For me, the real goal of the survey of economists was to give voters an appetite for useful and unbiased information, so you demand it in the future. I consider all of the criticisms of this survey to be steps in the right direction. That's where the conversation should be, and not so much about lipstick and pigs. If your reaction to the survey was "That's not enough information," I call that progress. Demand more.
How Biased Is the Survey?
The most striking result of the survey is that there are far more Democratic economists than Republicans, and both sides strongly support their candidate. Does that tell us anything useful at all?
Economists crossed party lines on the questions of International Trade, Environmental Policy, Immigration, Reducing Waste in Government, and Reducing the Deficit. I didn't include a question about a gas tax holiday, because the idea has already expired, but economists crossed party lines on that issue too. That suggests a degree of objectivity on an issue level. The crossover issues, plus the rankings, are important no matter who gets elected. That will tell you if your president has the right priorities.
Everything we know about human nature tells us that people are usually rational when the choices are relatively simple and the data is known. For example, your choice of a grocery store is probably a rational decision based on things you easily understand, such as distance, price, and selection. But tribe loyalty tends to take over when the data is less clear, such as choosing a religion.
The way this applies to the survey of economists is that you should expect them to cross party lines when the data is clear and understood, and to lean toward party loyalties when things get fuzzy. That's how humans are wired. We like our team.
At the top of the list of economic priorities, according to economists, are education and health care, arguably the two fuzziest topics. Unless the candidates have told you how much their plans would cost, and where the money will come from, it is a stretch to say they have plans at all. Given the lack of clarity on these two issues, and the number of variables involved, I would expect economists to be relatively more biased on those issues than on simpler issues. How much more biased? The data doesn't tell us.
A number of you also pointed out that most of the economists in the survey are academics, so it is no shocker that they put education at the top of the list. While education does pass the sniff test as being one of the most important economic issues, it is not clear that an extra dollar for schools is as useful to the economy as an extra dollar for health care or alternative energy. While we can all agree that improving education is a worthy objective, its position in the number one spot on this survey has to be viewed with a pinch of skepticism.
The big question this survey raises is why so many economists are Democrats in the first place. Democrats tell me that highly educated and rational folks, such as economists, gravitate toward the best argument. Case closed.
Republicans tell me that liberals, mostly Democrats, drift toward academic jobs where they can best suck on the public teet. It's easier to be a tenured professor than it is to run a company, so the thing that economists have in common is laziness as opposed to intelligence. And perhaps, think the Republicans, the so-called Independents in this survey are mostly liberals too, essentially Democrats who aren't joiners. And besides, if economics was a real science, most economists would be rich.
I have no data to support any theory of why so many economists are Democrats. But once someone picks a party, it's a sticky choice. It would be naïve to assume it doesn't influence opinions where the data is unclear.
Did We Learn Anything?
I learned a lot from the survey results. I was surprised by the rankings of issues, and I didn't know where the economists would cross party lines. That information is important for keeping the next president honest no matter who it is.
I was happily surprised at how many economists are Independents. And I was surprised that Democrats and Republicans stuck to their party lines so closely. I expected McCain to be the winner on most economic issues. I was wrong.
If you looked at the survey results and concluded that you can ignore economists when it comes to picking the next president, I would not fault you for that interpretation. After all, a third of the experts say there would be no difference between the candidates on several important economic issues. That's good to know because it gives you cover to allocate more weight to non-economic issues.
Personally, I think it is useful to know that economists didn't cross party lines on the question of who would be the best president. I'll keep that in mind the next time an economist expresses an opinion on this election.
The survey changed the focus of my own thinking to the top priorities. For example, assuming education is the top priority, and assuming it's more of a pre-college problem, where is the best leverage point? We're probably well beyond the point of diminishing returns for extra funding, except for the worst of the schools. We know that kids do best in school when their parents are managing the process right. If either candidate had a plan for educating parents on how to help their kids succeed in school, I think that would be compelling.
On health care, the second most important economic issue, I would be persuaded by a candidate who made the following argument: We're going to try something that already worked someplace else. It will cost x billion per years, but we can save twice that amount if you voters start eating right, smoking less, and exercising more. It's your patriotic duty to get off your butt.
If the survey made you think about any of the issues on a deeper level, I got my money's worth.
As promised, here are the results of my survey of economists. You can see three views into the results today, and I plan to blog more about it this week.
(Format problems are because my blogging software is finnicky.)
1. My opinion on the results, on CNN.com http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/09/16/dilbert.economy/index.html
2. Detailed survey data: http://dilbert.com/dyn/ppt/Draft-report--9-3-08.ppt
3. Press release (below)
[Some contact information removed here]Dilbert Survey of Economists Democratic Economists Favor Obama. Republican Economists Favor McCain. Independents Lean Toward Obama.
Dublin, CA (September 10, 2008) – Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, commissioned a survey of over 500 economists to find out which candidate for President of the United States would be best for the economy long term.
Says Adams, “I found myself wishing someone would give voters useful and unbiased information about which candidate has the best plans for the economy. Then I realized that I am someone, which is both inconvenient and expensive.”
At considerable personal expense, Adams commissioned a survey of over 500 economists, drawn from a subset of the members of the American Economic Association, a non-political group, some of whose members had agreed in advance to be surveyed on economic questions. The results do not represent the AEA’s position. The survey was managed by The OSR Group, a respected national public opinion and marketing research company.
Nationally, most economists are male and registered as either Democrats or Independents. The survey sample reflects that imbalance.
3% Libertarian5% Other or not registered
1 Education 59% 14% 27%
2 Health care 65% 20% 15%
3 International trade 26% 51% 23%
4 Energy 61% 22% 17%
Technology/innovation 43% 23% 34%
6 Wars and
homeland security 58% 30% 11%
7 Mortgage/housing crisis 41% 18% 41%
8 Social Security 40% 24% 35%
9 Environmental policy 72% 9% 19%
10 Reducing the deficit 37% 29% 33%
11 Immigration 33% 29% 38%
12 Increasing taxes 79% 14% 7%
13 Reducing waste 16% 38% 46%
The economists in the survey favor Obama on 11 of the top 13 issues. But keep in mind that 48% are Democrats and only 17% are Republicans. Among Independents, things are less clear, with 54% thinking that in the long run there would either be no difference between the candidates or McCain would do better.
Adams puts the survey results in perspective: “If an economist uses a complicated model to predict just about anything, you can ignore it. By analogy, a doctor can’t tell you the exact date of your death in 50 years. But if a doctor tells you to eat less and exercise more, that’s good advice even if you later get hit by a bus. Along those same lines, economists can give useful general advice on the economy, even if you know there will be surprises. Still, be skeptical.”
[Some contact information removed]
Interview requests for Scott Adams can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Adams will only be responding by e-mail for the next few months due to some minor surgery to fix a voice issue.
Update: Some of you will wonder how reliable a bunch of academics are when it comes to answering real life questions about the economy. You might prefer to know what CEOs think. But remember that CEOs are paid to be advocates for their stockholders, not advocates for voters. Asking CEOs what should be done about the economy is like asking criminals for legal advice. More on that this week.
And for my view on the value economists: http://dilbert.com/blog/?Date=2008-08-22
The result of my survey of economists is delayed one more day (I think). I’m timing it to run with an opinion piece I wrote for CNN.com, but the news about Lehman Brothers squeezed it off the page at the last minute.
[Insert your own joke about not having time to hear what economists say because we’re too busy with bank closures.]
I thought Hurricane Ike was going to bump my story today. There’s always something. I released my book God’s Debris in September 2001. That turned out to be a bad month for authors to get media attention. Another book, Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel was released the same month that the infamous Beltway Sniper was making national headlines. I was on my book tour, and all of my media appearances depended on how accurate the sniper was that morning.
I remember having dinner with a group of book publishers and asking them how many great undiscovered authors there are. They answered unanimously “none.” It was their view that every good author can get published because the publishing industry is scratching the dirt to find them. I think that’s mostly true. But how many books an author sells has a lot to do with what is happening in the news.
My first hardcover book, The Dilbert Principle, hit its stride in the summer, when there wasn’t much else happening in the news. The media attention was enormous. It was an easy and fun story and there wasn’t a lot of competition for people's attention. Sales were huge. But if it had launched during September of 2001, as my book God’s Debris did, it would have tanked. God's Debris was a solidly successful book, but sold maybe a tenth of its potential.
Timing is everything.
On July 29th I wrote in this blog that I fantasize about being a candidate for President and using the line “My opponent thinks voters are stupid.” I opined that it would be a killer line and make world headlines.
On September 6th, Obama was talking about Republicans in his speech and said, “I mean come on, they must think you’re stupid!” It made world headlines:
I figured it was a coincidence. It’s not as if the Obama campaign is reading The Dilbert Blog. But yesterday Google Alert vacuumed up a mention of my name from some corner of the Internet and delivered it to the BlackBerry in my left front pant pocket. I learned that strangers with no credibility have put me on the list of Top-10 Web Celebrities for 2008-2009. To my surprise, someone is actually reading this blog. I always thought all the comments here were from one crazy stalker pretending to be different people.
The odd thing about blogging, or writing a book, is that you never know who is paying attention. But I do expect a lot of people will visit this blog on Monday when I release the results of my survey of economists, assuming that happens as planned.
One of the things that get me out of bed in the morning is having at least one project brewing that could change the world, no matter how unlikely. My survey of economists fits that model. I don’t expect it to affect this election, but there is a non-zero chance it will change the type of information voters demand. Ideally, someone else would fund a study of economists next year. (It is pricey.)
A recent study found that the sound of expensive sports cars increases testosterone in both men and women, thus causing arousal. I didn’t believe it until I played the video of the Maserati, the most potent car they studied. Maybe it’s the placebo effect, but I did feel a surge of something.
This solved one of the great riddles of my life. Every summer a group of classic car enthusiasts gathers in my area to compare cars and whatnot. The odd thing I noticed is that the men are generally bearded, out of shape, and unattractive. But the women accompanying them are often very attractive. Now I know why. Apparently the sound of custom car engines is like catnip to hot chicks.
The great thing about the testosterone study is that you don’t need to buy an expensive car to get the benefits. You can just play a recording of the engine sounds and your partner will be ready for action. The problem is figuring out how to introduce a sports car engine noise into your romantic evening.
The sneakiest method I can think of would be to have some recorded street sounds on your home music system turned down low, so it sounds like it is coming from outside. Every once in awhile you could mutter something like “damn kids need to slow down” and then return your attention to your date, who by this time is shedding clothes like a trailer park in a tornado.
I also wonder what other sights, sounds, smells, and textures boost testosterone. Someone needs to study this more thoroughly. Obviously porn does the trick for men, and the smell of pumpkin pie, according to other studies. Women are more mysterious. I once saw a study where sensors were attached to shoppers. For men, there was no special change in their bodies except boredom. For women, the stereotype held, and the instrument panel lit up like a Christmas tree as soon as they entered a store. So I think the sound of shopping would boost the happy feeling for many women. I realize how sexist that sounds, but you can’t argue with junk science.
The perfect montage of sounds for a woman might be something along the lines of ocean waves, followed by the Maserati, expensive shoes on fine marble, mall noise, credit card swiping, ruffling of a shopping bag, and then the sound of wine pouring into a glass, with a fireplace crackling in the background. I’d also add the sound of a chainsaw somewhere in the distance, so the woman can imagine her personal lumberjack getting wood for the fire.
What do you think?
The key to life is picking the right witnesses. Thanks for being mine.