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World

How Populism Shattered A Class Of Experts In 'The Guardian'

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Journalist and author Sebastian Mallaby sees this similarity in our presidential election and the British referendum to leave the European Union earlier this year. Both represent reactions against expert opinion. In an article in The Guardian, he writes that those reactions come in an era marked by a cult of the expert. That's the title of the article. And Sebastian Mallaby joins us from Paris. Welcome to the program.

SEBASTIAN MALLABY: Great to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: First, as you describe the cult of the expert, its chief deity would be Alan Greenspan, who chaired the Federal Reserve for nearly 20 years who you've written a book about. He was unelected, unaccountable to any voter, but he was conceded enormous power by politicians who are elected. And you say that's a pretty recent phenomenon. Is that right?

MALLABY: Well, as far as central bankers go, it's something which Greenspan almost created in the early 1990s. When he took the helm of the Fed in 1987, he was attacked for the first five years. And then things switched around when Clinton came into office in 1993. And from then on, central bankers had a new measure of respect, and experts were empowered as they had not been before.

SIEGEL: And they could make decisions that in other times might have been very much criticized by elected politicians or reversed by elected politicians at one time.

MALLABY: Yes. I mean in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson called the head of the Fed down to his ranch and then pushed him physically around the room, shouting in his face, boys are dying in Vietnam, and Bill Martin doesn't care because Johnson wanted a cut in interest rates that he wasn't getting.

In the '70s, Richard Nixon came up with a dirty trick to force the Fed to cut interest rates ahead of the 1972 election. So this was the pattern, and it continued until the early 1990s.

SIEGEL: What changed in the 1990s? Was it just Greenspan's personality?

MALLABY: Well, during the George H.W. Bush administration, there was a big effort by the White House to put pressure on Greenspan to cut interest rates. And what happened was that Greenspan fought back. So the White House, on the one hand, was spreading, you know, rather vicious rumors about Greenspan. They said, doesn't this creepy 65-year-old person who lives by himself and calls his mother every day - doesn't he remind you of Hitchcock's "Psycho?"

And he simply fought back. He proved himself able to go to Congress and rally his allies to block things the administration wanted. And seeing that story play out, the Clinton administration arriving in 1993 cleverly decided not to pick the same fight.

SIEGEL: If you were the Trump campaign, you would feel the mistrust of experts is wind in your sails. If you were the Clinton campaign, you'd find this an obstacle, that people don't like experts. You know all the experts. How do you see this playing out in the U.S. this year?

MALLABY: I think it may well be that not enough Americans are so anti-expert that Donald Trump will win. But nonetheless he does represent 40 percent or something of the electorate, and that means that Hillary Clinton will, if she becomes president, have to govern in the face of a nation that's skeptical of what elites and experts say is the right policy.

And I think it just becomes harder to cut through the inevitable disagreements that you have in any democracy by saying, look; somebody's carefully analyzed this question, and here's the answer.

SIEGEL: Of course the closer to unanimity that one has among the experts, the more it looks like just a common - a fashionable opinion to somebody on the outside of that reasoning.

MALLABY: I think one thing that's happened with experts is that they used to be believed when they said, look; this is objective analysis. And now that analysis is often perceived as a sort of thinly veiled expression of their own group interests. And maybe when climate scientists say that climate change is a big deal, perhaps it's because they want to talk it up a bit. I think that cynicism which used to apply to politics is being directed at the experts themselves, and that makes it harder for them to be listened to.

SIEGEL: Sebastian Mallaby, thanks for talking with us today.

MALLABY: Very good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Sebastian Mallaby's article in The Guardian is called "The Cult Of The Expert." His recent book is "The Man Who Knew: The Life And Times Of Alan Greenspan." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.