I was surprised to read Bryan's
words: "Compared to non-economists, economists enjoy an amazing
consensus." Bryan points to a 1996 survey administered to both a set of
economists and to a set of ordinary Americans. Yes, the economists agree with
each other more than do the ordinary Americans, but not all that reliably. On
the thirty-seven questions, the standard deviation of economists' responses is greater than that of ordinary Americans
on one-third of the questions (see Table 2 of the
JLE paper by Bryan).
Yes, on some questions the economists'
standard deviation is much lower, such as on whether technology is beneficial
(Q21) and whether the economy is in a state of depression, recession,
stagnation, slow growth, or rapid growth (Q37). It isn't surprising that
economists agree more than ordinary Americans on questions such as these.
But when we talk about whether economists "enjoy" a
consensus, we are naturally most concerned with the most important matters. We
are concerned with important issues of public policy. And we are concerned with
all important consequences, not just
particular effects of particular mechanisms. If you asked a group of people who
are trained to think about the particular effects of particular mechanisms, it
should not surprise us that they agree more than those who are not so trained.
The real issue is whether economists agree on the big questions and overall
consequences. Do economists agree on the desirability of major policy reforms?
Fortunately, an abundance of data is available from surveys
of economists (Whaples
2006 and supplement;
Stern 2006; Whaples
McGarvey, and Whaples 2012; Klein,
Davis, and Hedengren 2013).
Let's look at the last of those just listed, the one that Bill Davis, Bob
Figgins, and I designed and fielded in 2010 to economics professors, with 299
respondents. It asked about seventeen reforms, each reform ratcheting upward the restriction on individual liberty or the
activism of a tax-funded government activity. The five-point scale was "support
strongly," "support, not strongly," "neutral," "oppose, not strongly," "oppose
strongly," so lower-valued responses are more interventionist and higher more
laissez-faire. Here are histograms on the seventeen questions:
Of the seventeen questions, the one on which economists most
clearly show consensus is international trade. That histogram is what strong
consensus looks like. But notice how few look like that. Consensus can be
attributed to perhaps four: international trade, prostitution, immigration and
might expect that a science about the welfare consequences of a policy would
generate single-peakedness, even pronounced single-peakedness, as with the international
trade question. After all, perfectly random responses would tend toward a
uniform distribution. But notice that, in fact, many of the questions
show a lack of single-peakedness.
And, yes, the four histograms with consensus lean on the
laissez-faire side, which is another matter, and one that Bryan also perhaps
sometimes overplays. Notice how on some issues the preponderance--if not quite
strong enough to be dubbed a consensus--leans in the other direction.
Mind you, the questions are about a ratcheting upward in the intervention or activism. Besides
speaking to the matter of consensus, the results on all seventeen questions
speak to attitudes toward governmentalization. For example, only 49.3 percent
of economics professors oppose increasing
the minimum wage (for the data see "Histograms" here).
The survey also asked about voting, so we can see by how
much the mean answer of economists who vote Democratic differs from that of
those who vote Republican. In the following figure, blue = Democrats, and red =
Sometimes the blue Democrat and red Republican bars are
about the same height, but frequently they are quite different. The results
relate to the recent paper by Roger Gordon and Gordon Dahl, "Views
among Economists: Professional Consensus or Point-Counterpoint?," which
spins consensus among the 41 economists selected, apparently by Anil Kashyap,
to be on the Chicago
Booth IGM Panel as consensus among economists in general, and as a lack of
ideological cleavage among economists. But the questions put to the IGM Panel
are often very uncontroversial. A Washington
Post piece ironically titled "Economists
Aren't Politically Driven, Economists Report" explains that the panel's
ideological range runs from Emmanuel Saez to Robert Hall.
Finally, about Bryan's speaking of economists enjoying a consensus, here are words from
Bill Davis, Dave Hedengren, and me:
The economics profession
exhibits greater ideological diversity than other fields (Klein and Stern
2005, 283-286). Is
ideological diversity a good thing? The answer, for each of us, will depend on
what sort of state of consensus the state of diversity is being compared to.
Wherever one stands, one can imagine something worse than a lack of consensus.