EconoFact, an online publication launched just over a year ago by faculty at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, is continuing to work toward its mission of reintroducing facts and economic analysis into public discourse on social and economic policy.
EconoFact provides data and analysis of current policy issues through short memos written in accessible language, according to the EconoFact website.
Michael Klein, the William L. Clayton professor of international economic affairs at The Fletcher School and co-executive director of EconoFact, said he noticed a lack of sound economic policy ideas from either side during the 2016 presidential election campaign and wondered what he could do to remedy it. Klein was the chief economist in the Office of International Affairs of the U.S. Department of the Treasury from 2010 to 2011.
“When I was [working at the U.S. Treasury], mostly what I did was write these short memos … about policy that would go to the Under Secretary for International Affairs and to the Secretary and sometimes to the President,” Klein said. “I was writing for people who did not have a degree in economics, but were interested in policy.”
Klein said his work at the Treasury inspired the idea for EconoFact, and he decided to reach out to friends of his who were economists to help him with the project.
“What I wanted was for professors who had spent their entire careers studying important economic policy issues to have a way to present to the public, to journalists, to politicians and their staff, what we have learned from economic analysis and what we know from statistics,” Klein said.
Klein approached the Director of The Edward R. Murrow Center for a Digital World at The Fletcher School and Edward R. Murrow Visiting Professor of Public Diplomacy Edward Schumacher-Matos about the concerns he and fellow economists had.
“Their great fear was that economic and social policy was going awry, and they wanted to know what they could do about it, how could they influence the public debate. So I said I had an idea, and that idea was EconoFact,” Schumacher-Matos said.
Schumacher-Matos explained that he had conducted research on how audiences react to articles based on their biases, and concluded that it was important to use a fact-first formula when designing EconoFact.
“We were at a moment in time where we had lots of opinions being flung all over the place, but what was missing was just some sober grounding in facts,” Schumacher-Matos said. “The country has become so polarized that the moment most readers smell something opposed to their bias, they won’t read it.”
According to Klein, each memo follows the same basic structure.
“We start by declaring what the issue is and then include a series of bullet points that lay out statistics or historical experience or basic economic analysis in a way that makes it very accessible for a non-expert. Only at the end does the author offer a conclusion that might reflect views of the way things should be,” Klein said.
Klein explained that EconoFact relies on a team of economists that are a part of the EconoFact Network to contribute memos for publication on the website, but EconoFact also accepts submissions from economists outside the network.
“We have people who we approach because we know they’re experts in a certain area. Increasingly, as we have built up our brand and become better known, we get people who approach us with ideas for memos,” Klein said.
EconoFact publishes memos on a variety of topics, including immigration, charter schools, the social safety net, international trade, finance and macroeconomics, according to Klein.
“Economists have things to say about all of these issues. Like charter schools, there’s a lot of economic analysis of charter schools, of immigration. Economics is a very broad area where we use the tools of economics and statistical analysis for a really wide range of things,” Klein said.
Miriam Wasserman (F ’97), managing editor of EconoFact, said she tries to ensure that the memos break down topics in a way that is accessible to a broad audience.
“I try to make sure that the concepts are clear for a public that is interested and intelligent but doesn’t have a PhD in economics, necessarily. I try to make them as jargon-free as I can, and I also play a role in trying to make sure that the content is nonpartisan,” Wasserman said.
According to Wasserman, part of the value of EconoFact is its ability to incorporate new perspectives into the debate on an issue.
“Sometimes there’s … an echo chamber, and sometimes we can bring in new voices that are looking at things from a different perspective that can help expand the debate and add … depth to the coverage,” Wasserman said.
Kailash Prasad, who is in charge of data visualization and audience engagement, spoke about how EconoFact has grown since its launch in January 2017.
“When we started off, we had about six memos and 20 economists, and a couple of weeks ago we published our 100th memo and now we have around 70 economists in the network,” Prasad said.
Schumacher-Matos spoke of EconoFact’s efforts to appear in the news media on a regular basis.
“We have a regular working thing with them where they’re citing our stuff, publishing our memos in full when they’re linked to something in the news. We’ve been talking to some of the big mainstream news media to see if we can come up with a distribution deal,” Schumacher-Matos said.
Prasad discussed other ways in which EconoFact is trying to grow its audience, from adding visual elements like interactive charts and graphs to possibly starting a podcast and sponsoring events.
“We’re limited to about three memos a week, even if we have a lot of people who want to contribute, so that’s why branching out into events and podcasts is good,” Prasad said.
According to Klein, EconoFact has partnered with Macmillan Publishers to publish EconoFact memos in textbooks, allowing students to connect what they are learning to current events.
EconoFact has also created a newsletter that is sent out every time a new memo is published, and also when there are relevant events coming up where EconoFact’s memos might be useful, Klein noted.
“We sent out a newsletter in anticipation of the President’s State of the Union … [that presented] memos from our archive and topics that are likely to be covered in the State of the Union,” Klein said.
Klein said that ultimately, EconoFact’s goal is to be a fair arbiter in the debate on policy issues amidst politicians who are often trying to score political points.
“The public discourse is not necessarily well informed by economic statistics or analysis. We’re trying to inform the public so people make better informed choices and understand the difference between what politicians say and what is actually the truth of these matters,” Klein said.