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Statistical Significance and the Sweet Siren of Self-Confirmation: A Reply to Taylor

Statistical Significance and the Sweet Siren of Self-Confirmation: A Reply to Taylor

Just as Ulysses had himself chained to the mast of his ship so he wouldn’t succumb to the lure of the Sirens, John Ionnidis and others have argued we must bind ourselves to the discipline of statistical significance lest we fall victim to confirmation bias.  Some researchers will want to proclaim they have found earth-shaking results even if they are enveloped in noise, and others will try to dismiss genuine findings of no effect, even if that is where the data point.  The only way through the choppy seas of statistical investigation (sorry!) is to adhere unstintingly to the decision rule that everything else first depends on whether p is less than or greater than .05.

So says Timothy Taylor, citing Ionnidis:

The case for not treating statistical significance as the primary goal of an analysis seems to me ironclad. The case is strong for putting less emphasis on statistical significance and correspondingly more emphasis on issues like what data is used, the accuracy of data measurement, how the measurement corresponds to theory, the potential importance of a result, what factors may be confounding the analysis, and others. But the case for eliminating statistical significance from the language of research altogether, with the possibility that it will be replaced by an even squishier and more subjective decision process, is a harder one to make.

 

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Free Speech, Safety and the Triumph of Neoliberalism

Free Speech, Safety and the Triumph of Neoliberalism

I’m reading another article about debates over free speech on campus, this time at Williams College, an elite school in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts.  A faculty petition asks to formalize and tighten the college’s policy on free speech by adopting the Chicago Principles, which state that “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”  Over three hundred students, however, have signed a counterpetition arguing that speech which harms minorities should not be allowed.  These disputes are interesting to me, partly because my own school, Evergreen State College, went through a conflict along these lines.

Consider for a moment the idea that speech activities can be evaluated by the emotional effects they engender.  One person’s speech makes me feel good: fine.  Another’s makes me feel terrible and should be disallowed.  What this amounts to is assessing political acts according to the utility or disutility experienced by those affected by them.  The “do no harm” criterion is a bit problematic, however, since people can also be subjected to disutility by restrictions on their speech as well as by hearing the speech of others.  If one person feels unsafe because of being silenced, but if they talk, another will feel unsafe because of the speech content, a purely rights-based framework becomes inconsistent.

I can see two ways out.  One is to put forward a hierarchy of rights-bearing, a ranking that resolves rights disputes between any two such individuals.  This seems to be implicit in the way disputes like this actually play out, but if you subscribe to the principle of intersectionality (or more subversively, the principle that individuals are not reducible to their “identities”) the ranking is indeterminate.

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Economics, the Realm of Money and the Significance of GDP Growth, with an Application to Child Labor

Economics, the Realm of Money and the Significance of GDP Growth, with an Application to Child Labor

What’s economics?  There are two answers.  One is it’s the sphere of human activity encompassing the production and distribution of goods and services, which has sometimes been referred to as provisioning.  This is quite a lot but not everything.  It includes meditation classes but not meditation, making and selling binoculars but not bird-watching, etc.  The problem is that it includes so much of human life that it is barely a delineation at all.  From this perspective farming is part of the economy, and so is shopping for food, cooking the food at home, and even piling some of it on your plate.  It’s a matter of debate whether eating the food should qualify as economic, not to mention the trip to the toilet sometime later.  (I think the answer should be yes to the toilet part.)

Then there’s a much narrower conception that confines itself to just the money economy, things that are produced for sale, paid labor, and money congealed into financial assets and obligations.  This is largely what mainstream economics is about, although it claims to be about human well-being in a much more encompassing sense, using welfarism as a bridge between the empirical world of markets and the putative substrate of “utility”.

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France’s Fiscal Dilemma Solved

France’s Fiscal Dilemma Solved

I was struck by this morning’s headline in the New York Times:

No doubt this was intended as irony, but that itself is ironic, since the “unrealistic” attitude it sums up is actually a good starting point for policy.  France has one of the world’s better welfare states, and it should be preserved and enhanced.  French taxes are very high—almost half of national income—and should be cut.  Carbon needs to be priced far more comprehensively and aggressively than Macron’s idiotic gas surcharge, but that can be done with little or no additional net taxes.  (Hint: rebate.)

So what squares this circle?  France’s budget deficit is way too small, about 2.6% of GDP the past two years.  Given the slack in its economy (over 9% headline unemployment) and rock bottom real interest rates, France would be wise to cut taxes and preserve spending even if the gilets jaunes had never existed.  Of course, it is prohibited from doing this by the eurozone’s Stability and Growth Pact, but that’s an argument against the Pact, not the policy.

Nothing I’ve said goes against standard macroeconomic advice.  The reason for bringing it up is that headline, and the article that follows it, which recycles a facile putdown of populism that is both economically ignorant and disdainful of social needs.  Come to think of it, that could be a good way to describe Macron and the political circle he represents.

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Introductory Econ Textbooks: A Different Take on the Issues

Introductory Econ Textbooks: A Different Take on the Issues

My eyes were drawn to Timothy Taylor’s gloss on Greg Mankiw’s ruminations on the life of an econ textbook author.  As such an animal myself (Microeconomics and Macroeconomics: A Fresh Start), I’ve thought about many of the same questions.  Differently.

Issue #1: How do you teach the introductory economics courses if you have a dissenting perspective?  Mankiw lays out three alternatives, teaching the mainstream and suppressing your own views, teaching minority or fringe views (i.e. your own), or not teaching introductory econ at all.  He says the second option is “pedagogical malpractice”, and Taylor agrees.  I opted for an approach neither of them consider, to present mainstream economics in the third person: this is what that particular group thinks.  Allow for a critical distancing, which is not the same as critique.  I didn’t write “this stuff is garbage”, but “here are the assumptions that conventional economists make that distinguish their approach from others.”  Whenever possible, I point out where other disciplines differ, and while I encourage students to judge for themselves, I don’t pressure them into adopting any one point of view.  This is called critical thinking, and it barely exists in the world of economics textbooks, which proselytize shamelessly.

Issue #2: What should be the role of supply and demand theory and, in particular, the welfare interpretation of it?  Mankiw feels welfare economics gets short shrift in the typical intro econ course and text, while Taylor demurs.  I am mostly on Mankiw’s side here, but from a critical perspective.  I agree entirely that welfarism underlies virtually all applied econ work outside macroeconomics, and it’s important for students to understand what it means.  We just saw a “Nobel” prize awarded to an economist, Bill Nordhaus, whose primary claim to fame is an application of the welfare framework to climate change.  Nearly every economist working on climate issues adopts the same approach.  It would not be an exaggeration, however, to say that the vast majority of climate scientists regard their work as nuts.  Clearly there is a pressing need to present the underpinnings of welfare economics to as wide an audience as possible, so they can understand these disputes.

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A Small Anecdote about Alan Krueger

A Small Anecdote about Alan Krueger

It was back at the beginning of the 1990s, and I was putting together a panel on NAFTA for the ASSA meetings.  This would be URPE’s big plenary at the event, and, among others, I was able to enlist Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a leader of uncommon integrity and seriousness of purpose whose victory in the 1988 Mexican presidential election was overturned through blatant fraud.  I wanted someone of stature to present the case in favor of NAFTA, however, and I thought of Krueger because of his influential paper with Gene Grossman that argued for an “Environmental Kuznets Curve”.  (I discovered later the paper had been financed by the Mexican government.)  I sent a request to him, and he agreed to do it.

Needless to say, he faced a hostile audience.  He was denounced from the floor, and there was no one in the room to defend him.  I disagreed with him too, but on a human level I admired his willingness to take on this job—one for which he would receive no reward of any sort from his department, university or profession.  I’ve had the experience of making similar requests to bring mainstream panelists to URPE events (something I believe in strongly), and it isn’t an easy sell.  Alan took it all in stride.

I’ve subsequently leaned on him a few times for his opinion about empirical controversies I needed to address for UN-related work, and he was always prompt and helpful, a real mensch.  I’m sorry to see him leave us long before his time

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What’s New About Fake News?

What’s New About Fake News?

The apparently falling standards for what people are willing to believe in seems to be the topic of the day.  We have immense, well-capitalized media outlets like Fox News just making stuff up, crazy conspiracies on the internet, a refusal to accept scientific expertise on matters, like climate change, where it is as well established as it’s ever been.  What’s up with all this?

I was provoked into thinking about this by a dreadful book review in The Nation: David Bell on Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth.  I haven’t read Rosenfeld, and maybe she’s pretty good, but it’s clear Bell is confused about the very starting point for thinking about the problem.  He talks about “regimes of truth”, which he cribs from Foucault: there is no capital-T truth out there, just different views on it which possess more or less power/authority.  We happen to suffer from elites or at least some portion of them, writes Bell, who have particularly dismal standards regarding what should count as true.  The solution is to replace the bad authorities with good ones, more or less.

The error, which ought to be obvious, is that capital-T truth is irrelevant.  It’s the wrong reference point, and it doesn’t matter that no one really knows (for sure) what it is.  The real question is, what are the standards we hold ourselves to in learning about the world and minimizing error?  For instance, do we honestly engage with those who disagree with us?  Do we maintain a modicum of self-doubt and face up to the evidence that could show us we’re wrong about something?  Do we respect logical consistency?  These standards don’t guarantee we’ll arrive at the Truth, nor even that we’ll know it if we stumble on it by accident.  They do reduce the risk of error, and that’s about all we can ask.  By not centering the discussion on standards for argument and belief, Bell can’t even pose the relevant question.

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Neoliberalism as Structure and Ideology in Higher Education

Neoliberalism as Structure and Ideology in Higher Education

 A few weeks ago I speculated on the structural aspect of neoliberalism at an economy-wide level, the way its characteristic framing of economic decision-making may have emerged from changes in the role of finance in business and the composition of high-end portfolios.  My purpose was to push back against the common tendency to view neoliberalism solely as a philosophy, to be countered by other philosophies.  Today I stumbled across this superb bit of reporting from the Chronicle of Higher Education that implicitly makes the same kind of argument in a different context.  (Hat tip: Naked Capitalism.)

The article describes the massive expansion of non-profit online education that has occurred in recent years, with several institutions approaching 100,000 students each.  Interviews with planners and administrators make it clear that the motivating force is not a philosophical rethinking of what education means or should mean; rather they are responding to the emergence of a market that someone needs to serve—if not them, someone else.  More than 30 million adults in the United States have some college credits under their belt but no degree.  With the labor force increasingly segmented by credentials, many of them are desperate to finish their degrees as quickly as possible.  Since they are trying to make ends meet at low-wage jobs, they want programs that are as convenient and inexpensive as possible: commodity education.  Everything about the new online degree providers is dictated by this situation.

Read the article for yourself.  Here’s what I like about it:

It isn’t weighed down by explicit value judgments.  It lets readers do this for themselves.

It presents what we can call a neoliberal turn in higher education not primarily as a change in philosophy or mode of discourse, but as a reflection of changing circumstances.  There’s a two-way dance between the economic pressures facing students, their expectations and competences in a world in which the role of consumer has been made more determining and ubiquitous, the shift toward tuition financing, and other economic factors on the one hand, and the cognitive structures those implementing these systems use to justify and assess what they’re doing on the other.  If anything, the article foregrounds the arrow going from economic context to cognition, which redresses the balance somewhat (as I see it).

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Another Question for the Census

Another Question for the Census

The Trump gang has kicked up a ruckus over its plan to insert a question about citizenship in the 2020 decennial census.  It’s a transparent attempt to reduce the response rate of immigrants, disenfranchising them in reapportionment and government spending formulas, despite the Constitution’s call for an enumeration of “persons”, not citizens.

But why stop at citizenship?  When you think about, there is no government interest greater than its ability to collect taxes, the main obstacle to which is tax avoidance, legal and illegal.  Researchers looking into this problem, not to mention government analysts themselves, struggle in the face of rampant secrecy.

So why not use the census to get a better picture of tax cheating?  Insert just a single question, “Within the past year have you failed to pay your lawful federal, state or local tax obligations?”  Respondents should be reminded that a dishonest answer constitutes a violation of federal law.  The fine is small compared to most tax avoidance, but the last thing most tax scofflaws want is added attention to their financial duplicity.

I can see the confusion when the numbers are tallied in 2021.  “Gee, there are all these big houses, shady streets and golf courses, but according to our data no one actually lives here.”

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Test Tube Politics: llhan Omar, Anti-Semitism and AIPAC

Test Tube Politics: llhan Omar, Anti-Semitism and AIPAC

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a political statement triggering evidence (mixed) about its own truth as dramatically as Ilhan Omar’s quip that pro-Israeli bias in congress is “about the Benjamins, baby”.  It’s as if you wrote a letter criticizing the Post Office and had it returned to you with a USPS message stamped on it.

But let’s dig down one level.  The criticism, partly fair, of Omar is that she bought into (so to speak) the anti-semitic slur that Jewish money constitutes a secret conspiracy against “the people”.  This is the old socialism-of-fools stuff, endlessly recycled by bigots right up until this morning; see the demonization of George Soros, for instance.  Because it exists, people who want to combat bigotry—and this includes progressive politicians—should build a giant moat around it and not go there.  By suggesting that hidden Jewish money had bribed Congress into blind support for Israel, Omar crossed a line.  It’s the same line that George Bush senior crossed with the Willie Horton ad, and that Trump crosses a dozen times every Twitter-soaked evening.  Invoking a bigoted stereotype is a bad thing to do, especially for politicians with giant megaphones.

Yet the very response to Omar’s tweet demonstrated the truth she was stumbling for.  A chorus of political and media honchos of every denomination, religious and political, rose up to denounce her.  They didn’t make fine distinctions and they didn’t welcome a correction; their goal was to punish and silence.  Sweeping accusations were made against Omar’s character, leaving the impression that any criticism of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, was proof of antisemitism.  And this attempt to isolate and politically crush Omar was itself the embodiment of her protest.  This is the power of AIPAC in action, the lobby that can’t be named, the doctrine—the transcendental importance of Israel and the rightness of its religious self-definition—that can’t be questioned.

So the truth content of the original Omar tweet depends on how we explain this onslaught.  If it’s really just about the Benjamins (the hundred dollar bills with Ben Franklin looking back at us), that means she was being trashed, directly or indirectly, for pay.  Politicians joined the mob either to protect their campaign revenue or shield themselves from other politicians defending their own campaign revenue.  How likely is that?  The answer depends on two prior questions: how important is campaign finance in setting the basic contours of US policy, and what proportion of this finance is controlled or strongly influenced by AIPAC?

These are questions for specialists in these areas, not me.  I will go out on a limb, however, and say that the truth lies between the endpoints: some but not all of the bias in the US political system is attributable to the influence of big donors, and AIPAC has a substantial but far less than a complete lock on the flow of political money.  You could compare it to other lobbies, like the NRA (National Rifle Association) and AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), both of which are feared for their ability to alter the balance of funding in competitive political contests.  But neither of these two outfits is immune from attack, while AIPAC is.  Gun control advocates go after the NRA all the time, and, while AARP is not exactly a political lightening rod, the complaint that greedy seniors are stealing money from our children is a popular meme on the Right.  So AIPAC is different.  This difference does not seem to be about money, at least not solely, as important as money is to the system and the groups that try to dominate it.  AIPAC appears to possess a complementary form of power, perhaps rooted in the infrastructure of synagogues and other religious organizations as well as the allegiance of many socially prominent Jews active in secular organizations.  When it marshals this network, you get the sort of response we saw to Omar.

This was a ferocious rebuke of a politician, clearly intended to be career-ending.  It will be interesting to see if she can recover without abandoning her advocacy of Palestinians; I certainly hope so.  The attack on Omar, however, is itself the embodiment of the fear all of her colleagues have to feel, that if they step out of line on Israel they will be crushed.  Catering, intentionally or otherwise, to antisemitic tropes is completely unnecessary: the proof of the pudding is in the attack on it.

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