Color Me Flattered, Mr. Wesbury

Dow Jones & Company IncI failed you this year, businessy-type reader. I let “National Economist” Brian Wesbury’s annual spin of The Price is Rightwheel at the Lakeland Chamber Economic Forecast Breakfast occur without reminding you of his record.

Very briefly, he’s the guy who predicts where the Dow will go next year. I started ridiculing him in earnest back in 2008 when he called for Dow 16,000, and I bet him he was wrong. I won. Wasn’t hard. If I remember right, he missed by about 7,000 points. Full rundown of his absurdities and my intemperate renderings of them here and here.

But a couple of things happened this year, besides my laziness. First, a person associated with the breakfast, whom I like and respect very much, invited me to come as a guest. That would have circumvented my vow never to let any event associated with that guy get money out me, and I considered it. I ultimately figured that was too much of a technicality and regretfully declined the offer. But I wanted to write a more serious piece explaining why. Then the Tucson shooting happened over the weekend, and I just wasn’t really in the mood to get incisive. Then I got busy, as I often do, during the week. And really, I’m just some unpaid blogger* in Lakeland, so who cares what I think?

Fast forward to yesterday’s breakfast. Lo and behold, Brian Wesbury takes the stage and opens his remarks with a joke about the cold and then said this:

“There’s a blogger somewhere here in Lakeland I’m sure is going to blame the weather on me. So get ready to find that out tomorrow, along with why my predictions are all wrong.”

That’s how the dude opened his speech. Really. My phone lit up with texts — well, one text. Rarely has an act of dismissiveness caused me to grin quite so much. The idea that I’m in that guy’s head even an iota makes my day.

For the record, I don’t blame Brian Wesbury for the weather. Nor do I much care about his predictions. I didn’t even listen for this year’s version. To the extent they matter at all, it’s as an indicator of the larger issue: his professional dishonor and lack of respect for his audience.

For 199 of his 200 annual speaking engagements, those are somebody else’s problems. But one day a year, he comes in to our community and gets access to our public through the Chamber and The Ledger, who covers him. That makes him my problem.

Here’s the key passage from what I wrote last year:

If he takes questions, though, I’m begging somebody to man up and ask if “one of America’s prominent economists and economic forecasters” really thought the Dow was going to 16,000 in 2008. If so, why should anybody in this audience listen to single incompetent word he has to say? If not, what does the willingness to engage in that level of contempt for his paying audience – and then come back to face them — say about his personal and professional lack of shame.

My money’s on contempt, by the way. I don’t for a second believe Wesbury actually thought the Dow would get to 16,000. Consider that if you’re going. That’s how little respect he has for you as investors and people. Caveat emptor.

Brian Wesbury is a highly educated and polished professional economist, with a massive platform — a regular presence on CNBC, the Wall Street Journal, etc. — from which to state his views. But he seems to consider that platform a license to say whatever he wants without any self-reflection. Where is his professional honor? It’s another example of the real world version of the Spiderman lie: With great power comes great ability to avoid responsibility.

Remember, Wesbury wrote this, attached his personal prestige to it, the day Lehman Brothers collapsed:

The key thing to remember here is that the emphasis belongs on the word financial. These financial market problems are not a result of widespread economic weakness, otherwise known as a recession. In fact, real GDP has grown 2.2% in the past year and accelerated to a 3.3% annualized growth rate in the second quarter. — FirstTrust Monday Morning Outlook

And

The good news is that this financial earthquake is unlikely to turn into an economic earthquake. The bad loans made earlier this decade did not create a widespread economic boom; and the realization of how bad some of these loans are will not create an economic bust. — FirstTrust Monday Morning Outlook

I’ve wracked my brain to analagize this level of professional failure to other professions, and I can’t do it. What is the equivalent of this for a doctor or a reporter or an accountant or a lawyer or a football coach? Could any of those professionals just move on with their careers and professional credentials unscathed and their failures unacknowledged. Wouldn’t a doctor or reporter get sued? A lawyer get disbarred? A football coach run out of town on a rail? I like to think if I ever wrote something that blatantly wrong about something so important in my purported areas of expertise, I’d hang my head in shame and then try to make amends. And I’m not even paid for my analysis.

Here’s the thing, though. I don’t think Wesbury’s incompetent. I think if you looked at his personal investment portfolio it would reflect a reality much closer to reality. And Lord knows what he says, when no one is watching, to his real clients or employers, if he has any. I don’t think he believes in or cares about his popular predictions, as long as the invitations keep coming.

In truth, as the 200 speaking engagements per year indicate, I suspect Wesbury has ceased to function as an economist at all. He’s become a performer, and a pretty good one from what I can tell. He’s funny and provocative. Bravo. There’s a lot of money in telling people with money what they want to hear, particularly if you can paint it with a veneer of professional credibility. But he’s not helping you figure out how economic conditions affect your money; he’s collecting your money so he can continue to dance a jig about economic conditions. He looks at you and sees dollar signs, not humans with children and mortgages and investments.

Whatever you say about Lakeland Local, or me specifically — and you could probably say a lot that’s unkind about me — none of us look at our neighbors and readers as dollar signs. We take you seriously enough to write honestly and directly about what we think. And when someone high profile sweeps into my town doing the opposite concerning a subject of deep importance, it irks me. I consider it my professional responsibility to address it.

And, I have to say, if Brian Wesbury and Allen and Company are a little more defensive about his predictions than they used to be, I think I’m doing my unpaid job.

* – Editor’s Note: Based on the Lakeland Local stylebook, Mr. Townsend is a writer, not a blogger. However, we have left the line as is for Mr. Wesbury’s benefit.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Jeremy Brooks

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