David R. Henderson  

Bauman versus Landsburg et al

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In a comment on co-blogger Bryan Caplan's recent post, economist Yoram Bauman writes:

If you're looking for another post topic, you could try to mediate between me and Steve Landsburg. (I've given up on him for now :)

I thought I would take a shot and so I read Landsburg's criticism of a New York Times column by Bauman, along with Bauman's responses and Landsburg's rejoinders. I quickly realized that to mediate well, I needed to read all the other comments on Landsburg's cite, of which there were many. I have now done that.

There is nothing in mediation requiring that the mediator "split the difference." The goal of mediation is to figure out who's right. Landsburg is right. So what follows is my statement of the various arguments, adding my own thoughts from time to time.

Here's the basic issue. Bauman and co-author Elaina Rose published a study in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (JEBO). In it, they showed that there was a systematic difference in the percent of students who contributed to two causes: a lower percent of economics majors than of other students contributed to the two causes. Bauman concludes that economists and econ majors are more selfish than others.

But surely, writes Landsburg, we must at least look at what the two organizations to which students could contribute were. One was "WashPIRG," which, in Bauman's own words, is "a left-leaning activist group." The other was Affordable Tuition Now (ATN), a group that lobbied for "sensible tuition rates, quality financial aid and adequate funding."

In his NYT piece, Bauman seemed to anticipate a criticism, writing:

You may question whether these groups actually serve the common good, but that's mostly beside the point. Regardless of the groups' actual social value, a purely self-interested individual would choose to free-ride rather than contribute; after all, a single $3 donation is not going to make a noticeable difference in tuition rates.

Bauman is right that a purely self-interested individual would choose to free-ride rather than contribute. But that doesn't mean that someone who chooses not to contribute does so only to free-ride. If A, then B, does not imply, If B, then A. That's the logical fallacy called "Affirming the consequent." A person who chooses not to contribute might do so because he doesn't believe in the cause. How could that possibly be "mostly beside the point?"

Indeed, that's where Landsburg goes. He presents an alternate hypothesis: economics majors actually learn something about economics and that learning tends to inoculate them against causes in which wealth is not created but redistributed. Left-leaning causes are often that way and lobbying for "sensible," that is, low, tuition rates is a clear-cut instance of lobbying for redistribution. (A little thinking will convince anyone that if tuition rates at a government-run university are to be kept low, taxpayers must pick up the tab. In fact, at a recent rally run by some students at California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB), students called explicitly for higher taxes so their tuitions wouldn't rise.)

Here is part of Landsburg's criticism:

[H]e [Bauman] actually (and this part I swear to God I am not making up!!!) draws the conclusion that students who have studied the merits of capitalism are among the least likely to support its detractors and then manages to conclude that this is because economics students are greedy [bold in original].

In his first comment on Landsburg's site, Bauman defends his study, not by pointing to his study, but by pointing to other studies. Bauman writes:

Frey and Meier (2004) look at a nearly identical situation at the University of Zurich, where students are asked if they want to contribute to scholarship funds for needy students and for foreign students; almost 60% of students donate (!) and again economists donate less than the rest. Perhaps you want to argue that these scholarship funds are also not public goods, or perhaps you want to argue that "all taxation is theft" and therefore that there is a fundamental flaw in all public goods experiments?

Landsburg replies:
Yoram: Not contributing to scholarship funds for needy students is arguably evidence of selfishness. Not contributing to a program that wants to take money from people named A, B and C in order to give money to people named X, Y and Z is not by any conceivable standard evidence of selfishness.

But Bauman, in his first comment, also admits Landsburg's point by quoting the last part of his JEBO study:
Indeed, it is possible in this case - as in, say, a requested donation for an organization dedicated to replacing competitive markets with economy-wide price controls - that economics training would reduce donation rates not because students become more SELFISH but because they become more EDUCATED. Regardless of the cause, however, it is clear that economics training changes the giving behavior of non-majors.

Bauman then adds:
That's from the last sentence of our published journal article; perhaps you should read it :)

So my job of mediation is pretty much done on the issue itself. I'll sum up:

Bauman wrote an article making a strong claim.
Landsburg showed that the claim did not follow from the evidence.
Bauman admitted that the claim did not follow from the evidence and pointed out that his and Elaina Rose's original study had pointed that out.

There are other tangential issues: some of Landsburg's defenders are somewhat sarcastic and Bauman expresses upset at that even though he was sarcastic himself (recall Bauman's "perhaps you should read it"). But let's not forget the big issue: is Bauman's and Rose's evidence sufficient evidence that economics majors are more selfish than other majors or are there alternate--and quite sensible--hypotheses to explain their behavior? Both Landsburg and Bauman are agreed: the evidence is not sufficient. And in the last part of his academic article, although not in his New York Times article, Bauman explains why. Moreover, his explanation is the same as Landsburg's explanation.

I also recommend that readers read comments on Landsburg's site by Ken B. They are quite good.

UPDATE: Yoram Bauman replies below. Note first that he says that my summary is reasonable, except for one part. In laying out that part, Yoram seems to imply that I had written that he had written that he had proven something. I didn't. I did, as he points out, say that he made a strong claim. Yoram, in his response, equates the term "claim" to "conclusion." I guess that's fair. Yoram says he didn't reach a strong conclusion. I think he did. I leave readers to judge for themselves.

UPDATE 2. Yoram Bauman replies below to my first update. He said, on Steve Landsburg's blog,"Do these sorts of discussions really have to turn into scorched-earth battles filled with sarcasm and name-calling, and if so why?" I thought that meant that he didn't want the discussions to be "filled with sarcasm and name-calling." But his comment below proves me wrong. I was not at all sarcastic; he is.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Public Goods

COMMENTS (24 to date)
mark writes:

Regardless of the merits, the goal of mediation is not to determine who is right. That's irrelevant. The goal of mediation is to get two parties to agree and to end their dispute. A mediator focuses on finding commonality and on the parties' interests as opposed to their differences and arguments. You might be thinking of arbitration.

David R. Henderson writes:

You’re right. I was thinking of arbitration. Note, though, that you wrote:
The goal of mediation is to get two parties to agree and to end their dispute. A mediator focuses on finding commonality and on the parties' interests as opposed to their differences and arguments.
What I pointed out in my post is that they had already agreed and found commonality on their own. It turns out that Bauman, in his JEBO article, admitted Landsburg’s point.

bmcburney writes:

Bauman's admissions are interesting but aren't we then left with the question of why the study and Times articles were written (and published)?

The answer, I believe, is that one road to academic success and popularity is to devise elaborate insults disguised as social science. Nobody is really convinced by such studies but they are good for a few laughs in the faculty lounge and at left-wing cocktail parties. Bauman's study of greedy encon majors will probably not win him a Nobel but will provide a signal to his colleagues of his political reliability and make everybody who already believes in the moral inferiority of Business and Econ majors feel better about themseleves.

John Goodman writes:

David, why are you and Landsburg even bothering with this.

It was a stupid study and a stupid editorial.

There. What more needs be said?

A. writes:

First Bauman caricatures free-market arguments with Caplan, now this. Better stick with the lefty blogs, you're getting thrashed here.

Chris Koresko writes:

David: With the caveat that I haven't read the original articles and cites, and am therefore subject to a bias in favor of your conclusions:

I am pretty sure you are right that Landsburg has the better of the argument with Bauman. If the suggested donation was $3, then it may not be a test for selfishness because it's too small a fraction of a typical person's income. If the donation were large enough to affect the giver's standard of living, at least for a little while, then it would be a much stronger test of his generosity. On the other hand, willingness to give a small, fixed amount might still be a clear test of a person's tendency to support the cause -- it becomes something akin to casting a vote for it.

This suggests that the observed behavior in Bauman's study is more consistent with Landsburg's story (economics students tending not to favor redistribution) than with Bauman's (they're selfish).

One reason (I suspect) that Bauman interpreted his results as he did was that it's common among left-leaners to equate support for government-mandated redistribution with personal generosity.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Chris Koresko,
Well done on 2 counts. First:
On the other hand, willingness to give a small, fixed amount might still be a clear test of a person's tendency to support the cause -- it becomes something akin to casting a vote for it.
Good point.
One reason (I suspect) that Bauman interpreted his results as he did was that it's common among left-leaners to equate support for government-mandated redistribution with personal generosity.
You’re right. In fact, he did just that in his comment on Steve Landsburg’s site.

Yoram Bauman writes:

This is a reasonable summary, except for one part: your claim that "Bauman concludes that economists and econ majors are more selfish than others."

Let's look at what I actually said in the op-ed:

* "Academic research suggests that there’s a good deal of truth to the stereotype."

* "In line with previous research, what we found supported the Grinch stereotype."

* "One interpretation of these results..."

* "Our research suggests that economics education could do a better job of providing balance."

Where in there do you see anything about conclusions or (heaven forbid) proofs?

You write that I make a "strong claim" in the op-ed. That's debatable. What I claim is that the study we did supports the "Grinch stereotype" and that our research suggests that it's nature for econ majors and at least partly nurture for non-majors.

What Landsburg is doing (and what you are abetting) is a classic straw man argument: Assert that I have claimed to have proved something and then show that I haven't. You're absolutely right that I haven't proved anything; but then again, I never claimed I did! :)

Speaking of strawmen.....

Yoram continues to ignore everything that I and many of my commentators have been saying. He continues to assert that "what we found supported the Grinch stereotype", which is exactly what we've been refuting. None of this has anything to do with degrees of proof. He's just making that up.

There is nothing Grinchlike about not wanting to support a particular program of income redistribution. Nothing, zero, zilch. There is nothing altruistic about wanting to shift assets from one group of people to another, and nothing selfish about wanting to shift assets in the opposite direction, or not to shift them at all.

I have offered Yoram a bet: Let's repeat his experiment, but with students asked to contribute to a different pair of organizations --- one that lobbies for repeal of the estate tax and another that lobbies for an end to taxpayer subsidies for education. I bet that econ students will contribute *more* to these causes than other students will. (Details of the bet can be found on my blog.)

If I'm right, will Yoram see that as supportive of a "Grinchlike stereotype" for NON-econ majors? I've asked him that several times, and he has repeatedly dodged the question.

Alexandre Padilla writes:

Landsburg is right opinion his comment and that's the bottom line: supporting redistributionist policies doesn't make you an altruist and being an altruist doesn't mean you will support redistributionist policies. If anything, I would argue that supporting redistributionist policies makes you self-interested as evidenced by the recent video in which we saw rich people going to the Capitol, supporting higher taxes on the rich (Buffet tax), but they werent so willing to make individual donations to the IRS when suggested to do so. "Scratch an altruist, watch a hypocrite bleed."

ajb writes:

Landsburg is exactly right. If Bauman were to be honest he'd rerun this with a cause DESIGNED to be abhorrent to left wingers but which were clearly "charitable" in the sense that would suggest "grinchlike" behavior in the sense he uses the term.

Yoram Bauman writes:

[Yoram: The relevant portion of your revised comment has passed muster and is posted below. We appreciate your having removed the insulting, inappropriate sentences. I will be happy to discuss the remainder of your comment with you in email. You can reach me at webmaster@econlib.org . Please review our comment policies, such as no personal or ad hominem remarks. We do not have many rules here, but we enforce the ones we have. In particular, we strictly enforce our civility policy.--Econlib Ed.]

kebko writes:

I saw Yoram's post before it was removed. I didn't expect it to be deleted. I guess it was a bit rude. More than that, it was poorly argued, so that it seems like the best punishment to Yoram would be to leave it up.

Ken B writes:

Thanks for the kind words.

I for one would like to see Yoram's deleted comment. If it is indeed over the line I think that in this case that is relevant to this discussion, and we should, as you suggest with his other comment, be able to judge for ourselves.

JohnW writes:

I think Yoram's deleted comment should be restored. No matter how rude the anonymous editor (show some courage man, give your name when you censor someone!) thinks the comment may be, in this case Yoram is the subject of the blog post and comments, so his comment should be allowed.

Please restore Yoram's comment!

Yoram Bauman writes:

[This comment has been removed at Yoram Bauman's request.]

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
You’re welcome. Because of your thoughtful comments on my competitor’s site, I will make a point of reading your comments on his site in the future.
Now to the substance of the rest of your comment. I agree with you that you should be able to judge Yoram’s comment for yourself IF that would not undercut a long-standing policy. Once we let personal, nasty comments stand, it might invite people like you who still want to get it back to the issue, but, unfortunately, it will also invite equally nasty and often more-nasty comments that take away from the issue.

JohnW writes:

David Henderson:

The problem with your contention that such censorship promotes worthwhile discussion is that Landsburg's blog has a much less authoritarian attitude towards censorship than your blog apparently does, and yet you praised the commenters on Landsburg's blog.

I think you need to consider loosening the censorship policies on your blog, here.

Yoram Bauman writes:

I agree wholeheartedly with David Henderson's opposition to posting "personal, nasty comments". That's why I also agree with the decision of the editor to censor my previous post's listing of all the personal, nasty comments that people made about me earlier in the comment thread on this page. (Those earlier comments are of course still live :)

I think the editor should also consider re-examining previous pages with personal, nasty comments, such as the person named Mark who wrote that "Yoram advocates child prostitution". Even though Mark made an excellent point, I don't actually advocate child prostitution and therefore this comment should be deleted.

F. Bastiat

A. writes:

The only reason to be talking about this is to have some fun slinging some insults. The "study" in question is a waste of time -- everyone knows that. So let's have at it!

Yoram Bauman writes:

PS. Those of you interested in the question of whether or not taking economics classes makes students selfish should read Economics Education and Greed (Long Wang, Deepak Malhotra, J. Keith Murnighan, forthcoming).

ajb writes:

I did not intend to suggest that Bauman was dishonest and if so I apologize. But anyone who would suggest that failure to support left wing groups is even weak "evidence" of Grinchlike behavior is either seriously insulting those with opposing views or being misleading. He could clarify this easily by creating a research design that worked against his personal biases.

Hence, my serious suggestion. If Bauman thinks that picking causes that would abhor a left winger but which are symmetrical with respect to righties would not produce different outcomes, he should go ahead and test it. Otherwise, it IS dishonest to continue to suggest his work even weakly indicates that those trained in economics are Grinchlike (Compare this to studies where economists defect more in laboratory PD games.)

Ken B writes:

@David: Inappreciate your policies. In this case I think flexibility would be the better part of wisdm, but your general position is sound -- and welcome. Most boards degenerate and vigilance is laudable.

The main reason I think the comment should be visisble is that Yoram cites unconvincing examples he calls attacks upon himself. Speaking of which ...

@Yoram: None of the three instances you cite is either a personal attack or ad hominem. The one possible exception is the harsh remark ajb (rightly) withdrew: "If Yoram were to be honest ..." Technically he is not calling YOU dishonest, as you assert, he is calling your actions dishonest, which is rather different. Landsburg similarly called your argument idiotic, not you. In short blog comments this kind of shorthand is not unusual and rarely meant as a persoanl attack.

McBurney and Koresko made observations that are perhaps unflattering, but you clearly object to people ascribing your howling non-sequitur to any failure of intellect or understanding. They were ascribing it to unconscious bias. Now you object to that. You have already (with justice) objected to explanations based on dishonesty. It would seem you object to any analysis of your error. You have certainly I believe concentrated on such posts and ignored many others on the merits of the argument.

Finally let me second David's remark about other studies. There may be other studies proving what yours does not; that is of no relevance to whether yours does. I think had you stuck to this point, and not mischaracterised what posters on TBQ said -- as I detailed in this comment http://www.thebigquestions.com/2011/12/19/alas-poor-yoram/#comment-37542 -- perhaps the temperature would have been lower.

Merry Christmas to all.

Jack writes:

I've read most of the posts across blogs, and here's what I understand:

(1) The evidence suggests economics majors might be less generous than non-econ majors.

(2) We cannot rule out the alternative, and equally plausible, explanation that econ majors do not wish to contribute to organizations involved in "pure transfer" (i.e., not welfare-enhancing). This means econ majors may or may not be more generous, we can't say.

(3) Thus, we don't know for sure, either way.

(4) I haven't seen mention of another key issue, that econ majors self-select into economics, so it is also plausible that economics instruction has little to do with students' subsequent behavior.

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