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I won’t make a habit of this, but a comment on this blog about the Dilbert Survey of Economists was so well written that I am promoting it. I don’t entirely agree with the writer’s point, but I am impressed with its clarity. Clear thinking makes me happy.

From user Olivaw:

As an economist, I find a number of the reactions to this survey very curious.

First, in general what economists agree on most of all is a framework for evaluating government policy. Notions such as efficiency, equity, market failure, market equilibrium, and benefit-cost analysis are regarded as useful ways of thinking about the economy and possible policy interventions.

Second, most economists I know are not highly partisan. This is in part because most economists like most people have other interests than partisan politics. But it is also because studying economics tends to lead towards having somewhat complicated views on issues that often cross party orthodoxy. So, most Democratic economists tend to be moderate Democrats, and most Republican economists are moderate Republicans.

Third, the notion that somehow being an economist would lead you inevitably to support a certain candidate is strange. Economists in many cases might largely agree on the framework for evaluating a policy. They might even agree on the policy's effects. But how to value the disparate effects relies in many cases on subjective values, about which economics as a profession has little useful to say (try philosophy).

So, for example, for many policies economists might agree that the policy should be evaluated in terms of its effects on efficiency (the size of the economic pie) and equity (how equally the pie is distributed). In some cases, economists might even agree on the approximate size of these efficiency and equity effects. However, if the policy increases efficiency but decreases equity, or decreases efficiency but increases equity, there is NOTHING in economics that tells you what relative value you should place on efficiency vs. equity, and therefore what you should choose.

In general, I suspect the economists who favor Obama tend to have a greater relative weight on equity vs. efficiency compared to economists who favor McCain. Both groups might agree that both efficiency and equity are important, but they disagree PHILOSOPHICALLY (outside of their training as economists) on the relative importance of these two social values.
 
 
Lehman Brothers comic

If you missed the results of the Dilbert Survey of Economists, read that post first. It is directly below this one.

For me, the real goal of the survey of economists was to give voters an appetite for useful and unbiased information, so you demand it in the future. I consider all of the criticisms of this survey to be steps in the right direction. That's where the conversation should be, and not so much about lipstick and pigs. If your reaction to the survey was "That's not enough information," I call that progress. Demand more.

How Biased Is the Survey?

The most striking result of the survey is that there are far more Democratic economists than Republicans, and both sides strongly support their candidate. Does that tell us anything useful at all?

Economists crossed party lines on the questions of International Trade, Environmental Policy, Immigration, Reducing Waste in Government, and Reducing the Deficit. I didn't include a question about a gas tax holiday, because the idea has already expired, but economists crossed party lines on that issue too. That suggests a degree of objectivity on an issue level. The crossover issues, plus the rankings, are important no matter who gets elected. That will tell you if your president has the right priorities.

Everything we know about human nature tells us that people are usually rational when the choices are relatively simple and the data is known. For example, your choice of a grocery store is probably a rational decision based on things you easily understand, such as distance, price, and selection. But tribe loyalty tends to take over when the data is less clear, such as choosing a religion.

The way this applies to the survey of economists is that you should expect them to cross party lines when the data is clear and understood, and to lean toward party loyalties when things get fuzzy. That's how humans are wired. We like our team.

At the top of the list of economic priorities, according to economists, are education and health care, arguably the two fuzziest topics. Unless the candidates have told you how much their plans would cost, and where the money will come from, it is a stretch to say they have plans at all. Given the lack of clarity on these two issues, and the number of variables involved, I would expect economists to be relatively more biased on those issues than on simpler issues. How much more biased? The data doesn't tell us.

A number of you also pointed out that most of the economists in the survey are academics, so it is no shocker that they put education at the top of the list. While education does pass the sniff test as being one of the most important economic issues, it is not clear that an extra dollar for schools is as useful to the economy as an extra dollar for health care or alternative energy. While we can all agree that improving education is a worthy objective, its position in the number one spot on this survey has to be viewed with a pinch of skepticism.

The big question this survey raises is why so many economists are Democrats in the first place. Democrats tell me that highly educated and rational folks, such as economists, gravitate toward the best argument. Case closed.

Republicans tell me that liberals, mostly Democrats, drift toward academic jobs where they can best suck on the public teet. It's easier to be a tenured professor than it is to run a company, so the thing that economists have in common is laziness as opposed to intelligence. And perhaps, think the Republicans, the so-called Independents in this survey are mostly liberals too, essentially Democrats who aren't joiners. And besides, if economics was a real science, most economists would be rich.

I have no data to support any theory of why so many economists are Democrats. But once someone picks a party, it's a sticky choice. It would be naïve to assume it doesn't influence opinions where the data is unclear.

Did We Learn Anything?

I learned a lot from the survey results. I was surprised by the rankings of issues, and I didn't know where the economists would cross party lines. That information is important for keeping the next president honest no matter who it is.

I was happily surprised at how many economists are Independents. And I was surprised that Democrats and Republicans stuck to their party lines so closely. I expected McCain to be the winner on most economic issues. I was wrong.

If you looked at the survey results and concluded that you can ignore economists when it comes to picking the next president, I would not fault you for that interpretation. After all, a third of the experts say there would be no difference between the candidates on several important economic issues. That's good to know because it gives you cover to allocate more weight to non-economic issues.

Personally, I think it is useful to know that economists didn't cross party lines on the question of who would be the best president. I'll keep that in mind the next time an economist expresses an opinion on this election.

The survey changed the focus of my own thinking to the top priorities. For example, assuming education is the top priority, and assuming it's more of a pre-college problem, where is the best leverage point? We're probably well beyond the point of diminishing returns for extra funding, except for the worst of the schools. We know that kids do best in school when their parents are managing the process right. If either candidate had a plan for educating parents on how to help their kids succeed in school, I think that would be compelling.

On health care, the second most important economic issue, I would be persuaded by a candidate who made the following argument: We're going to try something that already worked someplace else. It will cost x billion per years, but we can save twice that amount if you voters start eating right, smoking less, and exercising more. It's your patriotic duty to get off your butt.

If the survey made you think about any of the issues on a deeper level, I got my money's worth.

 

As promised, here are the results of my survey of economists. You can see three views into the results today, and I plan to blog more about it this week. 

(Format problems are because my blogging software is finnicky.)

 

1. My opinion on the results, on CNN.com http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/09/16/dilbert.economy/index.html
 

2. Detailed survey data: http://dilbert.com/dyn/ppt/Draft-report--9-3-08.ppt

 

3. Press release (below)

  

[Some contact information removed here]

 Dilbert Survey of Economists Democratic Economists Favor Obama. Republican Economists Favor McCain. Independents Lean Toward Obama. 


Dublin, CA (September 10, 2008) – 
Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, commissioned a survey of over 500 economists to find out which candidate for President of the United States would be best for the economy long term.

Says Adams, “I found myself wishing someone would give voters useful and unbiased information about which candidate has the best plans for the economy. Then I realized that I am someone, which is both inconvenient and expensive.”

At considerable personal expense, Adams commissioned a survey of over 500 economists, drawn from a subset of the members of the American Economic Association, a non-political group, some of whose members had agreed in advance to be surveyed on economic questions. The results do not represent the AEA’s position. The survey was managed by The OSR Group, a respected national public opinion and marketing research company.

Nationally, most economists are male and registered as either Democrats or Independents. The survey sample reflects that imbalance.

 

48%     Democrats

17%     Republicans

27%     Independents

3%       Libertarian

5%       Other or not registered

86% of the economists surveyed are male, and 65% work in the field of academia or education. The rest are spread across various industries or not working.

When asked which candidate for President would be best for the economy in the long run, not surprisingly, 88% of Democratic economists think Obama would be best, while 80% of Republican economists pick McCain. Independent economists, who in this sample are largely from the academic world, lean toward Obama by 46% compared to 39% for McCain. Overall, 59% of the economists say Obama would be best for the economy long term, with 31% picking McCain, and 8% saying there would be no difference.

The economists were asked to rank the most important economic issues and pick which candidate they thought would do the best job on those issues. 
 Rank   Issues                            Obama      McCain     No Diff.

1          Education                          59%           14%           27%

 

2          Health care                        65%           20%           15%

 

3          International trade              26%           51%           23%

 

4          Energy                              61%           22%           17%

 

5          Encouraging
           
Technology/innovation       43%           23%           34%

 

6          Wars and 
            
homeland security              58%           30%           11%

 

7          Mortgage/housing crisis     41%           18%           41%

 

8          Social Security                  40%           24%           35%

 

9          Environmental policy          72%             9%           19%

 

10        Reducing the deficit           37%           29%           33%

 

11        Immigration                       33%           29%           38%

 

12        Increasing taxes                 79%           14%             7%

            on wealthy

 

13        Reducing waste                 16%           38%           46%

            in government

 

The economists in the survey favor Obama on 11 of the top 13 issues. But keep in mind that 48% are Democrats and only 17% are Republicans. Among Independents, things are less clear, with 54% thinking that in the long run there would either be no difference between the candidates or McCain would do better.

Adams puts the survey results in perspective: “If an economist uses a complicated model to predict just about anything, you can ignore it. By analogy, a doctor can’t tell you the exact date of your death in 50 years. But if a doctor tells you to eat less and exercise more, that’s good advice even if you later get hit by a bus. Along those same lines, economists can give useful general advice on the economy, even if you know there will be surprises. Still, be skeptical.”

[Some contact information removed]

Interview requests for Scott Adams can be directed to
scottadams@aol.com. Adams will only be responding by e-mail for the next few months due to some minor surgery to fix a voice issue.


Update:
Some of you will wonder how reliable a bunch of academics are when it comes to answering real life questions about the economy. You might prefer to know what CEOs think. But remember that CEOs are paid to be advocates for their stockholders, not advocates for voters. Asking CEOs what should be done about the economy is like asking criminals for legal advice. More on that this week.

 

And for my view on the value economists: http://dilbert.com/blog/?Date=2008-08-22

 
Any help in distributing this information across the Internet would be appreciated.
 

The result of my survey of economists is delayed one more day (I think). I’m timing it to run with an opinion piece I wrote for CNN.com, but the news about Lehman Brothers squeezed it off the page at the last minute.

[Insert your own joke about not having time to hear what economists say because we’re too busy with bank closures.]

I thought Hurricane Ike was going to bump my story today. There’s always something. I released my book God’s Debris in September 2001. That turned out to be a bad month for authors to get media attention. Another book, Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel was released the same month that the infamous Beltway Sniper was making national headlines. I was on my book tour, and all of my media appearances depended on how accurate the sniper was that morning.

I remember having dinner with a group of book publishers and asking them how many great undiscovered authors there are. They answered unanimously “none.” It was their view that every good author can get published because the publishing industry is scratching the dirt to find them. I think that’s mostly true. But how many books an author sells has a lot to do with what is happening in the news.

My first hardcover book, The Dilbert Principle, hit its stride in the summer, when there wasn’t much else happening in the news. The media attention was enormous. It was an easy and fun story and there wasn’t a lot of competition for people's attention. Sales were huge. But if it had launched during September of 2001, as my book God’s Debris did, it would have tanked. God's Debris was a solidly successful book, but sold maybe a tenth of its potential.

Timing is everything.

 
It is 54 degrees outside. Inside my home it is 80 degrees. At night, as the outdoors gets cooler, the inside of my home continues to get warmer, at least with the windows closed. It's a relatively safe neighborhood, but not safe enough to leave a downstairs window open. Opening upstairs windows alone hardly makes a dent in the temperature.

Most of the heat comes from thermal mass I presume, meaning the walls and floors and ceilings store the heat from the day and release it all night, much to my sleeping displeasure. I can't sleep at temperatures above 75 degrees. We have some electronics plugged in, but not too much in that department.

As I walk the dog at 5:30 am, many of the neighbors have their windows closed and the air conditioning running. I reiterate that it is 54 degrees outside.

All of the homes in this development were built about five years ago. I'm sure they meet or exceed all the codes for energy use. And yet many of us are running our air conditioning when it is 54 degrees outside.

All we need to solve this problem is a downstairs window that has both a screen (for bugs) and jail bars (for intruders). The trick is to make the jail bars not look like jail bars, so there is some chance the homeowners association would allow them. The jail bars need not be grey vertical bars. They could be a design that adds a cool and funky look to your portal. For example, the barrier against intruders could be a peace sign, or a happy face, or a pine tree, whatever. And it could be whatever color works with your house.

Obviously this sort of solution is only useful in places and seasons where it is hot during the day and cool at night. But that is a lot of places.

Ideally that window, and a few upstairs, would be motorized and on a remote, so you can close them without getting out of bed if it gets too cold inside.

But my real question is this: If it is colder outside than inside, is there any reason you shouldn't run the air conditioning with your upstairs windows open?
 

On July 29th I wrote in this blog that I fantasize about being a candidate for President and using the line “My opponent thinks voters are stupid.” I opined that it would be a killer line and make world headlines.

http://dilbert.com/blog/?Date=2008-07-29

On September 6th, Obama was talking about Republicans in his speech and said, “I mean come on, they must think you’re stupid!” It made world headlines:

http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/09/06/obama-republicans-must-think-you’re-stupid/

I figured it was a coincidence. It’s not as if the Obama campaign is reading The Dilbert Blog. But yesterday Google Alert vacuumed up a mention of my name from some corner of the Internet and delivered it to the BlackBerry in my left front pant pocket. I learned that strangers with no credibility have put me on the list of Top-10 Web Celebrities for 2008-2009. To my surprise, someone is actually reading this blog. I always thought all the comments here were from one crazy stalker pretending to be different people.

http://top--10.blogspot.com/2008/09/top-10-web-celebrities-2008-2009.html

The odd thing about blogging, or writing a book, is that you never know who is paying attention. But I do expect a lot of people will visit this blog on Monday when I release the results of my survey of economists, assuming that happens as planned.

One of the things that get me out of bed in the morning is having at least one project brewing that could change the world, no matter how unlikely. My survey of economists fits that model. I don’t expect it to affect this election, but there is a non-zero chance it will change the type of information voters demand. Ideally, someone else would fund a study of economists next year. (It is pricey.)

 
 
Europe's Large Hadron Collider just fired up. It's a $10 billion particle accelerator designed to probe the mysteries of the universe. I think it is worth the money if we can find just one unicorn. But I would also settle for an elf, or free will, or Jimmy Hoffa's body. I'm just saying I'm not fussy when it comes to discovering stuff.

The downside of this project is the small chance it will create a black hole and annihilate the galaxy. It will take months for the machine to be fully functional, and during that time it gives nerds the ultimate seduction opportunity. It's the classic end-of-the-world gambit, as in "The universe could end any moment. Do you really want to take the chance of waiting another ten minutes to find a more suitable partner?"

Obviously this scheme depends on finding a potential lover who isn't good at physics and doesn't read much, also known as "the best kind."

As a public service to my readers, allow me to rule out some pickup lines suggested by the particle accelerator that are unlikely to be effective. For example, avoid any version of these:

"Let's make like particles and collide."

"Have you heard of the Big Bang theory?"

"Once you've had dark matter, you'll never get fatter."

"You'd better jump me now. The last time I was available a quark lepton."

"I like your bosons."

"Want to come back to my tunnel and see my Hadron Collider? It's huge."

Any one of those lines will make your potential lover prefer annihilation.
 
Recently I was gigantic. Or so it seemed because I was attending a school open house and sitting in a tiny chair designed either for a small child or an elf with one buttock. Context is everything.

I was thinking about context as I observed with fascination McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. The immediate response from my lefty friends was that McCain was insane to pick a running mate with such a thin resume. That's one possibility. The other explanation is more interesting.

My first response to McCain's decision was to assume that Republicans did not suddenly forget how to win elections. If selecting Palin was a brilliant strategy in disguise, how exactly was it supposed to work?

Context.

McCain had a context problem. He was an old (too old) white guy from the failed establishment running against a younger and more exotic agent of change. It was a losing context. His choice of Palin changed the context.

Since selecting Palin, the discussion in the media and in kitchens across America has shifted from "Can you be too old to be President?" to "Can you be too young and inexperienced?" McCain has cleverly put his critics in the position of arguing that experience is a good thing. And McCain has more of it than Obama. If you believe that people only vote for presidents, not vice presidents, this was a clever move.

The Democrats' other big argument against McCain was that he's a phony maverick who won't really change anything. It's hard to make that case while at the same time criticizing him for making such a surprising pick for Vice President. You can argue with Palin's credentials, but you can no longer argue with McCain's willingness to buck conventional wisdom. That book is closed.

On the more obvious side of things, picking a young woman insulates McCain from being the charter member of the Old Boy's Club. It's politically correct to say voters are smart. But clearly there are millions of exceptions. Some voters prefer candidates who look like them, end of story. Palin will increase McCain's support from female votes and hardcore conservatives.

Palin also has the benefit of making McCain look more presidential by comparison. Call it the Dan Quayle effect. By way of contrast, Obama is in the position of having a running mate who is clearly more experienced than him, just as smart, and lacks only charisma. That exacerbates Obama's problem of looking like a celebrity and not a leader.

If Palin survives all the scandals and rumors, the argument against her comes down to experience. But how important is experience for a president? Quick, name a presidential mistake that was caused by inexperience as opposed to stupidity, laziness, bad luck, or any of a dozen other reasons. I'm no historian, but I can't think of any presidential mistakes attributed to inexperience.

Palin would have been the wrong choice for just about any other presidential candidate. But in the context of McCain's campaign against Obama, it might have been a brilliant campaign strategy. Is this another example of McCain being underestimated, or was it simply a brain misfire of an old man who ran out of time?

Frankly, I can't tell.
 

A recent study found that the sound of expensive sports cars increases testosterone in both men and women, thus causing arousal. I didn’t believe it until I played the video of the Maserati, the most potent car they studied. Maybe it’s the placebo effect, but I did feel a surge of something.

http://blog.wired.com/cars/2008/09/weve-got-some-b.html 

This solved one of the great riddles of my life. Every summer a group of classic car enthusiasts gathers in my area to compare cars and whatnot. The odd thing I noticed is that the men are generally bearded, out of shape, and unattractive. But the women accompanying them are often very attractive. Now I know why. Apparently the sound of custom car engines is like catnip to hot chicks.

The great thing about the testosterone study is that you don’t need to buy an expensive car to get the benefits. You can just play a recording of the engine sounds and your partner will be ready for action. The problem is figuring out how to introduce a sports car engine noise into your romantic evening.

The sneakiest method I can think of would be to have some recorded street sounds on your home music system turned down low, so it sounds like it is coming from outside. Every once in awhile you could mutter something like “damn kids need to slow down” and then return your attention to your date, who by this time is shedding clothes like a trailer park in a tornado.

I also wonder what other sights, sounds, smells, and textures boost testosterone. Someone needs to study this more thoroughly. Obviously porn does the trick for men, and the smell of pumpkin pie, according to other studies. Women are more mysterious. I once saw a study where sensors were attached to shoppers. For men, there was no special change in their bodies except boredom. For women, the stereotype held, and the instrument panel lit up like a Christmas tree as soon as they entered a store. So I think the sound of shopping would boost the happy feeling for many women. I realize how sexist that sounds, but you can’t argue with junk science.

The perfect montage of sounds for a woman might be something along the lines of ocean waves, followed by the Maserati, expensive shoes on fine marble, mall noise, credit card swiping, ruffling of a shopping bag, and then the sound of wine pouring into a glass, with a fireplace crackling in the background. I’d also add the sound of a chainsaw somewhere in the distance, so the woman can imagine her personal lumberjack getting wood for the fire.


What do you think?

 
One of my favorite thoughts, and I think it came from a movie, is that the reason to get married is to have a witness to your life. It's the sort of idea that might not strike you immediately as brilliant, but over time it unfolds.

Another great quote along those same lines - and I wish I knew who said it - goes something like "You're not a writer until a writer tells you you're a writer." I had that experience when Dilbert was first accepted for syndication, and my editor told me I was a cartoonist. Until that moment, I wasn't. Literally the moment she told me I was a cartoonist, the quality of my drawing improved about 30%.

I think this is the same reason little kids continuously chirp "Mommy, look at me! Look at me!" They are struggling to get a witness, to know they exist.

It's nice to think that you can be your own person, true and accountable to no one but yourself, but I don't think life works that way. We are what other people allow us to be. We exist more in their perceptions than in our own, if you had some way to add it all up and compare.

I was thinking of this as I finished a first draft of my survey of economists. (Yes, you will see it. I need to get it right.) I sent it to my friend whose opinion I value, asking for some comments.  As I sent it, I realized my writing doesn't fully exist until he comments. It lives in some sort of Schroedinger's cat half-state. If he likes it, then it becomes real. If not, it will quickly seem as though it never existed. I will rewrite from scratch.

The key to life is picking the right witnesses. Thanks for being mine.

 
 
 
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