Arnold Kling  

Is the Ruling Class an Elite?

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Daniel Klein writes,

According to a Zogby International survey that I write about in the May issue of Econ Journal Watch, the answer is unequivocal: The left flunks Econ 101.

Liberals are confident that they are smarter and better educated than conservatives. That may be the case in some sense. But they are overconfident in their beliefs.

They may think of themselves as an elite, but they are just a ruling class.

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COMMENTS (26 to date)
hacs writes:

I would say that leftists are more deterministic than rightists,that is, for leftists, some exceptions are sufficient to reject an (unpleasant??) idea.

JAJ writes:

An education is useless, and dangerous, if the facts and theories are just plain WRONG. Need more jobs? Somebody hand Krugman a shovel and have him go check Keynes' pockets.

Ted writes:

I did a quick google search to find the study, and it's so awful. It's extremely flawed. I see several major problems just on casual glance:

(i) The questions that are presented are where the correct answer aligns with conservative ideological bias. There are no questions where the correct answer aligns with liberal ideological bias. It's a deeply flawed analysis for that reason. This survey might just be picking up conservative ideological bias rather than economic understanding.

(ii) What is a "moderate"? The political science literature has long confirmed that the terms "independent" and "moderate" are completely worthless. That basically means that they are actually conservative or liberal voters who like to classify themselves as "moderate" (which usually means they just support one or two ideas of the opponent party of their preference party). Depending on what percentage of those "moderates" are actually conservatives it could weaken their apparent economic understanding. Of course, on the flip side, it would likely also strengthen the result that liberals and progressives are ignorant, assuming that at least a decent percentage of the moderate figure reflects liberal moderates.

(iii) A few of the questions are also too vague for serious scientific analysis. For example, the third-world question is deeply loaded with the word "exploited." You don't put a loaded and vague word like "exploited" into a question, at least if you are trying to capture factual knowledge. Also, I was surprised almost 30% of self-identified libertarians said they believe that third-world workers were being exploited by American companies. That seems extremely out of character. I also suspect most average people don't actually know what "market share" is. The term "restrictions" in the first question is also too broad to solicit accurate analysis. Also, the standard of living question isn't actually an economic concept question, it's just a factual data question - on that is likely tainted for progressives since they view standard of living much more broadly than the question intends (they often incorporate income inequality, for example).

Now, maybe despite these unacceptable concerns the results are still true. I don't really care either way, I don't really have a pony in this race, but I just don't like people throwing things out there when they are based on deeply flawed analysis.

Matthew Gunn writes:

For being a ruling class, they haven't done a tremendous amount of ruling in the past 20 years.

The Man Without Fear writes:

Although Ted makes some good points - for example the subjective interpretation of the word "exploited" - I don't really understand his point regarding conservative ideological bias. If you impose rent ceilings then the supply of housing available in the long run will decrease. That is textbook economic analysis, not a view that is generated by political sentiment. The same applies to mandatory licensing.

Goutam Roy writes:

Ruling class in thrid world countries is obviously elite. I do not know about developed countries but understand the situation of thrid world countries.

Vichy Fournier writes:

The left are better educated and more intelligent than the right, for two reasons:
1) The Left are the dominant power structure, liberalism is the dominant religion. Smart people with fairly normal social receptivity and status interests will therefor favor leftism and advance in left-acceptable roles....

While it's granted that most people on the left believe....

[Comment elided. The remainder can be read at Vichy's blog: Please do not repeat verbatim on EconLog material that you've posted elsewhere.--Econlib Ed.]

Pug writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

david writes:

If you think that the supply of housing is currently monopolized for whatever reason, then imposing a binding rent ceiling can increase the supply of such housing. This is EC101 textbook, too.

A somewhat more sophisticated EC201 analysis would note that landlords do exercise considerable market power over individual tenants once they've moved in, and the imperfectness of inter-temporal substitution means that this power is not perfectly captured at the time the tenant makes the decision to move in. An appropriate choice of rent control plus subsidies for the construction of new housing can then increase the supply of housing.

And so on. You don't need to know very much economics to postulate any of these. The conservative bias is in denying that market failures exist. The liberal bias is in denying that government failures exist. A survey designed to ask about one but not the other will naturally skew the expected way.

A commenter from Marginal Revolution pointed out this damning quote from the paper:

Caveat 2 of 4: We acknowledge a shortcoming about the set of economic questions used here, and a corresponding reservation. None of the questions challenge the economic foibles specifically of “conservatives,” nor of “libertarians,” as compared to those of “liberals”/“progressives.” It would have been good, for example, if a question had asked about negative consequences of drug prohibition, or the positive consequences of increased immigration from Mexico. We doubt, however, that any partisan aspect of the questions much upsets our interpretations—for reasons to be discussed once the findings are laid out.

... Here again we should acknowledge that none of the eight questions challenge typical conservative or libertarian policy positions, and that had some such questions been included, the measured economic-enlightenment means by ideological groups may well have been somewhat different.

Nonetheless, we think that the measurement as-is captures something real. At least since the days of Frédéric Bastiat, many have said that people of the left often trail behind in incorporating basic economic insight into their aesthetics, morals, and politics. We put much stock in Hayek’s theory (Hayek 1978, 1979, 1988) that the social-democratic ethos is an atavistic reassertion of the ethos and mentality of the primordial paleolithic band, a mentality resistant to ideas of spontaneous order and disjointed knowledge. Our findings support such a claim, all the caveats notwithstanding. Several of the questions would seem to be fairly neutral with respect to partisan politics, particularly the questions on licensing, the standard of living, monopoly, and free trade. None of those questions challenge policies that are particularly leftwing or rationalized on the basis of equity. Yet even on such neutral questions the “progressives” and “liberals” do much worse than the “conservatives” and “libertarians.”

Translation: the test induced a bias, but it doesn't matter because the induced bias agrees with our biases! I think we are entitled to question his assessment of neutrality.

Ben writes:

It would be great to see an intellectually honest conservative or libertarian take this research to task for just being poorly designed. Making a point citing lousy research is not any stronger than just making the point.

Æternitatis writes:

Much as I'd like to embrace the results of this study, some of the critics have a fair point.

Contrary to some quaff here and elsewhere, Klein did identify the objectively correct answer to each of these questions. And, as he showed, libertarians and conservatives consistently were much more likely to pick the correct answer.

However, it is also true that most of the most indisputable truths about economics tend to be about microeconomics (like most of the questions) and ideologically much more congenial to libertarians and (U.S. style) conservatives than to leftists.

As the ignorant tend to believe whatever they find most congenial, an ignorant libertarian or conservative is likely to get the test right, while an ignorant leftist is not. Hence I am not convinced that the authors have proven that on average conservatives or libertarians are less ignorant about economics than leftists.

Of course, the Klein article is just a mirror image of a series of "studies" over the last decade that try to paint the U.S. right as ignorant by recording their greater level of disagreement with (to them/us) disagreeable facts. See, e.g., Each of those were of course given heavy play by the objective MSM and treated as serious scientific discoveries. They probably form a not inconsiderable foundation for the self-esteem of much of the lumpen left.

As these studies have the same systematic flaw, anybody who took them seriously has forfeited any right to criticize the Klein study.

Lori writes:

(i) The questions that are presented are where the correct answer aligns with conservative ideological bias. There are no questions where the correct answer aligns with liberal ideological bias. It's a deeply flawed analysis for that reason. This survey might just be picking up conservative ideological bias rather than economic understanding.

Reminds me of some pre-employment 'personality tests' that I've been subjected to.

Lord writes:

Then again, most of the right never made it as far as Econ 101, and the ones that have, have generally flunked Econ 102.

Edwin Perello writes:

The first mistake is using something from Zogby. Rightists fail statistics 101, apparently.

Trickster writes:

The propositions tested in the survey are quite ideological - a good example is the minimum wage question, which ignores much contrary research in determining that one answer is "right" and the other "wrong." The results primarily prove nothing about economic IQ, but rather that liberals are not as conservative and libertarian as conservatives and libertarians are.

The answers offered are problematic as well. When a value-laden statement such as that workers in 3rd-world countries are "exploited" is put forward, what's really the difference between the answers "mostly agree" and "mostly disagree?" Yes one answer is consider "right" and one is "wrong."

Oh, and by the way in response to a couple of folks above, the statement on housing to be agreed or disagreed with didn't say "rent ceiling." It said "Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.." Much vaguer, totally not susceptible to a "right" or "wrong" answer. There are many scenarios and circumstances under which the appropriate "restrictions" would make housing more affordable; just sticking supply/demand analysis on this complex question and saying your analysis is done falls laughably short of the mark.

Full disclosure: I'm fairly liberal, and almost always vote Democratic because, even though I don't care for Democrats at all, I'm really really down on Republicans, and voting for anybody else is just a copout. After taking a quick glance at the study showed that it is useless to do what it claims to do, which is to measure the economic literacy of persons with different political viewpoints, I websurfed around a bit to find folks who fell for it hook, line and sinker.

To my way of thinking, endorsing this drivel is a sign of somebody whose thinking is more politicized than analytic. That saddens me.

Pandaemoni writes:

I managed to get one question wrong, number 7, "Free trade leads to unemployment". As the questions were not explained well, my though was initially on the short run consequences of establishing a free market or reducting market restrictions. From there I thought about the problem of outsourcing and the short- (to medium-) term worker displacement that can cause. I may be "tendentious and churlish", I suppose, but what about that question implies "in the long run"?

Trickster writes:

Another good example, Pandaemoni. There was something close to an academic consensus on the answer to that question probably as recently as 20 years ago when I got my B.A. in Econ. Now there is much debate on it, including some research that suggests an answer contrary to the historical consensus, and it's just not valid to design a study around the assumption that one response to that question is "right" and one is "wrong."

Tom writes:

"(i) The questions that are presented are where the correct answer aligns with conservative ideological bias. There are no questions where the correct answer aligns with liberal ideological bias. It's a deeply flawed analysis for that reason. This survey might just be picking up conservative ideological bias rather than economic understanding."

Reminds me of the study on porn that had to be aborted. Those (men) who hadn't seen porn couldn't be found.

Trickster : When you used a phrase like 'value-laden' you revealed yourself as a liberal, so your later confession was unnecessary. Conservatives would argue the facts and liberals argue the emotions.

Tom writes:

As one of the comments on the WSJ suggest, I would like to see an example of a liberal question.

beezer writes:

Folks, I'd like to interject a few observations.

The first: Practical.

Sensible tax rates provide stability to an economy. Tax cuts don't have any more causal relationship to robust economies than do progressive tax rates. That said, tax cuts do have a strong causul relationship to deficits. This relates to deficits caused by lack of revenue as opposed to deficits caused by investment in public goods. Big difference.

Investment is a product of opportunity. Opportunity is more accessible when there's stability. Screwing with tax rates, or interest rates for that matter, induces volatility which obfuscates opportunity. Lesson: Don't over react.

Second lesson. Financial recessions, as opposed to cyclical ones, involve the destruction of financial intermediation. The cure is to impose guaranteed lending via outlets boyond a crippled banking system. Is this more efficient? Of course it is, because the normal intermediation is destroyed. Any leverage offered to productive effort is better than none at all.

Leverage? Possibly the most important tool of capitalism. So why must we, in this most important juncture of economic malaise, reduce our use of leverage via fiscal deficits (not the deficits of revenue loss, but of investment leverage) and thus reduce our use of the most important capitalist tool?

We are fool. Dither while the future is decided by the more practical.

hacs writes:

Other hypothesis is that leftist are more relativistic and rightist are more absolutist, as those concepts are defined in the book Invariances, The Structure of the Objective World, 2001, Robert Nozick.

Matt Flipago writes:

The sweatshop issue is actually vague, and libertarians can answer, yes they are exploited, while many on left libertarians will already mostly agree, thus forming the 30%. Considering that at least a small percent are probably in actual slavery to some company although I don't think this is very high. A very high percentage is the amount of workers that have had government steal their farming lands to give to corporations. This is definitely existent. When a government steals your land or reduces you ability to conduct free trade for your goods, and the only viable option becomes working in sweatshops, the third world workers are exploited in that case, because the situation is far from a free market.

Miguel Madeira writes:

My definition of "elite" is "ruling class"...

Another point - how you know that these "liberals" that "flunks Econ 101" belong to the "ruling class"? At least according to the WSJ article, the poll only asked the political opinion of the participants, not if they occupy any political office.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"As one of the comments on the WSJ suggest, I would like to see an example of a liberal question."

Questions where the correct answer aligns with "liberal" ideological bias:

- Immigration creates unemployment?

- Tax cuts usually make deficits bigger?

- A balanced budget is better?

- If you restrict the supply of a product with a very rigid demand (like an addictive substance) the total spending buying this product will increase or decrease?

Trickster writes:

Trickster : When you used a phrase like 'value-laden' you revealed yourself as a liberal, so your later confession was unnecessary. Conservatives would argue the facts and liberals argue the emotions.

Quite an odd statement. Are you claiming that conservatives don't bother to determine whether study questions are biased by the researcher's values? I'm not sure exactly how to critique study methodologies that are, well, values-driven without using the word "value-laden."

Perhaps it is simply that you don't know what "value-laden" means. In the context of this discussion, which was of questions posed in a study, it means that the study authors chose terms, questions, and most particularly in this case, judged whether responses were "right" or "wrong" based on their own inherent values as opposed to based on objective data.

Here's a google search for "value-laden meaning" that backs up what I've just said:

"Value-laden" study questions kill a study's reliability. This study is an excellent example of that thesis. It is value-laden to the point of uselessness. No useful conclusions may be derived from this study, only political conclusions, which is not surprising since the political biases of the researchers are on full glorious display in its questions and answers.

I think the only person revealing anything here is you, revealing your own personal belief that so-called "liberals" are fuzzy thinkers. You need to sharpen your own thinking if you want to put that out more convincingly, for example by increasing the precision with which you define terms. Even better, one you sharpen your own thinking you might re-think the whole question about who thinks fuzzily from your new sharp-thinking perspective.

Tom writes:

"I think the only person revealing anything here is you, revealing your own personal belief that so-called "liberals" are fuzzy thinkers."

That is exactly what I believe, as your response shows.

The questions asked were empirical questions.
2+2=4, not just today, or not because I feel they should. They just do.

When you add 'values' to your questions you get answer like : minimum wages raise unemployment, but add welfare to the whole, or , rent control does raise rents, but benefits outweigh the cost.

The answer to the asked questions were still: minimum wages raise unemployment, and rent control does raise rents

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