Bryan Caplan  

Ouroboros?

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One of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies:

DONALD
It's, like, I once saw this
picture of a snake swallowing it's tail --

Kaufman collapses, puts his head in his hands.

KAUFMAN
Ourobouros.

DONALD
I don't know what that means.

KAUFMAN
The snake is called Ourobouros.


My least favorite part from Chris Hayes' quite fair review of my book:
Indeed, in this respect, the book eats its own tail. Caplan wants to grant a presumptive authority to the consensus view of economists, but the consensus view of economists is that voters are rational, which is, of course, precisely the position he wants to convince us is wrong.

Reply: If I claimed that economists were infallible, then Hayes would be right on target. But I don't. As Hayes properly notes, I only grant economists (and other experts) the presumption of being right about their subject. And since I grant economists that presumption, the burden is on me, the dissenter, to rebut the case for the rational voter model. Hence, the book!

I should add, though, that economists' consensus on the rational voter model is only semi-serious to begin with. If you'll forgive a self-quotation:

Nearly all modern economic theories of politics begin by assuming that the typical citizen understands economics and votes accordingly — at least on average...

In stark contrast, introductory economics courses still tacitly assume that students arrive with biased beliefs, and try to set them straight, leading to better policy. Paul Samuelson famously remarked that "I don't care who writes a nation's laws — or crafts its advanced treaties — if I can write its economics textbooks." This assumes, as teachers of economics usually do, that students arrive with systematic errors.

What a striking situation: As researchers, economists do not mention systematically biased economic beliefs; as teachers, they take their existence for granted.


Bottom line: I'm not Ouroboros. On my own terms, economists can and do make mistakes. When they do, the sensible course for the critic is to assume the burden of proof and help get the consensus back on track. Which is precisely what I do.


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TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/712
The author at Tim Worstall in a related article titled The Myth of the Rational Voter writes:
    I'm doing a review of Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter so I'll save the overview until later. But I really rather love the way that, in attempting to refute the central argument, Kevin Drum actually makes the [Tracked on May 27, 2007 12:11 PM]
COMMENTS (5 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

A perhaps more important question is what are the systematic weaknesses of economists?

As we saw when elite American economists were given a chance to play a major role in Russia in the 1990s and ended up contributing to one of the worst human catastrophes of our generation, the myth of the rational economist is one that desperately needs debunking.

Steve Sailer writes:

Research into the myth of the rational economist could well begin with Bryan's recent post "Borjas: What's His Problem," which is a locus classicus of economist's notorious shortcomings: laziness, moralism, and egotism.

dearieme writes:

The problem lies in the word "expert". I might be viewed as having been an expert in two areas. In one, I was rather like an economist: I read and thought, calculated and predicted. But in the other, I really was an expert: controlled experiments could soon prove me wrong or leave me vindicated. It's quite a difference.

calmo writes:

I can see this "granting" business has worked somewhat in lubricating this somewhat incestuous exercise of reviewing one's own work.

As Hayes properly notes, I only grant economists (and other experts) the presumption of being right about their subject. And since I grant economists that presumption, the burden is on me, the dissenter, to rebut the case for the rational voter model. Hence, the book!

Well, I feel the same privileges should bestown (not be stoned, you blind people) upon this here post...although I could be persuaded to accept a lesser position (smaller stones, incapacitated throwers...) at the outset...such a steep curve learner and promising, but still, (so sadly,) non-expert I B.

Let me confess my ignorance and total exposure to the charm of this figure, Ouroboros...that figure that illustrates for some experts (possibly not the consensus which might possibly be corrected... with efforts valiant enough...) the self destruction that comes from a mix of fatail narcissism, starvation and braindeadedness. [aka orthodoxy]
Ok, that wasn't it: the refusal to negotiate with yerself...like the President says? [What could be tastier than yer own tail forchrisake? No melamine and so nutritious! No delivery costs and so eco friendly!]
Ok, that wasn't it eiher: it's the terrible inbreeding, isn't it? After awhile even the other snakes slink off in disgust.

C L writes:

I think the reviewer means that you rely on economists' consensus to determine how public opinion is irrational. You define diverging from economists' consensus as irrational. Then, you also say that economists' consensus is wrong in that the consensus supports the view that public opinion is rational. But you already set up the presupposition that diverging from economists' consensus is irrational, so in expressing a viewpoint that diverges from that consensus, you yourself are being irrational, right?

Making this claim requires such convoluted language, I won't be surprised if it's not at all clear.

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