Lehman Brothers comic

If you missed the results of the Dilbert Survey of Economists, read that post first. It is directly below this one.

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.

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0 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 22, 2008
Twenty years ago when I took a course in industrial policy, we discussed all the various ways that government can participate in the markets, and after finding shortcomings in all of them, the professor concluded the class be saying that supporting education was the most market neutral method by which the government could support the economy.

This is why economists have such a strong support for education. It's not a matter of self-interest. For anyone who has studied economics it should not be a surprise to see that economists place the most priority on this issue. Also all of economics starts with the assumption that people behave rationality. For markets to efficiently allocate resources it is also necessary that market participants are well-informed. The very underpinnings of all of economics relies on an educated populace. Behavorial economics and common sense tells us people do not always behave rationally, but the closer the better from an economics point of view.

Some of the most acrimonious arguments in society take place of matter of economics, yet in no place in are current educational system do we have a requirement that students study economics. So it is not surprising that commenters are surprised by what economists think, but it should be surprising that we still do not consider an exposure to economics to be a requirement to be an effective citizen in a democratic society.
Sep 22, 2008
This is what the rest of the world that logs on to Dilbert.com learnt:

1. American Politics has matured indeed (Probably due to the Lawyers)

2. Every voter has just one vote. He/ She cannot vote on each issue.

3. A candidate cannot fulfil all the demands of the voter.

4. Voter realises that.

5. Candidate realises that too.

6. Candidate eliminates subject from the voters preference list that are not the candidates strengths.

7. One way is, carry out a survey. Candidate gets flying colors. Voters gives it a miss in the preference list.

8. Other way works too. If candidate is strong in one subject, split it into several heads and count each one separately. Fill the voters head with different shades of the same subject...

Works on America, works everywhere...
Sep 20, 2008
There's a website that I think is misrepresenting your results, saying something like "Economists support Obama by 2-to-1 margin". You might want to set them straight:


Sep 19, 2008


Or as a famous conservative !$%*!$% said:

"It ain't the teat, it's the tumidity"
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 19, 2008
I found the survey and the following discussion really interesting (especially because I am an economist).

In particular, the conclusion by Dilbert that:

“[…] you should expect [economists] 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.”

is really a good news to me…

Actually these Dilbert’s survey result is really similar to the one I and a co-author got conducting a survey on Italian economists' opinions. Interesting, isn’t it?

If you are interested in our survey’s results have a look at


+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 18, 2008
The suggestion of a control group of non US economists seems sound in principle- but based on the fact that the wast majority of foreigners (I'm in that gorup) hate Bush with a passion that almost religious I believe this would be a rather biased control group. Honestly I think that finding a dispassionate third party might be a little difficult.

I also find the idea that people are university employees because they are lazy to be quite insulting- believe me most of the academics I know work harder for less pay than most of the people I know in the private sector. Mind you independent business people may work harder than both, probably they do. But if you are going to be lazy it requires a lot of hard work to acquire the tenure you need to be able to be lazy in academia. In fact the only way to be lazy id to acquire enough minions to do you work for you- and hence become a manager. Couse this is from a science background- I don't know if the social science guys do any work.
Sep 18, 2008
Nice survey, but slightly useless in some aspects. Well, economists can say something on "reducing the deficit" or "mortgage/housing crisis", but the "education", "environmental policy", "immigration" or "social security" are not economic problems, but political one. Also, the pro-democrat bias is obvious; the economists wasn't able to cross the borders of their "mind frame"... Anyway, who is responsible for all economics decisions in last 20 years? Are there only "republican" economists in the circles of political advisers? And if majority of economists are democrats, the proof of their incompetence is evident.
Shortly, there is time to Change, and nor Obama, nor McCain are this Change.
Sep 17, 2008
I noticed my previous post got two votes. I appreciate the feedback.

I won't be posting as much on this site, but I just wanted to say that the study was very professional and comprehensive. It would serve both political parties to take a look at this piece and learn how they are perceived.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
First, thank you for doing this study.

Second, it struck me as interesting that 20% of the Republican economists said Obama would do a better job, where as only 12% of the Democratic economists said McCain would do a better job. I wished someone could tell me whether it was really the case that the Republicans were more likely than the Democrats to say the other side's nominee would do a better job, or if this was just random noise. Then I realized I was someone:

Okay, if I'm doing a normal approximation to a binomial distribution correctly (and it's been a while), then there is only a little less than 1 chance in 10 of getting this big of a difference from random noise.

What that means, I'll leave up to you.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
Dude. The data "are". The datum "is". So let it be written. So let it be done.
Sep 17, 2008
I still don't know whether to laugh or cry!

But thanks for doing this...
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
When it comes to heath care, I wish the survey distinguished between increased coverage and reining in inflation. My personal sense is that the latter is far more important, and I think that is what many of the economists were thinking, but I think most people will believe they were supporting the former (increased coverage).
Sep 17, 2008
<scratching head> Well, it is interesting to know that economists vote party lines, and they probably think and argue that way as well. We all see what we want to see.

Might be useful to try to find a control group of economists, e.g. non-US citizens, to see who they think would be best. The Economist magazine gives an endorsement at every election, but it's hard to know which editorial voice that's coming from.

To my mind, in this election both sides want to do expensive things - McCain, stay in Iraq; Obama, universal health care. Personally, I'd rather be spending public money on health care, but both points may be moot, given the state of the economy today and in the likely near future. All these billions in bail out money will have to come from somewhere, we're already up to our eyeballs in national debt, so whoever is elected will have little choice but to raise taxes, and won't get to spend them on either of their big ideas.
Sep 17, 2008
Did any economists mention that it is unconstitutional for the US President to have anything to do with education or health care?
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
Survey results make me think that economists know what everyone else thinks: that the job of President is almost too big for one person to make a difference. In today’s media environment, candidates’ true opinions are hidden, couched, spun. Who can know them? Best we can do is vote based on party platform, not on the person. Few politicians cross the aisle, and neither it seems, do many economists. No wonder so many voters pull the straight-ticket lever. We really don’t have a lot of reasons to do otherwise.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
Anyone who believes academia provides no competition is wrongly misled and probably has never been in academia, or never met anyone who has. Why do you express opinions on something you know nothing about?
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008

"It is easy to feel good about yourself for promoting a ton of expensive government programs for the less fortunate when you have plenty of money and a tax hike won't hurt your day to day life."

I think you'd be very hard pressed to find an economist that thinks tax hikes are good things. The resulting market distortions are econ 101.

There's an explanation somewhere, I just don't know where it is.
Sep 17, 2008
I think it's interesting to note that economic issues (i.e. Reducing the deficit, foriegn trade, etc. - theoretically, the one ones the economist would actually know more than you and me about) are the ones that the economist were more likely to cross lines on. Tells me that maybe McCain is the better choice on economic issues.

Also, it's interesting that economist didn't think an economic issue was the top issue or even the second most important issue.

I'm not sure why we should trust their opinion on which candidate would be better for education or health care, much less national security, immigration, etc. Again, why should we think they know more than we do about an issue that is outside their expertise?

Plus, is 'Increase Taxes on the Wealthy' an issue or a proposed solution to a problem (the government needing more money)? I'm sure it's an issue if your wealthy.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
I must say that I find it funny what people deduce from the data; mainly that there is a fundamental difference in the nature of the individual economists. ie Democrats are fat, lazy acamedics leeching off the tax payer, while the Republicans are greedy, corporate bigwigs, too busy slitting throats to have the time to participate in the survey.

Second, and maybe this is my inferior Canadian mind, but doesn't this point out the absurdity of having such a strong allegiance to a political party? How can a rational economist say to himself, "Well, I'm a Democrat, but I disagree with my candidate on 75% of the economic issues." Why bother calling yourself a Democrat? Isn't the idea to agree on as many issues as possible?

(I understand there's more to it than the economic issues, but you'd figure an economist would prioritize economic issues more than the average person)
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
Reading this, I have a feeling you're trying to figure out which points from the survey comfort you in your existing position about McCain more than the opposite, trying to figure out who to vote for based on unbiased data.

This is also reinforced by your lack of comment on the fact that you wrote " 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." which clearly is biased towards mcCain (after all, if you had said the same for Obama, it would have been "61% [blah] or Obama would do better").

Also, there may be more economist in academia for the simple reason that, while there's a big need of accountants, there's little need for economists. As such academic tenure is the best option for an economist. That's not applied science.

Thanks for the survey, even though I won't vote (I'm belgian), this thing shapes the world and as such has my interest.

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