For nearly a decade, NPR's David Kestenbaum covered science. Before that, he was a physicist. But just last month, he switched beats to ... the economy. Needless to say, the days of irrefutable facts and axiomatic equations are over. Kestenbaum talks about the challenges of the economics beat.
Artist: John Lurie
For reporters, the problem with covering the science of economics is that it’s not really a science. There is cause and effect, but very little consensus on what exactly those are in any particular case. This poses a special problem for David Kestenbaum, a physicist who has worked as a reporter for nearly a decade on NPR’s Science Desk.
Just last month, he switched to the economics beat and found himself hacking his way through a thicket of conflicting theories and assumptions. David, welcome to the show. DAVID KESTENBAUM: Thanks very much. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so, David, I have a joke for you. All right? DAVID KESTENBAUM: Oh, good. BROOKE GLADSTONE: A physicist, an engineer and an economist are stranded on an island with nothing to eat. A can of soup washes ashore. Desperate to open it, the physicist examines the physical properties of the can, the engineer looks to improvise a tool to penetrate the can, and the economist says, assume a can opener. [PAUSE] Okay, so it’s not [LAUGHING] so funny. DAVID KESTENBAUM: [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think it rings true or not? DAVID KESTENBAUM: Sure. I mean, it’s not like physics, right? In physics and science in general I would argue, you are, in general, moving toward truth. You know, you’re moving toward an answer. I mean, no one thinks Einstein was wrong. Right? But economics, you know, I just feel like there are very few solid places to stand. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So here you are, you’re new, chaos all around you. I don't know — what do you do? DAVID KESTENBAUM: Basically my approach is to talk to five times as many people as I normally would [BROOKE LAUGHS], you know, on a beat that I know well. I just over report all these stories. You know, when someone says something to me, I say it back to them. I say, are you saying this, this, this? Do I have that right?
And a lot of the errors in reporting happen this way, right, it’s that you think you've understood something, and that you haven't. And so I'm trying to be really careful that I actually — what I understand is correct. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But for someone like you, a physicist, a science reporter, tiptoeing your way through a minefield of opinion that’s DAVID KESTENBAUM: [LAUGHS] Right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: being presented as fact, how do you sort through them? DAVID KESTENBAUM: The things that I find really confounding are like, you'll be talking to someone and then this little thought will occur to you, like, wait, what is money? [LAUGHTER] And, like — that’s like, you know, you could go for [LAUGHS], that could be like four days of time right there. But you’re on deadline [LAUGHS] and you've got to put the story together. BROOKE GLADSTONE: They're assuming a can opener. DAVID KESTENBAUM: They're assuming the can opener. I mean, you know, my friend and colleague Adam Davidson here was explaining, like, GDP to me and about, you know, the sum of goods and services, and like I buy something from you and then they buy something from someone else, and that’s good. That all counts toward it.
And I said, well, why don't you and I just stand in the corner of the office with a million dollar bill? You'll make some piece of junk that pencil I'll buy it from you for a million dollars and I'll sell you my sock for a million [BROOKE LAUGHS], back and forth, and we'll increase the GDP.
And then you have to stop and think about why that doesn't actually make sense [LAUGHS]. But, again, these are like, you know, long philosophical inquiries, and I've got to do a news story. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it’s an interesting question you raise. I mean, is that what’s been going on? People have been exchanging socks and pencils for a million bucks apiece? DAVID KESTENBAUM: [LAUGHS] And the government’s now going to buy up all our socks? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Exactly. DAVID KESTENBAUM: And hope that at some point there’s a greater demand for socks? Yeah, I think that’s exactly what’s going on. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Well, thank you for clearing that up, David Kestenbaum. DAVID KESTENBAUM: You’re welcome. BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Kestenbaum was one of NPR’s science correspondents. Now he’s covering the economy for NPR’s Planet Money.