All Those Facts and Knowledge Just Get in the Way

By Sean Carroll | May 6, 2008 11:02 am

As you know, I’m not blogging right now — I’m taking a well-deserved vacation. But if I were blogging, I would most likely be lamenting Hillary Clinton’s decision to take up the side of ignorance in the culture war against expertise.

“There are times that a president will take a position that a broad support of quote-unquote experts agree with. And there are times they will take a position that quote-unquote experts do not agree with.”

That would be Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communication director, speaking about the McCain/Clinton gas tax holiday proposal. The one that is so bad that a gaggle of economists have fired up a blog just to oppose it. But who cares what economists might say?

STEPHANOPOULOS: But can you name an economist who thinks this makes sense?

CLINTON: Well, I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to put my lot in with economists….

Paul Krugman gets this completely wrong. He thinks the gas tax holiday, while obviously a bad idea, is small potatoes in the big scheme of things, and all of the fuss is just an excuse to paint Hillary Clinton as evil. That’s not right. It is small potatoes, policy wise, but the fuss is being kicked up by the Clinton campaign themselves — they’re running a wide variety of ads attacking Obama for opposing the holiday, casting him as elitist and out of touch.

The gas tax holiday doesn’t help “ordinary Americans.” The supply of petroleum during the summer months is essentially fixed, and the oil companies will charge what traffic will bear. If taxes are lower, they will simply charge the same amount and pocket the difference. Clinton’s proposal includes some weird end-around in which the oil companies pay extra windfall profits taxes so that the idea is purportedly revenue-neutral; which means the whole scheme is precisely meaningless, as the same amount of tax is being paid either way.

The tragedy is that Hillary Clinton understands perfectly well that this is a stupid policy. (If you actually wanted to save people $40 over the course of the summer, you would just give them $40.) She is embracing it anyway. Her campaign is pushing it as a purely symbolic gesture, attempting to take the side of “real people” against elitist snobs with all of their “education” and “expertise” and Ivy-League degrees.

A bit later she added: “It’s really odd to me that arguing to give relief to a vast majority of Americans creates this incredible pushback…Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that don’t benefit” the vast majority of the American people.

It’s hard to be more clear than that — elite opinion is the enemy. She knows perfectly well that this is a lie. But it’s politics as usual. I don’t want to dislike Hillary Clinton — she is smart and capable, and would be an enormously better President than John McCain. But treating experts as the enemy is a craven strategy to achieve short-term gains at the cost of substantial long-term harm. It’s sad to see her go down that road, and I hope she reverses course soon.

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  • Count Iblis

    Hillary can’t win without getting the superdelegades on her side. So, the question is what do the superdelegades think about Hillary gaining a few more votes by using such tactics.

  • Cory

    Hypocrisy rules, as always. She’s running for President because she believes she’s elite enough to do it. I’m tellin’ ya, anyone who wants to be president is the very worst candidate.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Bill Clinton:
    “It’s the economy, stupid.”

    Hillary Clinton:
    “Well, I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to put my lot in with economists”

    At least we know how her ideas differ from those of the first Clinton.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    If you were blogging, which of course you’re not, you might find amusement in Jeffrey Shallit’s post about naive concepts of infinity and time held by Christian apologists.

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  • Kurt

    Sean did you see the truckers protesting outside the white house in the past two weeks?? They were protesting because of the price of diesel is ridiculous!!
    Truckers and working class people need a BREAK.
    Hillary’s gas plan is NOT a long term solution. There is NO long term solution.
    It also depends on how you define “long”. 2 months, 2 years, 200 years??

    Hillary’s plan is simple. Let the oil companies pay for it.
    Hillary voted against a previous gas holiday because it was not funded by the oil companies but by transportation taxes.

    The choice is simple: Senator Obama wants the American people to pay the gas tax this summer but Senator Clinton thinks Big Oil should.

    The Clinton gas tax holiday is financed exclusively through a tax on windfall profits from oil companies and keeps the Highway Transportation Trust fund intact. Hillary opposed a plan in 2000 for a gas tax holiday because it was financed with transportation funds.

    Sen. Obama voted three times for a gas tax holiday in 2000 when gas prices were less than $2 a gallon.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080430/ap_on_el_pr/obama_gas_tax_fact_check

  • Elliot

    It is all but over mathematically for Clinton. So I anticipate her campaign shifting to Florida and Michigan and argue they need to be included. I think the next time she runs lets just get portable goal posts so they can be moved as needed to assist her efforts.

    I’d like the unpledged super-delegates to get off their rears and pick. If their job is to help the party win in November the sooner this is over the better the Democratic chances. McCain has had a free ride for months here.

    Bill didn’t look too happy standing behind Hillary in Indiana tonight. I think he knows this is over.

    e.

  • Kurt

    “I’m tellin’ ya, anyone who wants to be president is the very worst candidate.”

    Riiiiiight! Blooddy Brilliant analysis! Obama doesn’t want to be president badly!
    Obama had the audacity to run for president after less than a year as a senator.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gexyfVpFMU
    Obama: “I am a believer in…….(pregnant pause)……….in knowing what you’re doing when you apply for a job…”

    Hillary Clinton is vastly more qualified to be president. The only senator in NY state history to be on the armed services committee. Wanted universal health care when it wasn’t cool. Why not write a blog about how every elite economist thinks Hillary has a much better health care plan than Obama! Why?
    Because affluent males like Sean favor Obama whereas working class people tend to favor Hillary 2-1.
    That should tell you who is for the little guy.

    Obama’s claims he is the “people’s president”. He is a “regular guy” he says of himself. A guy you want to get a beer with. Hillary not so much.
    George Bush, Jimmy Carter (admitted he wasn’t the best of presidents), and on and on all way back to Andrew Jackson(second worst president ever) ALL ran the same BS campaign. All had the same BS cult of personality. ALL FAILED PRESIDENTS.

  • Moshe

    Roughly on subject, I’m not sure why even normally reasonable media outlets, such as the NY times, are busy discussing who “wins Indiana”, which is completely meaningless. According to the system of election adopted by the democrats, it makes absolutely no difference who has slightly more votes in any given state. Too many years of covering sports competitions?

  • http://ethanolfuel.wordpress.com/2008/04/30/us-gasoline-consumption-decreases/ Carl Brannen

    This is quite true. Gas prices are up 50% in 2008 but gasoline consumption is expected to decrease by only 0.1% or 0.6% after accounting for ethanol driven changes to mileage.

    On the other hand, the very steep demand curve for gasoline is an excellent argument in favor of ethanol. Ethanol provides only about 4% of US gasoline right now, but in the context of a 50% price rise causing a 0.6% consumption decrease, the reduction in the price of gasoline could be at least another 50%.

  • Anonymous Coward

    With apologies to HL Mencken, No one ever lost an election by underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Senator Clinton, however, will lose by being uninspiring to everyone who isn’t already in her camp. Her handlers don’t seem to get that the president can’t DO, the president has to LEAD. Senators McCain and Obama both come across as capable of leading, Clinton not so much.

    With of the gas tax, Clinton proposes doing something visible and symbolic that won’t actually help. Obama has the guts to say that he thinks it’s a bad idea even though many voters think it’s free money for them. The fact that Clinton and McCain have both come out in favor of the gas tax holiday ought to be a hint that it’s a grandstand play, pandering to the ignorant.

  • Amabo

    So when Obama says things that experts decry — and most serious economists are aghast at the things he says about free trade — that’s ok because he really *believes* his twaddle, whereas McCain and Hil are bad people because they are not stupid enough to believe stupid things?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Hillary’s plan is simple. Let the oil companies pay for it.

    Hillary’s plan is also wrong. How do companies pay for taxes? They charge it to their customers! They’re not running a farkin charity.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    The problem, as actually reading what I wrote would reveal, is not disagreeing with experts, but disagreeing with them because they are the experts, in a transparent attempt to cast yourself as a champion of common-sense regular folks against the Chardonnay-sipping elites.

  • Z

    There are plenty of respectable economists that are not in favor of unrestricted free trade.

  • Elliot

    Sean,

    Some of us stick to red wine. It’s better for your heart.

    e.

  • Dave

    Well, it is encouraging that this gas tax issue eventually seems to have hurt Clinton more than it helped her. Perhaps the voters aren’t as dumb as she thought.

  • Kurt

    “The problem, as actually reading what I wrote would reveal, is not disagreeing with experts, but disagreeing with them because they are the expert”

    You are just seeing what you WANT to see. Where does one get that from what she said??? You are either seeing something that is not there OR seeing what you want to see. How can you be so sure??
    Hillary has stood up against Bush’s war on science and bad economic policy a THOUSAND times.
    http://www.livescience.com/history/071004_clinton_science.html
    http://www.hillaryclinton.com/news/release/view/?id=3566
    http://www.hillaryclinton.com/news/speech/view/?id=3570

    This blog post is nothing more than cherry picking. the same thing the stupid pundits do, the same thing that extreme left wing blogs like huffington post or daily kos do. the same thing that cnn or msnbc does when they cherry pick the stories or polls favorable to obama.
    Please bash Hillary more. I have not heard enough Hillary bashing in the past year. TV and other blogs do not do it enough! MORE!
    Let’s just focus on the one thing she wants to do that you do not agree with!!
    Bad astronomer to my surprise followed you lead.

    You can easily pick MANY things that Obama has done wrong or stupid things he has said and especially policy that he promotes that you do not agree with and write about that.

    This just goes to what I think human nature is all about. It is not based on any logic or the facts. Hillary Clinton clearly has a better resume, she is more qualified, she knows the issues an order of magnitude better. you can trust her to work her heart out for this country. we have no reason to trust obama.

    Human nature is based on biases (maybe we are born with them or maybe it is evolution or maybe we learn them at an early age, i don’t really know) and we spend our lives justifying them to each other. In this case the FAR better candidate and more likely to beat McCain is losing.

  • Haelfix

    I’m a little dissappointed McCain is into this idea as well, since it essentially flies in the face of the Pigouvian petroleum tax idea (with say a corresponding tax cut somewhere else).

    Krugman is right though, in that it is small potatoes in the scheme of things and ultimately irrelevant… eg Let the politicians run their populist ideas, so long as they aren’t too damaging.

    But if you really want to see an economist cringe, simply bring up Obama’s idiotic tirades against free trade alla Nafta or show them all the spending programs he’s promised. Ick! As if W. wasn’t bad enough in that respect.

  • Chris W.
  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Kurt, did Hillary hire you to campaign for her on cyberspace? :)

  • Elliot

    Haelfix,

    Ending the Iraq War and the tax cuts on the wealthy will provide significantly more resources to fund health care and education and for that matter even basic science research as well as reduce the budget deficit. Go look at the numbers.

    Kurt

    “you can trust her to work her heart out for this country. we have no reason to trust obama”

    Can you provide some tangible evidence as to why Obama is less trustworthy than Clinton?

    e.

  • rob

    Kurt:

    We can agree that the gas tax holiday is not a long-term solution. What surprises me is that you seem to think it could work as a short-term solution. The government does not set the gas prices, the gas companies do. Has Senator Clinton proposed *any* method to ensure the gas tax savings find their way down to the consumers, as opposed to just being swallowed up by the gas companies (presumably to help them fund their new windfall profits tax)?

    And as for the windfall profits tax, there is no guarantee that it would ever get passed. Even if it does, it’s already spoken for. She (and Obama) proposed a windfall profits tax months ago.

    Every way I look at it, the whole idea continues to look ridiculous.

    I like Hillary a lot. She was my preferred candidate at the beginning of the race. But this is getting very silly.

  • Farhat

    I don’t want to dislike Hillary Clinton — she is smart and capable, and would be an enormously better President than John McCain.

    After all that you wrote what exactly makes her smart and capable? That she’ll say whatever might get her elected? If its just being a better president than McCain than you aren’t setting the bar very high.

  • chemicalscum

    I am not defending Hilary, but would you trust the practitioners of the “dismal science”.

  • http://www.weirdozone.com The Centipede

    ‘I am not defending Hilary, but would you trust the practitioners of the “dismal science”.’

    I’d trust them a lot more than a false-populist hack attempting to use smoke and mirrors to hide what are basic economic truths. For example, in a capitalistic society, it is rational for a supplier to set prices as to what the market will bear. Clearly the market is bearing, albeit grudgingly, $4 a gallon. Should the point-of-sale gas tax (paid both by, technically, the corporations and the consumer) vanish, the cost of gasoline will /still/ be $4 a gallon because they can get away with it. Therefore, the desired economic effect (reducing the cost of gasoline for the consumer) does not happen, while the tacitly suggested desired economic penalty for the “price-gouging” corporations also does not happen. In fact, the Big Bad Oil Cartels profit even further.

    Hillary Clinton: she’s for Big Oil in a Big Way.

  • Andre

    Sean said:

    Her campaign is pushing it as a purely symbolic gesture, attempting to take the side of “real people” against elitist snobs with all of their “education” and “expertise” and Ivy-League degrees.

    Yeah right, and Obama, on the other hand respects expertise and the opinions of educated people, and does not stoop to pandering. That must be why he makes statements like “as a Christian I will never accept gay marriage,” (never mind that Obama’s church, the United Church of Christ, supports gay marriage).

    Also, Sean said:

    The tragedy is that Hillary Clinton understands perfectly well that this is a stupid policy. (If you actually wanted to save people $40 over the course of the summer, you would just give them $40.)

    In all fairness, aren’t you misrepresenting Clinton’s proposal here? Whatever the merits otherwise, her proposal was pretty much exactly to do as you say – in other words, to have the oil companies give people the $40. And your prediction of what would happen is just one point of view, not a mathematically provable result, or are you misunderstanding what economists actually do? And in fairness it does seem hard to justify keeping the oil companies’ current obscenely favorable tax arrangements in this climate.

    Also, wherever did you get the notion that economicists’ predictions had much validity? A continued belief in the trustworthiness of economicists’ pronouncements, in the face of overwhelming experimental evidence to the contrary over many years, seems rather disturbingly anti-scientific.

  • http://physicsmuse.wordpress.com/ Sandy

    Just for the record, this is not some marginal economic theory at issue, but supply and demand. Pretty hard to argue with that one. The simplest economic theory based on a very straightforward psychological theory of human behavior – high price, less demand, low price more demand. A gas tax holiday will not lower the price of gas, because increased demand with put upward pressure on prices.
    This is really a no-brainer. And ethanol? More land in crops, more water used, higher food prices. I guess I care more about the world environment than it bothers me to line the pockets of my “political enemies” or corporations.

  • Andre

    The simplest economic theory based on a very straightforward psychological theory of human behavior – high price, less demand, low price more demand.

    The only problem with this theory is that it isn’t (in the scientific sense), and that it doesn’t work.

    Of course, the same signatories who are now so intent in belittling Clinton were considerate enough to warn us en masse of the impending housing market collapse, the impending tech collapse, and the impending failure of the Chicago group theories in Russia and South America, all conveniently in time to avoid all these economic disasters, right?

  • http://http//blog.crispen.org/ Rev. Bob “Bob” Crispen

    “Well, I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to put my lot in with economists….”

    I blame her delivery. Give her the self-confidence you’d get from 5 more points in the WV polls, that line would have killed. I’m certain she got the irony, and I’m equally sure Stephanopoulous and her campaign staff didn’t.

    She’ll be out of it soon, probably. If I were her, I’d send her entire campaign staff on a fact-finding mission to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

  • PorkBellyFutures

    “A gas tax holiday will not lower the price of gas, because increased demand with put upward pressure on prices.”

    I’m doubtful of this. Demand for gasoline seems to be relatively static; it takes a very significant swing in price to significantly change our consumption patterns.

    Contrary to Sean’s assertion, the price of gasoline is not ‘what the market will bear’. The price is almost always just the sum of the world market crude oil price, refining costs, transportation costs, taxes, and then a slender profit margin at the top. Refining and selling gasoline doesn’t make a lot of money, because it is a commodity, and because supply is always adjusted to meet demand. The only time prices get out of whack with underlying production costs is when there is a supply disruption, such as a hurricane knocking out refineries.

    Consider: When the price of crude falls, the price of gasoline also falls. The refiners and retailers don’t absorb the difference into their profit margin. Why would falling taxes be different than falling crude prices?

    I still think the gas tax holiday is bad policy — and probably bad politics also if it ever actually got implemented — but it doesn’t pass the economic smell test to say the retailers will absorb the tax cut and keep prices the same.

  • http://physicsmuse.wordpress.com/ Sandy

    A google search “gas demand and price” resulted in links to numerous studies and meta-analyses that support that gas consumption lowers as prices rise. These patterns are more significant over longer periods, so a short “gas tax holiday” may not change habits much, but some change is likely. It is not the retailers that will absorb the difference, but limits to current supply, partly due to refining. That is what will drive the prices back up.

  • Andre

    Sean said:

    The supply of petroleum during the summer months is essentially fixed, and the oil companies will charge what traffic will bear. If taxes are lower, they will simply charge the same amount and pocket the difference.

    By the way, if it were true that companies charge what consumers will pay, then prices would not have been lower five or ten years ago. The fact that they were refutes the quoted assertion.

  • The Almighty Bob

    By the way, if it were true that companies charge what consumers will pay, then prices would not have been lower five or ten years ago. The fact that they were refutes the quoted assertion.

    The price of something is the point at which the supply and demand graphs cross (slightly modified by some sociology and psychology). For a fixed supply, each company will charge what they think people will pay. If the profit margin is high, any company may get undercut by a competitor looking to steal their customers – collapsing the equilibrium and triggering a price war, resulting in equilibrium at a lower price point.
    Demand is higher now, so the market can bear a higher price.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    I don’t approve of Hillary’s dismissive attitude, but nevertheless: IMHO she has a point. I think that most economists instinctively think about the subject in ways that favor the wealthy and not the common good. (Many of them have contempt for Paul Krugman, who clearly cares about “the little people.”) This is an impression I have but not the time or space to analyze in detail here.

    BTW, Almighty Bob, PorkBellyFutures, (or anyone), what are your thoughts about getting through the Peak Oil era? Is the situation as dire as simple consideration of likely “demand” (shall we say, desired demand?) continuing to outstrip supply as population and cars increase in India and China? I’d like to think we can deal with this, but our leaders will have to provide real leadership. The BAU model of governance will not get us through.

  • http://physicsmuse.wordpress.com/ Sandy

    Neil, I don’t think there is any question that our standard of living here in the US will fall in the future as we run out of oil (and face increased competition for other resources). In some ways that may be good as our society became more and more wasteful as consumer goods from China became so cheap. In other ways it will be hard. I don’t think our government has shown any true leadership on any issue that means sharing bad news with the public. I only hope our resourcefulness and technological savvy can protect us from the worst scenarios. In that sense, I guess I throw in my lot with the scientists over the politicians.

    Here is a link to an entertaining article where India takes a shot at fat americans.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/14/business/worldbusiness/14food.html?em&ex=1210996800&en=3b3467c609f22a06&ei=5087

  • Valter

    Neil B.

    You write

    “most economists instinctively think about the subject in ways that favor the wealthy and not the common good”

    What economists are you talking about? I am an economist, I know many economists and that picture does not look even remotely right (e.g., look at the bio of Duncan Foley, one of the signatories of the anti-gas-tax-holiday website).

    Can you provide some evidence, examples? (please consider only real economists, those who write research articles, not those who write only op-ed pieces or talk about the stock market on CNBC)

    As to Krugman, it seems he has more or less stopped being an economist (a very well respected one, winner of the prestigious J.B. Clark Medal in 1991) and is now mainly a political commentator – a very pro-Clinton one, and even he thinks the gas-tax-holiday is a bad idea.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Valter, this is likely much of my “problem” with economists:
    You wrote: Can you provide some evidence, examples? (please consider only real economists, those who write research articles, not those who write only op-ed pieces or talk about the stock market on CNBC)
    Well, the latter and their attraction to Republican-style policies mostly formed my opinions, and I thought what such commenters would put forth would be a reflection of their “professional opinions” – if not, then why the disparity between the perspectives of research articles, and the viewpoints (not the same thing in kind as what comes from research, but should follow it closely) of those who write op-ed pieces? What does, and why, provide the tone to opinion output that gives me that impression? The kind of economists that write opinions aren’t “typical”, or they don’t provide “opinions” in harmony with their research perspectives? For example, the WSJ-style opinion writers like to pick on things like the minimum wage or social security, but note that our economy has done great for decades with those in place. And “socialized” Europe has decent standards of living, and more security (note also that the claim the US has “the best health-care system in the world” has been proven a fraud.) Also, many of the criticisms of liberal/populist policies are fallacious (complaint against “increasing” the MW when in real dollar terms it has gone down, so that would just be a catchup. Even supposed professionals like Walter Williams make fallacious arguments about how only 2% or so get the MW, but of course any given current increase affects everyone earning between the old MW and the new pick. BTW the MW should just be CPI adjusted, so should tax brackets and deductions, capital gains calculations, etc.

    We have only pushed the problem (such as it is) into segmentation, not solved or dismissed it. BTW I should read more research work, but fear I wouldn’t really get the point (would an amateur?)

  • The Almighty Bob

    ‘Best’ healthcare is debatable; however, if it was ‘most advanced,’ you’d walk away with the brass ring.

    In regard to your earlier question (well, I’m going to take the foolishly-offered platforrm to expand on it, but I should produce an answer):
    the thing that worries me most about Peak Oil is not the loss of the most easily transported, calorific fuel we ever thought of we have other fuels, if less calorific and/or transportable (hell, we burn natural gas at the well); there are mitigation strategies, even if they’re not particularly well implemented right now.
    My big worry is the loss of our source of large amounts of easily-manipulated hydrocarbons. So much of our current manufacturing is massively dependent on plastics. So little of our plastics are not made from oil.
    So, yeah; Peak Oil may mean serious agricultural damage (fertilizer price is heading for the roof, just for a start) and all sorts of other fun, but ultimately, in pure energy terms it’s survivable. The famously car-ridden LA may revert to the original city plan for all those roads, and buy buses. The US might drop its tariff on Brazilian ethanol (which is not nearly such a bad idea as grain ethanol). We might start using sail power again (land yachts are fun), or grow vegetables in windowboxes. High-rise apartments could be mandated, to save on heating costs (building underground would probably be even more effective, with the side benefit of the suburbs and “local farming,” or some other land use – even if just as really good scenery – being able to overlap to some degree). But loss of plastics as a material would not be pretty.

  • http://physicsmuse.wordpress.com/ Sandy

    Economics is part hard science part social science. If we try to pare it down only to its hard science aspects what do we have – we are left with interpreting charts and statistics over short and long periods and a few well worn basic principals (such as the lovely bottom-up aspect of capitalism). Politics is so top-down, I think it runs afoul of most good economic theories fairly quickly. Why do I consider economics as a description of processes that are bottom-up? Is that assumption correct? I do think economies are basically systems that developed and operate (best) from the bottom-up (with a little top-down intervention necessary for the public good, such as environmental laws). Top down monetary policy has had horrible effects on the dollar, which has led to high gas prices…but I digress.

    Skepticism is key, as with anything. In his book -The Black Swan, Taleb gives examples of economists who can’t make the transition between real life and theoretical ideas. They make simple mistakes of bias and probability that you wouldn’t expect from them. So, just because someone does great theoretical work doesn’t mean you wont see them on TV saying something ridiculous.

  • Valter

    Neil,

    Well, if those who “talk about the stock market on CNBC” formed your opinion of economists, then we have pretty much identified the source of the error :-)

    You ask if there is a substantial difference of viewpoints between the CNBC-WSJ types and mainstream economic profession and what is that difference. The first question is easy: the answer is “yes, there is”. The second is more complex and I do not have a full answer, but here are my 2c’s worth (quite in line with what Sandy’s wrote, I think).

    First, economics has pretty few hard-and-fast general results and for any big, sound-bite-worth problem, you are likely to find economists who honestly disagree and economists who take one position because of some ideological and cognitive biases: guess who’s going to be invited to talk in very business-friendly media?

    Second, economists on public media often seem unable to say “I don’t know” even when it is clear that there is no overwhelming consensus in the profession or simply when the question is not one they have personally researched very extensively (this is a problem with experts in other disciplines, too; but economics is such a broad field that the problem is amplified). In these cases, the economist’s ideological preferences tend to supply the answers – and the question in the previous paragraph applies again.

    Now, having said all this, it is true that economists tend to have a generalized prior belief in the effectiveness of market solution that is larger than that in the average population. That is probably not an example of bias, but an example of better professional judgment. And it has nothing to do with a preferential concern for the rich vs. the poor: it has to do with beliefs about the most efficient means of reaching some ends (including the end of redistributing wealth from reach to poor, if that is what the polity wants).

    Moreover, such market-biased prior does not necessarily survives the economic analysis: the professional consensus is that many areas of social life would be better off with some enlightened form of government intervention than with libertarian laissez-faire (for example, there are not many people asking to repeal the antitrust laws!). Even on subjects like MW or school vouchers, there is quite a lot of work being done that goes beyond the (broadly correct) first-order approximation that MW does have a (possibly small) negative effect on employment and vouchers put pressure on underperforming schools.

    Finally, you ask whether research work in economics would be understandable by an amateur. Well, an amateur is unlikely to enjoy Econometrica, but then there is not much of immediate policy relevance there anyway. If you want to sample mainstream economics, try browsing the Journal of Economic Perspectives and maybe the Journal of Economic Literature. And, for an example of serious-but-easy-to-read applied policy work by a top-notch theorist, do have a look at Peter Diamond’s “Social Security Reform” (Oxford University Press).

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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