Bryan Caplan  

Mankiw's Pithiest... Post... Ever.

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I like to see myself as an equal-opportunity offender, but I can't measure up to Mankiw's latest:

Consider a person who

A. takes an important truth developed by others,
B. exaggerates it for dramatic effect,
C. as a result, draws public attention to this important truth, and
D. also brings acclaim to himself as a profound, far-sighted, truth-telling guru.

Who do I have in mind?

Maybe you think it's Al Gore, and if so, you are correct. But I also have in mind the supply-side economists of the 1980s. The more I think about it, the more similar Al Gore and the supply-siders appear.

The conclusion is so good it hurts:
Herb Stein once said, "There is nothing wrong with supply-side economics that division by ten wouldn't fix." I thought of this quotation when I saw Al Gore's movie. The more I think about it, the more I realize how parallel these two efforts of public education, or perhaps political propaganda, really are.

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
General Specific writes:

Please add Ayn Rand to the list and her doorstop Atlas Shrugged.

Now, if you could just find yourself an important truth to get behind, you might be on the way to fame and fortune.

General Specific writes:

OK. Forget Ayn. She should get the Doorstop prize. Instead, lets's consider Martin Luther King Jr.? He won one of them Nobel peace prizes. Another exaggerator and self-aggrandizer? Just wondering. Trying to get my hands around this one.

Jeff writes:

Anyone else notice that Mankiw's been the receiver of some hard knocks in the blogosphere in recent weeks? The minute Mankiw states anything that resembles an endorsement of Republican policy or a criticism of Democratic plolicy and he's branded by DeLong and others as an ideologue. Half the time he's not attacked for giving an opinion but for simply posting a graph!

He even recently disabled comments--I wonder for how long.

Jeff writes:
October 2007 Update: The rules above have proved too costly to enforce. Comments are no longer enabled. Feel free to email me any comments you might have.

That's from Mankiw's comment policies.

I think it was the post in average income tax rates that did it. I might call it a shame that he disabled comments, but the truth is that there probably wasn't much to miss anymore.

Daublin writes:

I would like to know what convinced Mankiw that CO2 increases are a serious problem. In my book he has a good track record for intellectual honesty and critical thinking--not to mention just plain intelligence--so I would like to know how he came to the opposite conclusion from me on this issue.

I am having difficulty finding the good arguments on my own. The usual suspects are Al Gore's movie and the IPCC, but the former is wildly exaggerated and the latter does not sound scary outside of the executive summaries. I try RealClimate, to get a blog format, but I am usually unsatisfied with their commentary and I am deeply disturbed to read that they censor out strong counter-arguments.

So where do I find a solid argument?

I do not terribly mind that spiritual "do the right thing" movements exist. However, in this case the spiritual feel-good movements are completely drowning out the solid, intellectual arguments.

Can anyone here give a recommendation? Mankiw seems to have comments off.

General Specific writes:

Modern industry spends billions every year trying to influence public opinion. I've yet to see a single comment on a blog like this expressing any concern about Exxon or any other oil company, for example, spending billions to "educate" the public, whether in the form of advertisements or support for think tanks and special interest groups. Now we see a movie and public figure trying to raise awareness--not unlike Martin Luther King trying to raise awareness for human rights--and it drives those on the right--as well as libertarians--crazy (just as the racists at the National Review spent its moral capital attacking Martin Luther King). Last time I looked, the Nobel peace prize and the other awards Gore has won weren't scientific arbiters. The award is political in nature. So this one seems appropriate.

Let's look at where we are in the debate. I like to look at trends. Years ago, the right and libertarians mocked any consideration of global warming, in particular the contributions of CO2. Now they've changed course. Facts confront them. They are having trouble mocking the science of CO2, so they change the argument to either (a) it's not going to be serious or (b) it might be serious but we're better off to adapt. (The latter argument includes the ultra-science buffs who know dilithium crystals will save humanity as we head out into the galaxy.)

The mockers intention, all along, has been to stop public considerations of this issue. Seriously. If nothing else, Gore has raised awareness of this issue, similar to the way he funded the internet we are using right now, and both are good things and shouldn't be mocked.

Malthusianism, limits, sustainability--all are concepts we should seriously consider. Not slavishly like the ultra greens or others on the left. But consider all the same. Not ignore. And not mock.

Yet many who watch this blog, those who slavishly follow the conservative or libertarian party line, are as unable to think critically about these issues as they are about many other issues that overlap with their economic predilections. Ideology takes precedence.

More work needs to be done to better understand global warming. But the childish attacks on those doing that work, the attempts to malign researchers as little more than chasing after funding dollars, should stop.

Gore may have selected some extreme cases to make his argument, but those cases exist within the realm of possibility. Supply-siders continue to say that government revenues rise when taxes are cut. This has been proven false.

Gore looks at a worst case scenario to say "this could be a major problem." Supply-siders lie. No comparison. Mankiw's post may be terse. But it's also false. Maybe that's why he turned off comments. Anyone who doesn't like a particular set of comments always shuts them down as divisive or unconstructive. Perhaps his comments had too many inconvenient truths?

bee writes:

Global warming is clearly not a problem that should be in the forefront of humanity's concerns. We humans have no evidence that it is a material problem. Further, we can safely conclude that humanity plays a small role in driving temperature change of the planet earth.

The IPCC of course tells us that we have a problem. My only issue with the IPCC is that they practice political rhetoric not science. They promulgated the hockey stick curve even when the majority of scientists in the field questioned the erasing of the little ice age. They have dropped the curve in their latest work. They however continue to employ models that are wildly inaccurate and not empirically validated. The downward revisions to temperature changes forecasts is of such magnitudes that we should all question what the models are doing. How the IPCC can confidently assert that they represent our best understanding is troubling at best.

To those who insist that there is a problem I would like to know how they know. The planet's temperature has increased by less than 1 degree over the past 100 years. The change largely occurred in the first part of the century. Further, we now have strong evidence as reported in Science by Gurd in 2007 (spelling?) that the increase in temperature over the past century was not staticsally significant. The climate models touted by many as "proof" are hardly acceptable. When the parameters of these models are calibrated using historical data they do not forecast any material temperature changes in the future. We also have a great deal of evidence that the impact of C02 on the planet's temperature will cap at around 1 degree and we have already experienced two thirds of the increase. We do not need to delve into the facts that man made green house gases are a TINY fraction of the total and their variability is dwarfed by nature.

One thing remains clear to those who demand that science stick to the facts, we have no problem.

The assertion that major corporations spend billions is a rhetorical ruse. Scientists are spending billions on research to promulgate this myth. In addition, if advertising and PR were a fraction as effective at shaping public opinions all companies would be doing great. They clearly fail at a steady rate despite their best efforts to shape pubic opinion. I would suggest that we put aside such speculation and focus on the science.

The reality is that millions of years ago large track of the earth was covered in ice. Humanity exists during one of the few hospitable times on the planet. The future also holds another massive ice age.

Kimmitt writes:

Weird -- if Mankiw thought Gore were like one of the supply-siders from the 80s, you'd think he'd already have signed up to work for him.

General Specific writes:

"In addition, if advertising and PR were a fraction as effective at shaping public opinions all companies would be doing great."

I suggest looking at the success the tobacco industry had with cigarettes, the millions (probably billions) they spent "informing" the public of the pleasures--and medical benefits--of smoking, and the smaller amounts spent through the years to inform people of the truth--the uphill battle required simply to warn people of the characteristics of the product.

One might also look at the success the Bush administration had marketing an inferior and failed product called the War in Iraq. Successful marketing. Bad product.

In addition, I suggest considering the economic forces aligned against doing anything about CO2 production versus the need to look honestly and accurately at the impact of global warming.

Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Al Gore--all marketers. The Nobel peace price is political, isn't always used correctly--how can we all ever agree 100%--but is used by the committee to highlight what they think important--no different than the selection process they have for for economics.

"[The IPCC] promulgated the hockey stick curve"

This controversy from the right wing has been completely debunked. Wiki has a nice article on it. It was a red herring. I'm surprised it's come up again.

"The reality is that millions of years ago large track of the earth was covered in ice. Humanity exists during one of the few hospitable times on the planet. The future also holds another massive ice age."

This is simply fatalistic. Long ago, the earth didn't exist. That doesn't imply I can dump my garbage on my neighbors lawn because someday "another ice age" will cover it up or, even worse, the sun will cook all that garbage away when the sun expands before dying.

Simply put: humans--economic animals that we are--should try as best as possible to understand the impact of our numbers, our consumption, and our production on the environment we live in. Those who have tried to do so, historically, have faced enormous pressures, particularly from vested economic interests.

"One thing remains clear to those who demand that science stick to the facts, we have no problem."

Where do you acquire your "science" and "facts" on global warming?

wafranklin writes:

Interesting set of the SOS (same old stuff) and rationale. Climate change, warming, C02, etc. More interesting, and not something anyone seems to want to talk about is the carrying capacity of this old globe designed for perhaps max sustainable population of 2-3 billion people, now at 6.7 and reaching for 9 billion. Calling Mr. Malthus.

marc resnick writes:

I would add to this section any bestseller written by a journalist. The World is Flat is basic industrial engineering. Blink is basic cognitive psychology. Us academics just have to learn to write like these guys and we could be rich and famous too.

FC writes:

marc resnick:

Murray Gell-Mann made a similar comment some years ago, and he had both a Nobel Prize and a successful popsci book as evidence. Physicists seem to have more enthusiasm for popular writing than most academics; q.v. Gamow, Penrose, Hawking, Thorne, Greene, et al.

Friedman's clunky prose style and sloppy arguments haven't kept him off the bestseller lists, so there's really no good reason for academics to hesitate.

David Robinson writes:


"Weird -- if Mankiw thought Gore were like one of the supply-siders from the 80s, you'd think he'd already have signed up to work for him."

Considering that Mankiw is NOT a supply side economist, and that he makes clear his disagreement in THIS POST, I'm a little confused by your comment.

Sinclair Davidson writes:

Let's remind ourselves what Mankiw said about that "important truth" is the first edition of his textbook.

Some fads come from charlatans who use crazy theories to gain the limelight and promote their own interests. Others come from cranks who believe that their theories are really true. An example of fad economics occurred in 1980, when a small group of economists advised presidential candidate Ronald Reagan that an across-the-board cut in income tax would raise tax revenue. … It may be that some snake-oil salesman is trying to sell a miracle cure for what ails the economy.
Troy Camplin writes:

Gore's Nobel is one of the most annoying and least deserved Nobel Prizes since Yasir Arafat received his.

Kimmitt writes:

Mr. Robinson -- Mr. Bush is.

Kimmitt writes:

As is Mr. Giuliani, come to think of it.

spencer writes:

You have to love the reasoning behind, mankind survived an ice age so we do have have to be concerned about global warming.

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