Quote of the day: On theory and data

From Eric Crampton:

I tend to be pretty skeptical of results that aren’t grounded in basic price theory or that aren’t confirmed by a lot of different methods, including both Ocular and Ordinary Least Squares.

A single paper merely helps people to update their priors – it doesn’t provide conclusive evidence of a result.  Often when it comes to economic discourse there is too much “faith” put in single results that tend to reinforce whatever the authors prior is.

That is why the economic method in itself is a useful tool – but the process of reaching a conclusion, or justifying why a result holds, is one of debate and discussion.  It is more of an art form than anything else.

Unless you can say why a stated result means very little.  No matter how fancy your data analysis or theoretical model is, unless you can explain it it means nothing.  Luckily, economists out there do go around explaining why – which is why I have much more faith in the analysis of economists than many other disciplines.

“Irrationality” is not a sufficient condition for intervention

One thing that irritates the hell out of me is the fact that many people believe the slightest sign of cognitive limitations implies that we should have government intervention.

Hell I’m centrist, I see myself as left-leaning in somethings and right-leaning in others.  But this attitude leads to ridiculous, poorly thought out, interventions.

Several things we need to think about before intervening are.

  1. What is the problem?  Compared to what other practical outcome?
  2. We have to say “why the problem is occurring” this occurs before we can figure out policy,
  3. We have to figure out if government can practically implement a scheme, given their own cognitive and institutional constraints,
  4. We need to ask if the implied problems are observable,
  5. We need to figure out what the consequences of such a policy are – how do people respond over time.

The most common area where this occurs is in the realm of saving.  More people than I care to count have told me that people are irrational, so save too little, so some form of compulsion in savings makes sense.  Some of the most intelligent, articulate, and thoughtful people I know have been known to occasionally move into this school of though.  However, lets see what needs to be ticked off for this to make any sense:

  • We need to figure out why people are saving too little relative to how much they do save.
  • We need to make a moral judgment regarding the impact on themselves (if they save too little and end up poor it is really their own problem – why do we need to intervene?)
  • If we don’t have that, we need to figure out how it impacts on “other people” – and likely make a value judgment for why this is suboptimal.
  • We need to figure out how well government can observe this issue.
  • We need to make a policy based on this observability, how well we can target “problem savers”, and the cost of implementation.
  • We need to look at the long-run implication of the choice – for example, if we make people “save” they could likely borrow on the basis of this asset … leading to no change in net savings rates.
  • We need to look at the distributional and efficiency impact of this policy, and the error bands around it – given uncertainty there would need to be a significant net positive impact for intervention.

I genuinely believe that people understate the intelligence of other people in society – there is no other explanation for how often I am told “people are stupid we need to make them save”.  It may surprise many people to find out that other people in society do think, and do make choices.  Attacking a “straw man” version of people and mentioning “irrationality” does not justify regulation.

Often I will say “it doesn’t matter if people are irrational, how is that a justification for compulsory savings” – too which people tell me I don’t understand.  I guess the failure to actually provide a logical argument does make it hard for me to understand 😉

Methodological individualism and all that jazz

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has an interesting post discussing methodological individualism.  As a fan boy for methodological individualism, I felt that his criticism of it as a method went a bit far.  Here I just want to describe why.

Read more

Economic equations

(ht SMBC)

Its true – if you think about an issue it is probably hidden in an equation somewhere 😉

Nobel 2010

Congratulations to Peter Diamond, Dale Mortensen, and Christopher Pissarides on being joint winners of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Economics.

I am stoked that Peter Diamond won this year – I was quietly rooting for him, especially after all this rubbish argument about whether he could be a Fed governor (of course he could be).  I avoided making him my pick for fear of jinxing him – so I happy 🙂 .  Although I have heard of Mortensen, I’ve never heard of Pissarides before – which is weird because it sounds like their best work was together!  I will make sure I educate myself this weekend.

Economist’s View (*), Paul Krugman, and Econlog have posts up.  Marginal Revolution’s coverage is excellent, with Tyler writing profiles on each of this year’s winners (Diamond, Mortenson, and Pissarides).

This year’s prize is very much a labour market prize – which is definitely topical given the seemingly unending elevated level of unemployment in the United States.  These authors have all done work describing why unemployment may not move back to its “natural rate” following a large shock – implying that we can’t necessarily expect a self-correcting process in the labour market EVEN IF we had fully flexible wages/prices.  It is an important lesson in the current environment – both in terms of trying to understand why unemployment can stay elevated, and IF there are any policies that can help the labour market in such a situation.

If the problem isn’t sticky wages, smashing unions (or even printing money) isn’t going to help us move out of a “bad” equilibrium in the labour market.  And even if you don’t care about the labour market – remember what the flip side is to higher equilibrium unemployment (in this type of situation), lower equilibrium output/income.

I imagine labour economists will be happy with this prize – I expect them to have a drink tonight to celebrate 😉

When illegitimate is legitimate

Over at Not PC a number of economic and social concepts are termed “illegitimate” namely:

  1. Externalities,
  2. Opportunity cost,
  3. Free-rider problems,
  4. Stake-holder theory.

However, these are some of the most important – and legitimate – concepts that should be looked at when forming policy.  I don’t like to use the word should lightly – but in this case these are central legitimate concepts.  Ignoring them would simply lead to bad policy.

So, to illustrate this, let me briefly discuss each concept:

Read more