Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Who's Anti-Science?

This is all kind of bass-akwards, but I thought it might be helpful to provide some structure and purpose to Ideas Hatched that is already reflected in the tone and content of the recent pre and post-election entries.  I even changed the explanation lying below the title of the blog to the following: “Ideas Hatched is dedicated to the proposition that you are more politically conservative than you think you are, and I mean to prove it.”  In the past, Ideas Hatched was more satirical about liberals, involved a fair degree of preaching to the quire, and contained funny little asides on drunken Santa Claus’s, etc.  Some of you familiar with the old versus the new posts are probably wondering what happened to the lame attempts at humor.  Well, I haven’t given them up entirely, but instead of trying to be funny I mean to convince the two liberals that are on my e-mail distribution list that they agree with me more than they think they do.  In the process, maybe I change a mind or two, although that is probably too much to hope – at the very least I hope to spread a little misery and rain on their parade.
There are basically two components to my (blind?) faith that many smart liberals are walking around in a haze under the false impression that they are liberals, the first of which I will address this week.   Surveys of college faculty, perhaps the most liberal sub-culture in the United States, show a much more even divide between self-described conservatives and liberals among the economics faculty as compared to all other disciplines.  This might be selection bias – i.e. those already with some conservative instinct are drawn to studying economics.  I suspect there is a little of that, but not much – even the most liberal of economists aligns with free market principles to a much greater degree than, say, a women’s studies professor.  Paul Krugman, for example, received the Nobel largely for his work in studying international trade, and he is an unabashed advocate of free trade.  

Now, one astute commentator, Pbryon, commented recently that for every economic theory, there is an equal and opposite theory.  It’s the old one armed economist joke – you can’t have a one armed economist because he’d be unable to say “on the one hand …, but on the other hand…”  There is some justification for this in the realm of macroeconomics and business cycle phenomenon.   But in most microeconomic issues, where policy is so often applied, there is far greater consensus among economists, regardless of political affiliation, about likely effects.   This consensus gets blurred in the discussion, and especially so with respect to Paul Krugman.  It seems to me that he has given “cover” to all right-thinking New York Times readers – if you are reading him, have no knowledge of economics, but consider yourself liberal, you take comfort in the fact that someone with similar ideological preferences remains a committed liberal even with an extensive knowledge of economics, and so there is no need for you to torture yourself with supply and demand curves.
Learning some basic economics, especially that which applies directly to the policy realm, has a conservative influence on opinion.   This certainly doesn’t preclude someone from being liberal on balance – there are plenty of liberal economists – but it does dampen tribal loyalty to the cause.  People don’t remember it now, but Krugman used to aim his venom at people like Robert Reich and other prominent liberals for their unscientific views on trade and other economic issues.  People no doubt have their view of “economic” justice, whatever that may be, but it is largely uninformed by any knowledge of actual economics.   Becoming informed of such things tends to make the scales fall from the eyes, and one can see that often the intended desirable outcome of a policy is often assured of failure by the prima facie compassion of that policy.

Milton Friedman summarizes one of the great lessons from economics: there is no free lunch.  Every policy issue or decision involves some sort of trade-off, but you have to be someone astute in economics to understand what the trade-off is.  Failure to understand the tradeoffs leads to the “law of unintended consequences” – unintended does not mean unpredictable.  Many policy failures are patently obvious from the outset.  Simple “eat the rich” and “feed the poor” philosophies tend to be completely ignorant of these trade-offs, and assume you can get something for nothing.  Increasing taxes on the rich, as I have argued, may hurt the middle class and the employment prospects for the lower class.  This is just one of many potential trade-offs that people are completely unaware of.  Others?  If you want to kill the employment prospects of low-skilled minorities, raise the minimum wage.  If you want to lower employment, extend unemployment benefits and/or exact large costs to firms for laying people off.  If you want to hurt the employment prospects of certain protected groups (i.e. women, minorities), make it easier for them to sue their employer.  If you want employer’s to shift workers from full to part-time work, make them provide health insurance to all full-time employees.  The list can go on and on … and it will.
Despite the constant bemoaning of conservatives being anti-science, whether or not I believe in, am knowledgeable about, or have an interest in quantum mechanics has nothing to do with government policy, accept perhaps to the small extent that it might influence my support for public funding of research in that area.    What can be said about quantum mechanics cannot be said about economics.  The last two elections arguably hinged on people’s perceptions of the causes of the financial crisis, and the degree to which we could have expected a faster or slower recovery to date with one versus an alternative set of policies. 

There have probably been 100 books written on the topic of the recession and weak recovery, and no serious one would correspond to the fiction that all would have been fine if not for “Wall Street” screwing “Main Street.”  There is consensus on a lot of issues wrapped up in these topics that did not inform the average voter’s opinion.   Moreover, the less nuanced and less correct view of this issue is “we need more regulation” as compared to “we need less regulation.”  How many of these books have you read?  Why would people so vested to the majesty of science ignore the science most relevant to our country’s well-being?
{The issue of public funding for research is a fairly miniscule issue in the larger scheme of things, but of course we know that is not the motivation for the anti-science tag.  The real motivation for the anti-science is global warming – the deniers of man-made global warming are stone-aged cretins who are afraid to sail the open seas for fear of falling off the edge of the earth.   In theory, your attitude toward this issue would influence your support of policies intended to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, which is potentially a very large public policy issue.  As it turns out, no policy choice of the Obama administration has done anything to curb carbon emissions over the last four years (they have slowed in growth due to the recession and the higher availability of natural gas).  Moreover, there is no reason to expect anything will be done in this term along the draconian lines called for by the global warmers.  This is a key area of “expressive voting” – I will support the policy to restrict coal production even if it will have no discernible effect on global warming, and in the process I will feel vastly superior to the anti-science crowd.   Expressive voting here is an act of tribal loyalty, and nothing more.  The anti-science claim is for the purpose of declaring one’s cultural superiority to the knuckle draggers.}


Anonymous pbryon said...

Being anti-science isn't the sole bastion of conservatives. Liberal mothers are the typical pushers of the anti-vaccine movement, which also has no basis in science. There are other examples too.

You could probably fill a thimble, and not much more, with my knowledge of economics. I do, however, follow Krugman on my RSS feed, and one of the things I like about him (besides his politcal leanings) is that he seems to try to determine if something actually works, and has admitted when he is wrong. It always bothers me when baseball and other sports prognosticators always hype up the one prediction they got right--I told you that Chase Headley was going to have a breakout year--but never mention the other 49 predictions that they got wrong.

It seems that economics sometimes does the same thing. Given my economic ignorance, it does seem like there's a big difference between what the economic theories say SHOULD happen when something is put into place, but there is very little out there in the way of evaluation when it ACTUALLY got enacted. The austerity measures currently taking place in various countries in Europe ought to be a great laboratory for certain economic theories, right?

Now granted, the way things are implemented in real life may not follow the theories to the letter, and things are always much more complicated in real life, but sometimes I see a disconnect between the theoretical and the practical.

7:44 AM  

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