Bryan Caplan  

Don't Judge a Scholar By His Deals

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When re-reading my recent critique of Robin Hanson's "dealism," I realized that the following could come off as rather harsh:
Robin has spent decades proposing unconventional policy deals.  His track record is an abysmal failure.
None of this means, however, that Robin himself is an abysmal failure.  I don't judge a scholar by the deals he manages to push through.  I judge him by his discovery of important truths.  By this standard, Robin is a great success.  His work on betting markets, health economics, and futarchy leaves me in awe.  Even his errors are fruitful.   The fact that policymakers consistently ignore Robin is their abysmal failure, not his.

By Robin's own dealist standard, he's a failure.  So am I.  So is almost every scholar we admire.  Who isn't a failure?  Jonathan Gruber, a leading architect of Romneycare and Obamacare.  I take this as a reductio ad absurdum of dealism.  It's far better to discover important truths that never leave the Ivory Tower than propagate errors that take the world by storm.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
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Greg writes:

I guess they don't teach tact in princeton...

Finch writes:

> By Robin's own dealist standard, he's a
> failure. So am I. So is almost every scholar
> we admire. Who isn't a failure?

Is this just a statement about the low standard of knowledge in economics? In engineering, biology, or physics, scholars get to see real things done with their discovered truths.

Is your complaint that economists who get things done in the real world are generally the kind of economists you disagree with? Is it that the process of getting things done is inherently corrupting and removes a lot of the value of the economics? Is economics special in some way? These are questions, and I'm not trying to put words in your mouth.

My intuition is that something cannot be an important truth if it cannot leave the Ivory Tower, by definition. It may be true, though it's hard to tell without implementation, but it's definitely not important.

scott clark writes:

Doc,

Don't be so hasty. I thought there were quite a few people who were taking the deal to have more kids for selfish reasons. A couple generations like that could multiply up to a lot of people/deal value for your scorecard or whatever.

GIVCO writes:

Hanson's paean to economists-as-arbiters is a pretty unconvincing candidate to replace the systems that societies have, by various means of acclimation, already selected to arbitrate.

The "simple" & "standard" qualifier to Hanson's math models, and statistics, mean that the economist-arbiter assumes away the particular, but it's the particular that is important to an individual. People value integrity and contrition, they make allowances for mitigating misfortunes, they want to send lessons, conform to justice and fairness, etc. An effective arbiter balances, diminishes and appeals to those concepts on their own terms. An economist, in Hanson's telling, ignores all that nonsense and recommends something he decides is objectively efficient by reference to economic concepts still in their infancy.

The economist might be "right" by Hanson's standards, but the act of disregarding particular feelings in favor of the arbiter-economist's feelings means he won't obtain buy-in. Without buy-in, the economist-arbiter is wasting everyone's time. Hanson should matriculate through Bastiat on Social Planners and Bernard Williams on utilitarians to refine his recommendation.

In the mean-time, a normal person still gets more compelling, useful advice from a priest, a lawyer, a learned friend or family member, etc. deploying the wisdom obtained by 3 millennia of countless billions of experiments in actual (not hypothesized, simplified and sanitized) human behavior. What did Kahneman say:

"You need to have studied economics for many years before you’d be surprised by [this conclusion]; it didn’t shock my mother at all.”
Finch writes:

+1 for scott clark, and I suppose for Bryan too.

That is a real (I think positive) impact of your scholarship.

I hope you feel confident you aren't "propagat[ing] errors that take the world by storm." :)

Gabriel Rossman writes:

My favorite example of this is a comment and reply on Weitzman's Divorce Revolution that was published in ASR in 1996. In the comment, Peterson shows that Weitzman's headline statistic was massively overstated. In the reply, Weitzman first blames the error on a grad student then says the important thing isn't whether the stat was accurate but the fact that it had an impact on policy.

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