Why do we trust scientists who can be duped by parlor magicians?

Scott Sumner makes a good point about the economy and studies of it in this EconLog post. He writes:

I recall a story that scientists are often unable to explain the “tricks” performed by magicians. Scientists tend to be smart, but also rather linear thinkers. They are not used to their test tubes trying to deceive them. Something similar occurs in economics.

The economy operates in very subtle ways, and often when I read academic studies of issues like discrimination, the techniques seem incredibly naive to me. They might put in all the attributes of male and female labor productivity they can think of, and then simply assume than any unexplained residual must be due to “discrimination.” And they do this in cases where there is no obvious reason to assume discrimination. It would be like a scientist assuming that magicians created a white rabbit out of thin air, at the snap of their fingers, because they can’t think of any other explanation of how it got into the black hat!

They forget how easily fooled they were by the magician.

Why is this important? Sumner also makes the point that the economy works in subtle ways which are often just as misleading as the magician’s misdirect. He brings up one example, the vexing problem of why dry cleaning prices are higher for women than men. Perhaps it’s gender price discrimination.

The truth test — as Dan Hill points out in the comments to Sumner’s post — is to ask anyone who makes such a claim to put their money where their mouth is. If discrimination is the reason for the higher prices, not costs of some sort (be they direct or opportunity), wouldn’t you be able to make a lot of money by opening dry cleaners that offer a lower price for women?

Signals v Causes: Poverty

From the Introduction of the William Easterly’s book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor:
:

The technical problems of the poor (and the absence of technical solutions for those problems) are a symptom of poverty, not a cause of poverty. This book argues that the cause of poverty is the absence of political and economic rights, the absence of a free political and economic system that would find the technical solutions to the poor’s problems. The dictator whom the experts expect will accomplish the technical fixes to the technical problems is not the solution; he is the problem.

Think of technical problems as problems like not having medicine, food or the internet and technical solutions as providing medicine, food and the internet.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book. I heard about it from this EconTalk episode with William Easterly and that discussion is worth a listen.

Bottom up links

In this Freakonomics podcast, Steven Levitt discusses his work with companies whose managers resist experimentation to test their beliefs.

In one example, he couldn’t convince a company to stop running newspaper ads in any market to see if that would have an effect on sales. But, they discovered that an intern neglected to buy ads in Pittsburgh one summer. It had no effect on sales. But, the company still buys ads.

In this EconTalk podcast, Yuval Levin made what I expected to be a dull conversation about Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, very interesting. On this, especially, I agree:

I think that there’s a way in which the Left takes for granted a thriving economy that just comes in the background and the question is how to distribute the goods. We have to make the argument that that thriving economy–which makes possible the thriving life of this society–has to be sustained. And it’s a function of certain attitudes toward law and order, of certain kinds of rules, certain kinds of liberties that have to be defended, both because they are right and because they are good. Conservatives are nowhere near good enough at making that kind of case.

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Signals v Causes: Rome

This gave me a chuckle, from this week’s EconTalk with Charles Marhon about what makes a strong town:

I like to point out that Rome didn’t get the Colosseum and then build Rome. The Colosseum was the byproduct of centuries of success. And you know, you can look and say Rome was successful because they had a Colosseum. And go out and build a Colosseum and then say, why isn’t Rome appearing here?

I recommend the podcast. Marohn makes a lot points that I am sympathetic to.

He thinks we’ve gone overboard on infrastructure due to the belief that more is always better for growth.

Because of that thinking (similar to thinking on housing and education) and distorted incentives (we don’t directly pay for all that infrastructure) we’ve pushed into the diminishing returns part of the curve and cities that have built infrastructure to try to stimulate growth (rather than build to keep up with growth) are getting to the point where they may not be able to pay their bills.

Socially wasteful?

As a long-time debate aficionado, it seems to become rarer and rarer that I come across a debate that I haven’t heard yet and makes me think. I came across such a debate between Steve Landsburg and Don Boudreaux about socially wasteful spending.

It goes something like this:

Company A has a product that produces value for society, let’s say $100. Company B faces a decision to make a competing product that is slightly better and would add marginally to the overall value for society, let’s say $10. So, Company B’s product would produce value of $110.

Company B faces an incentive to invest more than the marginal improvement in societal value, $10 in this case, because it can also attract Company A’s customers.

So, maybe Company B invests $50 to produce $10 more in value for society, because it can attract the some or all of the $100 of value already served by Company A’s product.

On net, society is worse off because a $50 investment has been made to produce $10 of value, for a net loss of $40. Landsburg says the $50 is socially wasteful spending, though he admits that the simple example doesn’t capture all the complexities of the real world, like the possibility that the $50 investment accidentally produces more than $50 of value.

But, I think his main point is that this incentive to make socially wasteful investments is, perhaps, one weakness in the normal feedbacks of capitalism.

I’m having a hard time fitting the real world onto the simple example, where there is uncertainty, risk, prudence, competition, different value propositions for different people and such.

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Good links

A short, but insightful graduation speech.

A longer and insightful discussion of wealth and how different views of where it comes from can affect the words we use.

From the first:

4. Everyone responds to incentives, including people you want to help. That is why social safety nets don’t always end up working as intended.

From the second:

Europeans and Americans “claimed” a higher portion of global output only because they produced a higher portion of global output!  What these Europeans and Americans “claimed” simply would not have existed had they not produced it.

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An emotionally attractive against the minimum wage? 2

Thanks for the great comments to the previous post. There’s nothing I disagree with from the regular commenters, but I think the arguments tend to appeal more to conservatives or libertarians and illustrate how tough the challenge is.

I’d like to keep on this topic. I’ll refine the challenge a bit.

  • Two sentences max.
  • It must appeal to someone who thinks along the liberal oppressed-oppressor axis (per Kling’s 3-axis model).
  • It must be easy for just about everyone to grasp without the need to modify based on the person.

I read a good example of a short and compelling framing (on a different topic) in Steve Forbes’ recent Fact and Comment column in Forbes. Regarding Keynes’ monetary notions he wrote:

What Keynes posited was the equivalent of saying that manipulating scales is the way to attack obesity.

I think the story of Adam’s son, from the previous post’s comments, comes closest to appealing to liberals. But, I can well imagine that they spin it and say, “see, that’s why we need to guarantee him a living wage.”

Here are couple attempts:

1. Maybe smash-and-grab mobs and the knockout game wouldn’t be growing trends if the minimum wage didn’t prevent employers from paying such potential hires what they are worth — and keeping them more gainfully occupied.

2. Unfortunately, the liberal “We Care” banner is wrapped around a wrecking ball aimed at the very people they think they care about, when their actions result in continuing to fund schools that have not been educating children for decades and raising the minimum wage to make it even tougher for those uneducated children to gain job experience.

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The (kids) gloves are coming off?

Russ Roberts and Don Boudreaux, of Cafe Hayek, don’t know what to call their recent posts about Paul Krugman. I have a suggestion: It’s about time.

Economist Russ Roberts criticizes Krugman for his treatment of intellectual opponents, like economist Robert Barro, in this case. Roberts quotes two passages from Krugman’s own economics textbooks that support an argument that Barro makes:

Additional transfers to people with earnings below designated levels motivate less work effort by reducing the reward from working.

Yet, while Krugman said as much in his text books, in his blog post, Krugman does a poor job of characterizing this incentives-driven view of what Barro calls “regular economics”:

But if you follow right-wing talk — by which I mean not Rush Limbaugh but the Wall Street Journal and famous economists like Robert Barro — you see the notion that aid to the unemployed can create jobs dismissed as self-evidently absurd. You think that you can reduce unemployment by paying people not to work? Hahahaha!

And:

If you read Barro’s piece, what you see is a blithe dismissal of the whole notion that economies can ever suffer from am inadequate level of “aggregate demand” — the scare quotes are his, not mine, meant to suggest that this is a silly, bizarre notion, in conflict with “regular economics.”

Not exactly. I did read Barro’s piece. He sets a good example of how to characterize opposing views, accurately and without straw-manning it like a 9-year-old who just put gum in her sister’s hair because “she deserved it”:

Keynesian economics argues that incentives and other forces in regular economics are overwhelmed, at least in recessions, by effects involving “aggregate demand.” Recipients of food stamps use their transfers to consume more. Compared to this urge, the negative effects on consumption and investment by taxpayers are viewed as weaker in magnitude, particularly when the transfers are deficit-financed.

Thus, the aggregate demand for goods rises, and businesses respond by selling more goods and then by raising production and employment. The additional wage and profit income leads to further expansions of demand and, hence, to more production and employment.

And, it wasn’t quite a ‘blithe dismissal’. It was an argument that Krugman chose to blithely dismiss himself, instead of addressing it.

So, why did Krugman describe Barro’s argument as he did? Why not simply state the argument. For example, Barro believes that the unemployment creates incentives for people not to work, something I also believe and have written in my textbooks. Where I disagree with him is that I believe during recessions, those incentive effects are overwhelmed because there are fewer jobs a lot more people who want them.

Don Boudreaux goes one further and criticizes the people who seem to relish in their own intellectual capacity to deal with Krugman’s nuances (by using bigger words than I used in the previous paragraph), while missing a larger point, that economics shouldn’t be used to justify stealing.

I did something that I rarely do. I read Krugman’s whole piece, and was reminded of why I choose not do so. Not only do I agree with the points made by Roberts and Boudreaux above, but there are other things that bug me.

Here’s a couple of those things.

1. He says of Keynes’ “discovery” of aggregate demand:

…while I’m generally against scientific pretensions, it amounted to a scientific revolution, something like plate tectonics in geology.

First, I don’t put much stock in anyone who compares economics to science. I think they will be prone to be more confident in their views than they should be, which can lead to disastrous results.

Second, why make this analogy if he really is “generally against scientific pretensions.” Just not in this case? Aggregate demand is lone example in economics where scientific pretensions is warranted?

Something else bugs me. Krugman writes:

Think, for example, about the Great Recession and its aftermath. Regular economics says that economies should normally get richer each year, as their work force and capital stock grow, and technology advances. But after 2007 the United States and other advanced countries suddenly went into reverse, becoming poorer instead of richer, and for an extended period too [pointing to a chart of declining GDP in the recession].

Does regular economics say that economies should get richer every year? Maybe. I haven’t heard that one.

Is GDP a measure of wealth? I thought it was a measure of economic activity. Can’t GDP decline and wealth still go up? If Bill makes $100,000 a year and has $1 million in Apple stock, does his wealth go down if his salary declines to $90,000? Not necessarily. It depends on how much he spends, doesn’t it? If he spends $80,000 a year, his wealth can still grow after the decline in his salary, no?

Perhaps I’m mistaken in my understanding of GDP. If so, please correct me. But, if not, it seems that Krugman’s language is unnecessarily sloppy here for a Nobel economist.

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Pope II

Here I wrote about the Freakonomics podcast with Jeffrey Sachs which covered the Pope’s anti-capitalism remarks.

Shortly thereafter, in Taleb’s book, Antifragility, I was surprised to read what I think is a more thoughtful response to the Pope’s remarks and one that supports the Pope’s view.

What surprises me even more is that what Taleb writes about isn’t new to me. It’s a frequent topic of conversation, something that I know well. But, I hadn’t taken it to the logical conclusion.

First, Taleb points out that even the patriarch of capitalism, Adam Smith, was

…extremely chary of the idea of giving someone upside without downside and had doubts about the limited liability of joint-stock companies (the ancestor of the modern limited liability corporation). He did not get the idea of transfer of antifragility, but he came close enough.

And he detected–sort of–the problem that comes with managing other people’s business, the lack of pilot on the plane:

The directors of such companies, however, being the managers rather of other people’s money than of their own, it cannot well be expected, that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in a private copartnery frequently watch over their own.

Let me make the point clearer: the version of “capitalism” or whatever economic system you need to have is with the minimum number of people in the left of the Triad.

“The Triad” is Taleb’s classification of systems as (from left to right) fragile, robust and antifragile; and what he means by ‘left of the triad’ is people who get the downside, as well as the upside, or they have skin in the game.

Taleb contiues:

There is a difference between a manager running a company that is not his own and an owner-operated business in which the manager does not need to report numbers to anyone but himself, and for which he has a downside. Corporate managers have incentives without disincentives — something the general public doesn’t quite get, as they have the illusion that managers are properly “incentivized.” Somehow these managers have been given free options by innocent savers and investors.

He provides an example:

…banks have lost more than they ever made in their history, with their managers being paid billions in compensation — taxpayers take the downside, bankers get the upside [Russ Roberts has been saying this for years]. And the policies aiming at correcting the problem are hurting innocent people while bankers are sipping the Rose de Provence brand of summer wine on their yachts in St. Tropez.

To bring this all together:

We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of I.A.N.D. (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price.

At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, those with no personal exposure, exerted so much control.

Now, let’s re-read what the Pope wrote (quoted from the Freakonomics post):

“[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. … One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! … While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

To me, this reads like leftist dribble, where their intuition leads them, perhaps, in the right direction for outcome, but the wrong direction for cause.

Maybe the Pope is right that there are some fundamental problems in the mixed markets that have emerged.

But, they’re wrong about the cause of those problems. They blame things like “trickle down theories” (Thomas Sowell challenges us to name one economist who used “trickle down“).

But, the part of the Pope’s passage that reminds me of Taleb’s point is:

…expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power…

Perhaps that is true. And Taleb tells us why:

At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, those with no personal exposure, exerted so much control.

They don’t have downside.

This includes politicians, apparatchiks in government agencies, economists and — the one that I am really disappointed that I missed because of my biases — managers of businesses who only have upside and no downside. I’ve even noticed that senior managers often have the same characteristics as politicians, but darn if I haven’t carried that through.

So, as I like to say, all problems can be traced to problems with feedback — I think Taleb exposes a couple of real feedback problems in — not free markets — but our mixed market economy. That feedback problem is that too many people “wielding economic power” don’t have downside. Rather they have incentives to game the system for their upside.

How can this be changed? Taleb gives one example that surprised me:

…in some countries such as Brazil, even today, top bankers are made unconditionally liable to the extent of their own assets.

Think about that. Would bankers act differently if they may have to repay the bonuses they received in what are now apparent as the fraudulently fueled good-times?

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