I won’t make a habit of this, but a comment on this blog about the Dilbert Survey of Economists was so well written that I am promoting it. I don’t entirely agree with the writer’s point, but I am impressed with its clarity. Clear thinking makes me happy.

From user Olivaw:

As an economist, I find a number of the reactions to this survey very curious.

First, in general what economists agree on most of all is a framework for evaluating government policy. Notions such as efficiency, equity, market failure, market equilibrium, and benefit-cost analysis are regarded as useful ways of thinking about the economy and possible policy interventions.

Second, most economists I know are not highly partisan. This is in part because most economists like most people have other interests than partisan politics. But it is also because studying economics tends to lead towards having somewhat complicated views on issues that often cross party orthodoxy. So, most Democratic economists tend to be moderate Democrats, and most Republican economists are moderate Republicans.

Third, the notion that somehow being an economist would lead you inevitably to support a certain candidate is strange. Economists in many cases might largely agree on the framework for evaluating a policy. They might even agree on the policy's effects. But how to value the disparate effects relies in many cases on subjective values, about which economics as a profession has little useful to say (try philosophy).

So, for example, for many policies economists might agree that the policy should be evaluated in terms of its effects on efficiency (the size of the economic pie) and equity (how equally the pie is distributed). In some cases, economists might even agree on the approximate size of these efficiency and equity effects. However, if the policy increases efficiency but decreases equity, or decreases efficiency but increases equity, there is NOTHING in economics that tells you what relative value you should place on efficiency vs. equity, and therefore what you should choose.

In general, I suspect the economists who favor Obama tend to have a greater relative weight on equity vs. efficiency compared to economists who favor McCain. Both groups might agree that both efficiency and equity are important, but they disagree PHILOSOPHICALLY (outside of their training as economists) on the relative importance of these two social values.
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-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 18, 2008
I'm not sure if most economists really agree that equity is a worthwhile critera, but it seems *profoundly* wrong to me.

Say we have two policy choices A and B. Choice A results in Bob and Sally both having $1. Choice B results in Bob having $10 and Sally having $5. It seems that B is indisputably better than A, but Olivaw would say we need to subjectively weigh the inequity of B against the inefficiency of A.

I would advocate a average-log score as a criterion instead of equity; to judge a policy P we take the logarithm of each persons income and then we take the average of that. So if policy A doubles Bill Gate's income, and policy B doubles the income of the poorest orphan in Africa, they're judged the same. The average-log score maintains most of the spirit of the equity score without being obviously, objectively wrong.

The average-log score does have problems. Perhaps it is better to double Bill Gate's money than an orphans, because Bill Gates would have donated it all to orphans anyway. Perhaps doubling the orphans money is better because Gates already has more than he deserves. So there still are subjective trade-offs you have to make when you judge policy. But at least you won't do something as stupid as choosing a policy that hurts *everyone* just because it hurts them *equally*.

Sep 18, 2008
Equity, Efficiency, blah blah blah.
Olivaw is obviously well educated and eloquent in his words, but it still boils down to who's tallest and has the best hair. Your survey has just reinforced my opinion that Obama will be better for those of us middle class working stiffs.

BTW: Scott, your comic today is a repeat. WTF?
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 18, 2008
I checked the website of the American Economic Association. It appears that the only requirement to become a member is that you pay the dues! See http://www.lbmchost.com/aea/

The members are probably mostly college professors who want to put the membership on their resumes to give them some credibility.

If we had a survey of Economic nobel prize nominees or former members of the Federal Reserve Board, THAT would be useful.
Sep 18, 2008
The poster of that comment is obviously very intelligent and conveys his point well, but he seems to turn a blind eye to a few obvious facts. Mostly insisting that economists aren't partisan, despite the opposite being one of the more obvious results of this little experiment. He seems convinced of the logical fallacy that since he is both not partisan and an economist, therefore all economists are similarly nonpartisan. Obviously this is not the case.
Sep 18, 2008
Personally, I think a big part of the problem with our government is the notion that every issue is an economic issue. This says to me that the prevailing thought, in both parties, is that we can manage any problem or issue by controlling how much money we throw at it. If there is a problem, throw more money at it.

For example, the idea that Education is an economic problem is ludicrous. I think it is universially excepted that our education system is the worst it has ever been (i.e. our kids are not getting the same quality education their grandparents did), yet we are spending more money on education than ever.

In your top 13 issues there are only 2-3 truly economic issues.

Also, I don't see where 'controlling the economy' is part of the government's mandate or authority in the Constitution. Maybe our economy is a mess, BECAUSE of the constant government oversight and tinkering.

+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 18, 2008

That is a good well written comment, but it misses the point of the survey. The survey was not about which candidate an economist would support, but which candidate is better suited to deal with specific issues. The question as to whether or not the economist's opinion about which candidate can handle the listed issues better would effect how they will vote was not asked. No one stipulated that being an economist would make someone choose a specific candidate. Scott wanted to ask some economists about which candidate appears to have a better plan to handle specific issues. Leading to, if these issues are important to you, you should consider whichever candidate seemed better able to deal with any given issue. The economists were asked who they supported, but never why. As Olivaw pointed out, there are other reasons an economist, or a person in general, would support a particular candidate.

How to use the survey results. If any of the issues listed are of high importance to you as a voter, look at which candidate is perceived to be better able to deal with that issue, and if you think the survey is valid vote for the indicated candidate.

Again, thanks for the survey.

Sep 18, 2008
Since most of us really vote base on our emotions, our brains and research really don't factor in. And remember presidents and vice-presidents are just figureheads with minimal powers (except to put us into war). Congress make the laws/budgets and the president can veto. They can propose changes, but they really can not implement. And we voters need to remember that if our congressmen are not representing our views and values they (the congressmen) can and should be replaced.
We can research and preach anything, but you can twist information to support any position you want. And in the end it's just a matter of picking the person who you hope will do the least amount of damage to the nation.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 18, 2008
I disagree with the conclusion that a majority of economists must value equity over efficiency because they're Obama supporters or Democrats. I'm married to an economist who, while highly valuing equity, values efficiency even more highly and still believes Obama will be better for our economy in the long run.

With respect to what kevinp said about education being a social issue, I have to disagree. Education provides the foundation for our workforce and is the driving force behind our competetive advantage (such as it is) in international markets. Smart people come up with great ideas, but well educated people make the technological breakthroughs that really make a difference in the world. My own bias here is that I'm an engineer and you won't find many of those without college degrees (nor many highly successful ones without graduate degrees).
Sep 18, 2008
I thought the point of the survey was to evaluate which candidate was more likely to have a positive influence on the nation's economy, not to evaluate the candidates as a whole. Perhaps I misunderstood the purpose, but personally I am much more interested in an economist's view on the national debt (which I would view as a purely economic issue) than on education (which I would view as a social issue).

Maybe what I learned from the survey is that you can not evaluate economic policy in isolation, which makes economists just as biased as the rest of us.
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 18, 2008
Many, many good points in that post.

The only thing I disagree with is his/her statement that economists are not highly partisan. Twenty years ago that was more true than today where very clear lines are drawn in the political sand - especially in occupations that give direct clout to a candidate on a national stage. Economists have power - thier political views now matter. And in my experience power nearly always trumps conventional, standardized wisdom, thus the voting along party lines.

Moreover, isn't this just one person's perception in stating a lack of bias among economists?

But then again, this is mine.
Sep 18, 2008
This means one of two things:

1) Man, did Scott ever waste his money. Next time, just send it to me.

2) Scott provided the empirical data to support this poster's point: We can safely ignore any economist who endorses a political candidate, because ultimately, politics is about values, not about reality.

That's why no one political point of view has ever emerged triumphantly to be objectively endosed by all non-psychotic people. No matter what Fox News thinks.

As long as people have differing values, there will be differing political parties.
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