Evidence-based policy needs theory

This imaginary scenario is based on an example from my paper with Baljinder Virk, Stella Mascarenhas-Keyes and Nancy Cartwright: ‘Randomized Controlled Trials: How Can We Know “What Works”?’ 

A research group of practically-minded military engineers are trying to work out how to effectively destroy enemy fortifications with a cannon. They are going to be operating in the field in varied circumstances so they want an approach that has as much general validity as possible. They understand the basic premise of pointing and firing the cannon in the direction of the fortifications. But they find that the cannon ball often fails to hit their targets. They have some idea that varying the vertical angle of the cannon seems to make a difference. So they decide to test fire the cannon in many different cases.

As rigorous empiricists, the research group runs many trial shots with the cannon raised, and also many control shots with the cannon in its ‘treatment as usual’ lower position. They find that raising the cannon often matters. In several of these trials, they find that raising the cannon produces a statistically significant increase in the number of balls that destroy the fortifications. Occasionally, they find the opposite: the control balls perform better than the treatment balls. Sometimes they find that both groups work, or don’t work, about the same. The results are inconsistent, but on average they find that raised cannons hit fortifications a little more often.

A physicist approaches the research group and explains that rather than just trying to vary the height the cannon is pointed in various contexts, she can estimate much more precisely where the cannon should be aimed using the principle of compound motion with some adjustment for wind and air resistance. All the research group need to do is specify the distance to the target and she can produce a trajectory that will hit it. The problem with the physicist’s explanation is that it includes reference to abstract concepts like parabolas, and trigonometric functions like sine and cosine. The research group want to know what works. Her theory does not say whether you should raise or lower the angle of the cannon as a matter of policy. The actual decision depends on the context. They want an answer about what to do, and they would prefer not to get caught up testing physics theories about ultimately unobservable entities while discovering the answer.

Eventually the research group write up their findings, concluding that firing the cannon pointed with a higher angle can be an effective ‘intervention’ but that whether it does or not depends a great deal on particular contexts. So they suggest that artillery officers will have to bear that in mind when trying to knock down fortifications in the field; but that they should definitely consider raising the cannon if they aren’t hitting the target. In the appendix, they mention the controversial theory of compound motion as a possible explanation for the wide variation in the effectiveness of the treatment effect that should, perhaps, be explored in future studies.

This is an uncharitable caricature of contemporary evidence-based policy (for a more aggressive one see ‘Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials’). Metallurgy has well-understood, repeatedly confirmed theories that command consensus among scientists and engineers. The military have no problem learning and applying this theory. Social policy, by contrast, has no theories that come close to that level of consistency. Given the lack of theoretical consensus, it might seem more reasonable to test out practical interventions instead and try to generalize from empirical discoveries. The point of this example is that without theory empirical researchers struggle to make any serious progress even with comparatively simple problems. The fact that theorizing is difficult or controversial in a particular domain does not make it any less essential a part of the research enterprise.


Also relevant: Dylan Wiliam’s quip from this video (around 9:25): ‘a statistician knows that someone with one foot in a bucket of freezing water and the other foot in a bucket of boiling water is not, on average, comfortable.’

Pete Boettke’s discussion of economic theory as an essential lens through which one looks to make the world clearer.

What Exactly is Profit, Anyway?

Co-editor Fred Foldvary explains over at FEE’s revamped website:

We also need to distinguish economic revenue from accounting revenue.  Suppose a thief enters a house and steals $1,000 of loot.  To break into that house he bought a tool for $100.  Ignoring the opportunity cost of his time, the thief’s accounting revenue is $1,000, and his cost is $100.  Is the $900 net gain a profit in the economic sense?

Stolen loot is not real profit because it is a forced transfer of goods or money from the victim to the thief.  True profit is a net gain from production and exchange.  If someone gives you a gift of $100, it too is just a transfer.

If instead of directly stealing wealth someone uses the government to forcibly take money from some and give it to others, the gain is also not true profit.

Read the rest here.

August 15, 1971

People who were alive in 1941 can tell you right where they were on Pearl Harbor day.  I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot.  We all remember 9/11.   Another day that I sticks in my memory just as clearly is one that is now remembered by few: Sunday, August 15, 1971.

There was no internet in those days and no cable news channels, so I was mercifully spared the news until the following morning at 8:15 when I opened my motel room door in Huntington Beach and saw the L.A. Times on the doorstep with a headline that said something like “Nixon Imposes Price Controls.”

I was shocked and disgusted for two reasons: though I was employed as an aerospace engineer, I was beginning to learn about free markets, having attended a FEE seminar the year before at which Mises and Hazlitt  – now saints of Austrian economics – lectured.  And I had voted for Nixon in 1968, naively believing the Republicans were the party of free markets.  The following year I signed up with the new Libertarian Party and never looked back on the Republicans until 2008 when Ron Paul ran.

Here is a video recording of Nixon announcing a 90-day “freeze” on prices and wages. Note the Orwellian references to the evils of price controls even as he imposes them.Image

So what was the big emergency that prompted such a drastic response?  Unemployment was running about 6%; price inflation at about 5%.  Nixon’s problem was that an election was coming up in the following year.  He remembered bitterly his narrow loss to Kennedy in the 1960 election which he attributed to a mild recession of that year. Now he was determined to goose the economy and get himself re-elected. Like FDR, Nixon loved dramatic strokes and never mind the consequences. Earlier that year the man who had made his reputation as an implacable anti-communist had made a sudden and dramatic overture to communist China.  So on that sleepy Sunday Nixon delivered another bold stroke, in an end run around the Democratic opposition.  Perhaps it worked: he won 49 states in the 1972 election with considerable help from his bumbling opponent, George McGovern.

His action was quite popular.  The stock market surged that Monday morning and polls showed a 75% approval rate.  But Milton Friedman was right when he predicted “utter failure and the emergence into the open of suppressed inflation.”  Another freeze was imposed in 1973 but this time the damage to the economy became evident.  As explained in the excellent video series “The Commanding Heights,” “ranchers stopped shipping their cattle to the market, farmers drowned their chickens, and consumers emptied the shelves of supermarkets.”  Inflation reached a peak of about 14% before the decade was out and before the powers that be accepted the fact that excessive money creation is the main cause of price inflation. George Schulz, Nixon’s economic advisor and a vigorous opponent of price controls consoled himself with the thought that Nixon had demonstrated dramatically how not to fight inflation.

Nixon wasn’t finished.  During that same Sunday broadcast he slapped a 10% tariff on imported goods, accompanied by some blather about fairness.  More significantly, he ended the Bretton Woods international monetary system.  That arrangement, conceived in 1944, had the U.S. dollar convertible into gold at $35 per ounce, but only for foreign central banks.  Not only could private banks and private citizens not convert their dollars, it was even illegal to own gold (with exceptions for dentists, jewelers, etc.).  I made a point of violating that particular law on principle before the prohibition was lifted in 1974.

In all fairness, the Bretton Woods system was doomed long before that August.  The gold exchange standard had persisted only because of a gentlemen’s agreement that European central bankers would refrain from exercising their redemption rights to any significant degree.  So many new dollars had been created to finance Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam and his “Great Society” at home, and so many of those dollars were parked overseas as a result of trade imbalances, that the U.S. government could not come close to honoring its Bretton Woods obligation in full.  The French under de Gaulle and his gold-bug advisor Jacques Rueff had become increasingly strident about the situation, but in early August the British ambassador showed up with $3 billion to be redeemed, and that may have been the straw that broke the camels back.

So on that same Sunday Nixon slammed the gold window shut (video here)  pushing us out of the frying pan of Bretton Woods, under which numerous wrenching devaluations had wracked international trade, into the fire of floating exchange rates, the system we have now.  The devaluations are gone but the wild swings in currency values, something that was not foreseen by Milton Friedman who was an early advocate of currency markets, are almost as bad.  Now, wonder of wonders, there is resurgent talk of some sort of gold standard.

Reagan tempted me with with some pretty inspiring rhetoric in his 1980 campaign about getting the government off our backs.  Not enough to vote for him, but I was glad he got elected and with the help of Fed chairman Paul Volcker he did break the back of inflation, but he never got spending under control and he didn’t deserve as much credit as he got for the fall of communism, which had been rotten at its core for decades.  But Bush I was terrible and in hindsight Clinton wasn’t all bad, yet I confess I was relieved when Bush II beat Gore in 2000.  I needn’t remind anyone what a disaster GWB was with his wars, his unfunded medicare expansion and his bailouts (OK, thanks for the tax cut).

I’m voting for Gary Johnson who won’t win, and I really don’t care who wins.  Gridlock is the least bad outcome, even if that means the despicable Obama stays in office facing a Republican congress.

Ron Paul’s Power Problem

I first came across libertarianism through the 2008 presidential campaign of Ron Paul.  Prior to his campaign, I considered myself a left-wing, conspiratorial anarchist of sorts.  Over the years I have tried to steep myself in a better understanding of what it means to be free.  In 2009, I attended summer seminars put on by three different classical liberal think tanks: the Independent Institute (where I came across both Fred’s and Brian’s arguments), the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Institute for Humane Studies.

The past four years have also led me to distance myself from some of Dr. Paul’s policy prescriptions, including his views on border security, international trade agreements, and amending the constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship.  None of these policies are persistent with the liberty movement’s arguments for individualism, internationalism, and private property.

Nevertheless, I think that Jon Fasman’s (somewhat) recent post on the Labor Day forum held by the American Principles Project and hosted by Senator Jim DeMint, Congressman Steve King, and conservative/libertarian pundit Robert A. George highlights why I still respect Ron Paul immensely and why I am a libertarian: Continue reading