Rank and Vile

The Economist whiffed on its list of influential economists. Here’s how the magazine should have done it.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen
Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s exclusion from the list was just one of its problems.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, the Economist published a ranking of the world’s most influential economists, but you probably heard about it because of who didn’t make the cut, not who did. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, one of the most powerful people guiding economic policy today, was missing from the list of 15 names. All of them were men.

Certainly, the exclusion of Yellen was jarring and reeked of sexism, even if it was directly attributable to the editors’ decision to leave central bank governors out of the rankings. Faced with criticism, including from Amanda Marcotte in Slate, the British magazine explained that it simply wanted to look at the impact of economists’ opinions distinct from any institutions with which they’re affiliated. “The irony of Ms. Yellen’s exclusion from the list is that it is because she is too powerful, rather than not powerful enough,” it wrote in a note that accompanied a recalibrated list released Friday. But the maleness and the whiteness of the Economist’s original list aren’t its only problems.

You could gripe about some of the other obvious omissions, like White House Council of Economic Advisers chairman Jason Furman and Harvard University economics head Greg Mankiw, to name a few. Or the baffling No. 1 pick: Jonathan Gruber, the MIT professor and public health insurance architect whose comments about the “stupidity of the American voter” have enraged conservatives in recent months. Or the seemingly random placement of certain thinkers above others. But the real problem isn’t the list’s specific priorities or blind spots, but its methodology, which looked at media “utterances” over a 90-day period from September to December.

Yes, a list is just a list. Rankings of “influencers” in any field can feel hackish and arbitrary. Magazine list making is above all an act of theater, one that confers belonging and prestige on a select few so that the rest of us can debate it. But in our current era of dropping oil prices, increased growth, and widening income inequality, a ranking of economic “influence”—by which I mean one’s effect on policies and policymakers and the conversations surrounding them—could have some value, even if we also derive pleasure or angst from knowing whether Thomas Piketty is up or down. And there’s a much better way to do it.

Let’s start with the Economist’s approach, which looked at print, Web, and social-media mentions. Having a lot of “utterances” over 90 days means only that someone was the subject of lots of reporting, writing, and sharing during those 90 days. If the list were measured over the summer, Larry Summers might have topped it because he was considered to chair the Fed. Is Summers still mentioned frequently in media? Yes. Is he influential? Of course. Is he more influential than Yellen at the moment? Probably not. Might he be in the future? Perhaps. The editors of the Economist seem to be aware of this weakness in their approach, conceding that Gruber’s “elevation is a reminder that the news cycle is also an imperfect measure.” So they ought to have chosen an approach that more meaningfully assesses what their list claims to do.

Take the magazine’s placement of Piketty, who initially was four notches below Alan Greenspan on the list. Of course, Greenspan is an influential economist; a Bloomberg news item published around the same time had the headline “Greenspan Throws Wet Blanket on Hopes for Growth Breakout,” illustrating how much his words still resonate. But it’s been eight years since Greenspan was chairman of the Fed. In 2014, Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century captured the attention of not only academics and progressives, but also Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein and shareholder activist Carl Icahn. It’s hard to find an economist who has appealed to intellectual, political, and corporate circles with such breadth in recent memory. Even right-leaning Tyler Cowen, of George Mason University, said he would have ranked Piketty No. 1 in 2014.

How backward is the Economist’s way of measuring influence? Tauhid Zaman, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management who studies social-data analytics (and is known for his work on predicting retweets), says it’s similar to how Yahoo measured relevance in the mid-1990s. The foundation of Yahoo’s algorithm was that any mention of a word contributes to its influence. In 1998, Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin became PC Magazine’s “search engine of choice” with an algorithm of page ranks that relied not on the number of times a word was mentioned on a Web page but how many times other websites linked to a page. If Google had made a similar list of economists, it probably would have gotten a different result.

Perhaps the Economist should have taken a page from Google and made a list of “Your Favorite Economists’ Favorite Economists.” Influence, after all, isn’t a question of media mentions, and while that may have something to do with one’s impact on policy or policymakers, there’s far from perfect overlap. Journalists drive the conversation, but not necessarily the business, academic, and political realities of economics. Indeed, except in the case of Paul Krugman, Ben Bernanke, and Summers, there was a wide gulf between the figures who made the Economist’s Top 15 and the impact of their papers on the field’s literature, which is known as their RePec (“research papers in economics”) rank. While the Economist is right to challenge RePec’s total claim on measuring influence in the field, a better yardstick might have balanced RePec rankings with what economists actually think.

The onset of social media and the increasingly rapid metabolism of digital publishing doesn’t change the reality that the 1970s-era concept of network centrality—identifying the most powerful member of a network—remains the best way to measure influence. That’s why the Economist ought to have looked at peer groups. Individual economists could tell list-makers about the monumental figures whose work undergirds their own, or identify trends in scholarship and policy analysis before those ideas have been published widely.

A peer survey wouldn’t be a perfect measure, of course. It could reinforce old-boys-club tendencies. A 2012 Science study by then–New York University business professor Sinan Aral considered what effect media mentions actually had on users. The study looked at how likely Facebook users are to adopt a movie-review app after one of their friends recommended it. The result was that peers of the same age are most influential on each other. Women are less susceptible to influence than men. Aral’s research suggests if economists ranked their peers, we still might see a result affected by age and gender bias and other blinders.

But then again, maybe a survey of economists would point to the many female economists who do have high-level posts, like Asli Demirgüç-Kunt of the World Bank, Linda Goldberg of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Loretta Mester at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Kristin Forbes at the Bank of England, Magda ElSayed Kandil at the International Monetary Fund, Leora Klapper at the World Bank, and others. Perhaps their peers in academia would highlight Carmen Reinhart of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, for example. Or maybe a list concerned with more than the past 90 days would take the long view, the only sensible perspective in a field where ideas can reverberate for decades, and include important figures like Kenneth Arrow, Gary Becker, Barbara Bergmann, Hernando de Soto, Francis Fukuyama, Arthur Laffer, Elinor Ostrom, and Nassim Taleb.

The Economist‘s updated ranking, which removed all policymakers from contention, had the tone of a mea culpa, but the result was just a new list of men. Greenspan was bumped, and Joseph Stiglitz, Martin Feldstein, Kenneth Rogoff, Justin Wolfers, Alan Blinder, Simon Johnson, and Jeffrey Sachs made it into the Top 15. Piketty rose eight spots. Robert Shiller got bumped up five. The fact that the list changed so significantly only confirms that ranking top economists is highly subjective. Still, the Economist’s self-reflection is a welcome sign. Maybe, with some additional tweaks, its next list might be even more, well, influential.