Arnold Kling  

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Dan Klein writes,


If it happened that it was the sociologists who were relatively enlightened and libertarian, while economists were relatively foolish and statist, Bryan would have said Sociologists represent the more “rational” answers to questions.

Let me start with Klein's criticism and pile on.

The point is that there are three ways of looking at economic policy--Bryan's personal view, the "average" view of economists in surveys, and the "average" view of non-economists. Why is the difference between the economists and the non-economists to be labeled "bias," while the difference between Bryan and the average economist has no label?

Klein writes,


1. Soften the emphasis on beliefs and bias. Go more with bents.
2. Drop all “rational” talk. Just go with terms like folly, foolish, unenlightened.
3. Confess libertarian sensibilities. Confess that the package you are selling is broader than a technical analysis of the effectiveness of democracy.
4. Doing so will enable you to take the stress off of expertise and the like. Acknowledge high-strata statist bents.
5. Place the work within liberalism through the ages, including esp Hayek and Public Choice.

My strongest point of agreement is with point 4. I think it would be easy for left-wing intellectuals to view Caplan as confirming their view of themselves as fit to rule over the ignorant masses.

Klein's first appendix on the statist bents that people of various strata hold seems insightful to me. I also think that it is useful to think of people as occasionally (often?) confusing market transactions with (using Alan Fiske's framework) authoritary ranking, communal sharing, or equality matching. Karl Marx, for example, portrayed capitalism as if it were authority ranking (the capitalist class oppressing the workers) and instead advocated communal sharing (from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs).

Meanwhile, Tyler Cowen has some doubts about Bryan's categories of non-economist biases.


Bryan identifies anti-foreigner, make-work, pessimistic, and anti-market biases. Like Dan, I see pro-conformity biases as essential, and as shaping the form that other biases will take, including the biases of high-status academics. I also don't think that voters are pessimistic per se

I think Tyler mis-interprets pessimistic bias. I see pessimistic bias as pertaining to overall expectations of the future relative to the past. Pessimistic bias is the belief that things are worse than they used to be and will continue to get worse.

A useful marker on this is Paul Krugman and his nostalgia for the period from the 1950's through the 1970's. This conveniently ignores racial segregation, the Ford Pinto, and plenty of other unpleasant memories.

I also think that make-work bias is extremely widespread and important to highlight. Our media judge the economy by how many jobs it creates, rather than by productivity trends.

I think that anti-market bias is not a useful descriptive name, but the category is meaningful. I think it might be better to talk about the Fundamental Attribution Error. That is because I think that there is a tendency to attribute market outcomes to the intentions of particular individuals when they are in fact the result of systemic forces. One you commit the FAE, then you are easily drawn to a villains-and-victims narrative of economic outcomes. Again, Krugman is a good marker for that.

I agree with Tyler that most people feel better if their beliefs conform to those of people around them. This is a big factor in the evolution of beliefs.

I am not sure what is the best approach toward getting students to appreciate economics, particularly in its libertarian leanings. It sounds like Bryan wants to beat them over the head our viewpoint, in order to leave little room for doubt or confusion. Ideally, I would prefer to beat people over the head with the need to think for themselves, and then count on that capacity to lead them in the right direction.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (4 to date)
Dan Klein writes:

Arnold, I just want to add that our presumptions about the economist as the relevant authority really does reflect "where we sit."

You refer to "economic policy," but must prostitution regs, gun control, drug proh, etc., even min wage and FDA, be called "economic policy?" Others might call them "social policy," and with reason. They affect society. They involve more than narrow economic mechanisms.

"Social policy"--"Why, we sociologists are of course the ones really trained to deal with the complexities of those issues, not the silly, narrow economists."

It is as obvious to them that they provide the benchmark.

Marcus writes:
"I think it would be easy for left-wing intellectuals to view Caplan as confirming their view of themselves as fit to rule over the ignorant masses."

Hayek wrote, "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

Bill Stepp writes:

Krugman also ignores the terrible economy of the 1970s (stagflation, and the Nixon-imposed wage and price controls at a time when the CPI was running at about 4%); the Vietnam War; riots in the streets of many large cities, and their high and rising crime rates. The post-war era wasn't all sweetness and light compared to our times, as he would have you believe.

David writes:

My no-doubt Krugman-reading leftish rabbi recently used his letter in our monthly synagogue newsletter to wax nostalgic for the economy of the '50s, when union autoworkers got healthcare and could afford houses in the suburbs, etc, etc. I offered to replace his 00's Camry with a vintage finned Chevy and reduce the industrial base of Europe and Japan to rubble, but he didn't take me up on it.

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