: [laughs] No, we’re not doomed.