On the rift between economics and everything else

The line is often heard: economists are “scientific imperialists” (i.e. they seek to invade other fields of social science) jerks. All they try to do is “fit everything inside the model”. I have this derisive sneer at economists very often. I have also heard economists say “who cares, they’re a bunch of historians” (this is the one I hear most often given my particular field of research, but I have heard variations involving sociologists and anthropologists).

To be fair, I never noticed the size rift. For years now, I have been waltzing between economics and history (and tried my hand at journalism for some time) which meant that I was waltzing between economic theory and a lot of other fields. The department I was a part of at the London School of Economics was a rich set of quantitative and qualitative folks who mixed history of ideas, economics, economic history and social history. To top it all, I managed to find myself generally in the company of attorneys and legal scholars (don’t ask why, it still eludes me). It was hard to feel a big rift in that environment. I knew there was a rift. I just never realized how big it was until a year ago (more or less).

There is, however, something that annoys me: the contempt appears to be self-reinforcing.  Elsewhere on this blog (here and here) (and in a forthcoming book chapter in a textbook on how to do economic history), I have explained that economists have often ventured into certain topics with a lack of care for details. True, there must be some abstraction of details (not all details are useful), but there is an optimal quantity of details. And our knowledge grows, the quantity of details necessary to answering each question (because the scientific margin is increasingly specialized) should grow. And so should the number (and depth) of nuances we make to answer a question.  There is a tendency among economists to treat a question outside the usual realm of economics and ignore the existing literature (thus either rushing through an open door or stepping in a minefield without knowing it).  The universe is collapsed into the model and, even when it yields valuable insights, other (non-econs) contributors are ignored.  That’s when the non-econs counter that economists are arrogant and that they try to force everything into a mold rather than change the mold when it does not apply. However, the reply has often been to ignore the economists or criticize strawmen versions of their argument. Perceived as contemptuous, the economists feel that they can safely ignore all others.

The problem is that this is a reinforcing loop: a) the economists are arrogant; b) non-economists respond by dismissing the economists and ridiculing their assumptions; c) the economists get more arrogant. The cycle persists. I struggle to see how to break this cycle, but I see value in breaking it. Elsewhere, I have made such a case when I reviewed a book (towards which I was hostile) on Canadian economic history. Here is what I said for the sake of showcasing the value of breaking the vicious circle of ignoring both sides:

These scholars (those who have been ignored by non-economists) could have easily derived the same takeaways as Sweeny. Individuals can and do engage in rent-seeking, which economists define as the process through which unearned gains are obtained by manipulating the political and social environment. This could be observed in attempts to shape narratives in the public discourse. According primacy to the biases of sources is a recognition that there can be rent-seeking in the form of actors seeking to generate a narrative to reinforce a particular institutional arrangement and allow it to survive. This explanation is well in line with neoclassical economics.

This point is crucial. It shows a failing on both sides of the debate. Economists and historians favorable to “rational choice” have failed to engage scholars like Sweeny. Often, they have been openly contemptuous. The literature has evolved in separate circles where researchers only speak to their fellow circle members. This has resulted in an inability to identify the mutual gains of exchange. The insights and meticulous treatments of sources by scholars like Sweeny are informative for those economists who consider rational choice as if the choosers were humans, with all their flaws and limitations, rather than mechanistic utility-maximizing machines with perfect foresight (which is a strawman often employed to deride the use of economics in historical debates) . In reverse, the rich insights provided by rational choice theorists could guide historians in elucidating complex social interactions with a parsimony of assumptions. Without interaction, both groups loose and resolutions remain elusive.

See, as a guy who likes economics, I think that trade is pretty great. More importantly, I think that trade between heterogeneous groups (or different individuals) is even greater because it allows for specialization that increases the value (and quantity) of outputs.  I see the benefits of trade here, so why is this “circle of contempt” perpetuating so relentlessly?

Can’t we just all pick the 100$ bill on the sidewalk?

If causality matters, should the media talk about mass shootings?

My answer to that question is “maybe not” or at the very least “not as much”. Given the sheer amount of fear that can be generated by a shooting, it is understandable to be shocked and the need to talk about it is equally understandable. However, I think this might be an unfortunate opportunity to consider the incentives at play.

I assume that criminals, even crazy ones, are relatively rational. They weigh the pros and cons of potential targets, they assess the most efficient tool or weapon to accomplish the objectives they set etc. That entails that, in their warped view of the world, there are benefits to committing atrocities. In some instances, the benefit is pure revenge as was the case in one of the famous shooting in my hometown of Montreal (i.e. a university professor decided to avenge himself of the slights caused by other professors). In other instances, the benefit is defined in part by the attention that the violent perpetrator attracts for himself. This was the case of another infamous shooting in Montreal where the killer showed up at an engineering school to kill 14 other students and staff. He committed suicide and also left a suicide statement that read like a garbled political manifesto. In other words, killers can be trying to “maximize” media hits.

This “rational approach” to mass shootings opens the door to a question about causality: is the incidence of mass shootings determining the number of media hits or is the number of media hits determining the incidence of mass shootings. In a recent article in the Journal of Public Economicsthe possibility of the latter causal link has been explored with regards to terrorism.  Using the New York Times‘ coverage of some 60,000 terrorist attacks in 201 countries over 43 years, Michael Jetter used the exogenous shock caused by natural disasters to study they reduced the reporting of terrorist attacks and how this, in turn, reduced attention to terrorism. That way, he could arrive at some idea (by the negative) of causality. He found that one New York Times article increased attacks by 1.4 in the following three weeks. Now, this applies to terrorism, but why would it not apply to mass shooters? After all, there are very similar in their objectives and methods – at the very least with regards to the shooters who seek attention.

If the causality runs in the direction suggested by Jetter, then the full-day coverage offered by CNN or NBC or FOX is making things worse by increasing the likelihood of an additional shooting. For some years now, I have been suggesting this possibility to journalist friends of mine and arguing that maybe the best way to talk about terrorism or mass shooters is to move them from the front page of a newspaper to a one-inch box on page 20 or to move the mention from the interview to the crawler at the bottom. In each discussion, my claim about causality is brushed aside with either incredulity at the logic and its empirical support or I get something like “yes, but we can’t really not talk about it”. And so, the thinking ends there. However, I am quite willing to state that its time for media outlets to deeply reflect upon their role and how to best accomplish the role they want. And that requires thinking about causality and accepting that “splashy” stories may be better left ignored.

On the point of quantifying in general and quantifying for policy purposes

Recently, I stumbled on this piece in Chronicle by Jerry Muller. It made my blood boil. In the piece, the author basically argues that, in the world of education, we are fixated with quantitative indicators of performance. This fixation has led to miss (or forget) some important truths about education and the transmission of knowledge. I wholeheartedly disagree because the author of the piece is confounding two things.

We need to measure things! Measurements are crucial to our understandings of causal relations and outcomes.  Like Diane Coyle, I am a big fan of the “dashboard” of indicators to get an idea of what is broadly happening.  However, I agree with the authors that very often the statistics lose their entire meaning. And that’s when we start targeting them!

Once we know that this variable becomes the object of target, we act in ways that increase this variable. As soon as it is selected, we modify our behavior to achieve fixed targets and the variable loses some of its meaning. This is also known as Goodhart’s law whereby “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” (note: it also looks a lot like the Lucas critique).

Although Goodhart made this point in the context of monetary policy, it applies to any sphere of policy – including education. When an education department decides that this is the metric they care about (e.g. completion rates, minority admission, average grade point, completion times, balanced curriculum, ratio of professors to pupils, etc.), they are inducing a change in behavior which alters the significance carried by this variable.  This is not an original point. Just go to google scholar and type “Goodhart’s law and education” and you end up with papers such as these two (here and here) that make exactly the point I am making here.

In his Chronicle piece, Muller actually makes note of this without realizing how important it is. He notes that “what the advocates of greater accountability metrics overlook is how the increasing cost of college is due in part to the expanding cadres of administrators, many of whom are required to comply with government mandates(emphasis mine).

The problem he is complaining about is not metrics per se, but rather the effects of having policy-makers decide a metric of relevance. This is a problem about selection bias, not measurement. If statistics are collected without an intent to be a benchmark for the attribution of funds or special privileges (i.e. that there are no incentives to change behavior that affects the reporting of a particular statistics), then there is no problem.

I understand that complaining about a “tyranny of metrics” is fashionable, but in that case the fashion looks like crocs (and I really hate crocs) with white socks.

More simple economic truths I wish more people understood

There are only four ways to spend money:

  1. You spend your money with yourself.
  2. You spend your money with others.
  3. You spend other’s money with yourself.
  4. You spend other’s money with others.

Just think about it for one second and you will agree: these are the only possible ways to spend money.

The best way to spend money is to spend your money with yourself. The worst is when you spend other’s money with others.

When you spend your money with yourself, you know how much money you have and what your needs are.

When you spend your money with others, you know how much money you have but you don’t know as well what other’s needs are.

When you spend other’s money with yourself you know your needs but you don’t know how much money you can actually spend. In a situation like this, some people will shy away from spending much money (when they actually could) and will end up not totally satisfied. Other people will have no problem like that and will spend as crazy, not noticing that they are spending too much. It doesn’t matter what kind of person you are: the fact is that this is not a good way to spend money.

When you spend other’s money with others you have the worst case scenario: you don’t know other’s needs as well as they know and you also don’t have a clear grasp of how much money you can actually spend.

In a true liberal capitalist society, the majority of the money is spent by individuals on their own needs. The more a society drifts away from this ideal, the more people spend money that is not actually theirs on other people. The more money is misused.

The government basically spend money is not theirs on other people. That’s why government spending is usually bad. Even the most well-meaning government official, more in line with your personal beliefs, will probably not spend your money as well as you could yourself.

Simple economics I wish more people understood

Economics comes from the Greek “οίκος,” meaning “household” and “νęμoμαι,” meaning “manage.” Therefore, in its more basic sense, economy means literally “rule of the house.” It applies to the way one manages the resources one has in their house.

Everyone has access to limited resources. It doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor, or middle class. Even the richest person on Earth has limited resources. Our day has only 24 hours. We only have one body. This body starts to decay very early in our lives. Even with modern medicine, we don’t get to live much more than 100 years.

The key of economics is how well we manage our limited resources. We need to make the best with the little we are given.

For most of human history, we were very poor. We had access to very limited resources, and we were not particularly good at managing them. We became much better in managing resources in the last few centuries. Today we can do much more with much less.

Value is a subjective thing. One thing has value when you think this thing has value. You may value something that I don’t.

We use money to exchange value. Money in and of itself can have no value at all. It doesn’t matter. The key of money is its ability to transmit information: I value this and I don’t value that.

Of course, many things can’t be valued in money. At least for most people. But it doesn’t change the fact that money is a very intelligent way to attribute value to things.

The economy cannot be managed centrally by a government agency. We have access to limited resources. Only we, individually, can judge which resources are more necessary for us in a given moment. Our needs can change suddenly, without notice. You can be saving money for years to buy a house, only to discover you will have to spend this money on a medical treatment. It’s sad. It’s even tragic. But it is true. If the economy is managed centrally, you have to transmit information to this central authority that your plans have changed. But if we have a great number of people changing plans every day, then this central authority will inevitably be loaded. The best judge of how to manage your resources is yourself.

We can become really rich as a society if we attribute responsibility for each person on how we manage our resources. If each one of us manages their resources to the best of their knowledge and abilities, we will have the best resource management possible. We will make the best of the limited resources we have.

Economics has a lot to do with ecology. They share the Greek “οίκος” which, again, means “household.” This planet is our house. The best way to take care of our house is to distribute individual responsibility over individual management of individual pieces of this Earth. No one can possess the whole Earth. But we can take care of tiny pieces we are given responsibility over.

On Borjas, Data and More Data

I see my craft as an economic historian as a dual mission. The first is to answer historical question by using economic theory (and in the process enliven economic theory through the use of history). The second relates to my obsessive-compulsive nature which can be observed by how much attention and care I give to getting the data right. My co-authors have often observed me “freaking out” over a possible improvement in data quality or be plagued by doubts over whether or not I had gone “one assumption too far” (pun on a bridge too far). Sometimes, I wish more economists would follow my historian-like freakouts over data quality. Why?

Because of this!

In that paper, Michael Clemens (whom I secretly admire – not so secretly now that I have written it on a blog) criticizes the recent paper produced by George Borjas showing the negative effect of immigration on wages for workers without a high school degree. Using the famous Mariel boatlift of 1980, Clemens basically shows that there were pressures on the US Census Bureau at the same time as the boatlift to add more black workers without high school degrees. This previously underrepresented group surged in importance within the survey data. However since that underrepresented group had lower wages than the average of the wider group of workers without high school degrees, there was an composition effect at play that caused wages to fall (in appearance). However, a composition effect is also a bias causing an artificial drop in wages and this drove the results produced by Borjas (and underestimated the conclusion made by David Card in his original paper to which Borjas was replying).

This is cautionary tale about the limits of econometrics. After all, a regression is only as good as the data it uses and suited to the question it seeks to answer. Sometimes, simple Ordinary Least Squares are excellent tools. When the question is broad and/or the data is excellent, an OLS can be a sufficient and necessary condition to a viable answer. However, the narrower the question (i.e. is there an effect of immigration only on unskilled and low-education workers), the better the method has to be. The problem is that the better methods often require better data as well. To obtain the latter, one must know the details of a data source. This is why I am nuts over data accuracy. Even small things matter – like a shift in the representation of blacks in survey data – in these cases. Otherwise, you end up with your results being reversed by very minor changes (see this paper in Journal of Economic Methodology for examples).

This is why I freak out over data. Maybe I can make two suggestions about sharing my freak-outs.

The first is to prefer a skewed ratio of data quality to advanced methods (i.e. simple methods with crazy-data). This reduces the chances of being criticized for relying on weak assumptions. The second is to take a leaf out of the book of the historians. While historians are often averse to advantaged data techniques (I remember a case when I had to explain panel data regressions to historians which ended terribly for me), they are very respectful of data sources. I have seen historians nurture datasets for years before being willing to present them. When published, they generally stand up to scrutiny because of the extensive wealth of details compiled.

That’s it folks.