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.

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Sep 17, 2008
Given that the eco's didn't move from partie lines much - I thought it would be interesteing to see what issues either canidate had at least thier parties affiliation 1/2 of everybody not in the oposite party. using that to look at key issues there are just 2 for both canidates, with no concesus on the best for presidency.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
You get your money's worth. Seems to me that economics is far too complex to make a reasonable guess about who would be best. Not sure about the intellectual honesty of that since I felt this would be the case when you initially proposed this idea. But still, assuming that there's not going to be a total idiot running as president, both candidates are going to apply generally accepted economic principles in an effort to maximise economic growth. So there's nothing to choose between them in that respect.

My conclusion is that we need to determine who would be best based on the fuzzy factors. A good education system is obviously good. So are low taxes. If one candidate proposes lower taxes and the other proposes spending more on education it's a question of deciding whether good education or lower taxes are more important to you. I don't think these can be compared objectively. It's all subjective.
Sep 17, 2008
From one unlikely MBA to another, I just want you to know that I really admire what you did here. I also love the fact that, according to the experts, I was right when I answered one of your posts a few weeks ago about what we would guess is the largest economic issue. I figured it was education, and I was right. That feels nice.

Anyway, thanks so much for using your hard earned cash to have this survey done. I know it was probably a big chunk of change and time, but I totally think you are a badass for doing it anyway.

I hope it enlightens your readers. I hope it helps us, as voters and compatriots, to make the best decision for our national well being.

You are totally inspiring.
Sep 17, 2008

Don't let the door hit you on the way out. On second thought, let it.
Sep 17, 2008
I don't know if anyone's mentioned this yet, but I found:


interesting reading. Cliff notes edition - Democrats are better for the economy, according to the statistics.
Sep 17, 2008
TreeRol, you may want to change your screen name. I noticed you've been voted down at least three times. They probably thought you were me, didn't read the post, and automatically voted you down. Bias is certainly present among some of the regular posters on this blog, so I'm deactivating my account.
Sep 17, 2008

I love that you commissioned this survey. I found this an interesting statement.
"But tribe loyalty tends to take over when the data is less clear, such as choosing a religion. " I would argue that choosing a religion is not one of the things were tribe mentality takes over. I would say that people who choose whether or not they will remain with a certain religion side often with the tribe. But when it comes to actively picking one, that are a likely or not to do something different.

I am also curious about the selection bias of the survey. Was there something systemic in the process that resulted in the political composition of the sample or is that split a good representation of economists in general. I wonder if the AEA is representative or economists in general? In addition, one might ask what kind of people are likely to respond to such a survey withing four days? So really the sample is economists who will take the time to fill out an online survey that the randomly get via of their professional societies within four days. Which begs the question about whether that is also representative of the entire body?

Sep 17, 2008
"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."

As a general rule, I find this argument to be a good approach on a lot of issues. However, I have to disagree with you on this issue because I think there are fundamental reasons why it's impossible for us to copy the health care systems that "work" elsewhere. I'm going to assume that you are talking about the socialized systems that exist in Europe in my argument below.

Having just lived for a year in England, I had a chance to learn a bit about how the NHS (the UK National Health Services) system works. Everyone receives cheap and reasonable health care through the NHS, but the system is always short on funds and looking for good ways to cut costs. Medical care is inherently expensive and even the more socialist governments can't throw unlimited amounts of money at it. Since the NHS is legally required to pay for any approved medical treatment that a doctor deems necessary, they stand to lose a lot of money whenever a brand new and expensive drug/treatment is invented. Thus, they've identified a convenient loophole to the problem: don't approve any medical treatment as "safe" until the patent runs out and a generic brand is available. The consequence for Europeans is that they may not have access to the latest/greatest new medical treatments and are always a few years behind, but they still get good cheap health care that's guaranteed.

The problem, though, is that their system depends entirely on the US. The pharmaceutical industry in Europe is basically dead because there is no longer a market to sell new products. There's plenty of good basic research still done at universities, but no new drugs ever come out of universities directly. University researchers are concerned with scientific research, not fulfilling legal requirements for getting drugs approved and making a profit. There are still big European drug companies out there that invent new drugs all the time, but their entire business models are based on the profits they expect to earn selling new drugs to Americans overseas. Overall, the medical industry worldwide continues to invent new drugs/medical devices and improve our overall lifespan and standard of living, but only because Americans are willing to pay for it.

By now you probably know where I'm going with this. The only way we can successfully copy the European system is if we could find some large external market that's willing to keep paying the huge costs for new, patented drugs. We are that large external market for Europe and no other large market exists. If we copy their system, all these drug companies (both American and European) are either going to go bankrupt or they're going to just manufacture drugs they've already invented. This means nor more medical advances, no new medical technologies, and the same health care available to us when we're 30 as when we're 80. It's not worth it.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
First, thanks for putting your time, money and effort into this study. It's something I've been curious about for a long time.

I also appreciate the objectivity of the study - the results were presented with all the background information openly provided - a genuinely welcome relief from the overly biased press releases and articles. I love neutral information and to receive it was surprising.

The one item that doesn't come as a surprise is the economists voting along party lines. It seems if anyone were to cross over on any topic seen as meaningful public cries of 'heresy', 'treason', and 'no-good scoundrel' fill the room. Excommunication follows. Soon these sorry, thinking folk get the title of independant, or worse yet, libertarian...

... minus the crazy stuff.

If any disclosure is needed, I'm split on quite a number of issues but after running the numbers I came up with McCain. That's me. I completely respect those who vote for someone else as long as they make a thoughtful decision.

+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
You said, "people are usually rational when the choices are relatively simple and the data is known." Or in other words, choosing is easy when choices are clear.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008

You stated, "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."

I have no data to support my theory either, but I would speculate that the numbers of Republican economists is much higher than in your sample, but they are not as public and reachable. There was a comment that Democratic economists tend to become professors due to views and goals - In the same manner, I would say that Republican economists tend to work for big mega-engulf-and-devour companies and thus are not easily findable or available for surveys. [data on the party affiliations of economics majors graduating from top schools correlated with career paths would help here.]

+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
I think that economists are best at long term issues or finding the underlying cause in a problem. Very poor in all but the simplest "do X today and Y will happen tomorrow." Economics is based on perfect information flow, and we are so far from that situation, that near term sight is poor. That said, I see why economist picked those two issues...

Edjumacation - Long term problem facing our nation is our inability to compete. College is getting more expensive at a rate much higher than inflation and it is being put out of reach to more and more people (or it is saddling our graduates with crushing debt). It's not a secret that our pre-college system is not producing like it should. To compete - long term - we need to be better and more efficient than others.

Health Care - A critical underlying problem in our economy. Again the costs are increasing at rates higher than inflation. In addition, shopping is not done with an eye towards supply and demand - what's the "demand" on a pill that saves your life? Anything. No matter how much it costs. On top of that, the costs are usually hidden from the end consumer. Our medical billing system is ridiculously fat. Germany, not known for it's "shoddy health care system" pays half as much as we do per person for health care than we do. Think of how much more money you would have to spend on consumer goods if your health care was half as expensive (wether through taxes or reduced fees, doesn't really matter). Even if you work for a company that provides health care, they would have more money to pay you. For me, a self employed 38 year old with wife and 2 kids, that number would be $6K extra in spending money a year. It'd be like getting a "stimulus check" every quarter. And my family is HEALTHY! Lastly, fixing health care with a nationalized solution would increase the flow of resources to where they work best. Many people won't leave jobs they hate to take jobs they might love because they will "lose their benefits" - particularly true when deciding to work for a small company - the engine of our economy. When human resources don't go to where they produce the best, our efficiency suffers.

Thanks for the study!
Sep 17, 2008
About education spending: I'm not sure if the economists would like it, Scott, but the other day Matt Yglesias had a suggestion based on something the Bush Administration's Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling said. She expressed concern that America is "behind Denmark and Finland" in terms of young people making it into college.

Yglesias says that while Democrats tend to say there needs to be more money for teachers and schools, and (non-economist) Republicans say all we need to do is squeeze teachers till they stop teaching science and start paddling again, the big difference between America, Denmark and Finland is that... child poverty rates in the second two is in the low 2% range while America's in the high 21% range.

His point? "And of course poor children do substantially worse in school than do non-poor children. If we saw a 90 percent drop in the child poverty rate, our educational attainment figures would skyrocket even absent any changes whatsoever in the educational system."

Anyway, to the extent it also helped reduce poverty for families with school-age children your suspicion that a dollar spent on health or alternative energy might have more net benefit than a dollar spent on education is probably well placed.

Sep 17, 2008
I can't believe no one has pointed out the very freaking obvious. Maybe because everyone is biased. There is a way to know which of the two is true:
1) Academia attracts democrats
2) Smarter people tend to be democrats

Scott, you still have all the information, right? Could you tell us if there is a correlation between the following:
1) Being a "top" economist. That is, getting published a lot in better journals, and having a lot of citations.
2) Being a democrat.

If there isn't, thats evidence for case (a). That means being "smarter" has nothing to do with being a democrat (well, in this particular studay). If there IS a correlation, that is, smarter economists tend to be democrats, then argument (a) cracks.

So I know it's more work, but it would kind of settle it (although I'm sure everyone will come up with explanations for why THEIR view is better, even if the evidence suggest otherwise).
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
I don't think you can say that most economists are Democrats from your survey. The majority of them that chose to respond by your deadline were democrats, and you received responses from roughly 15-20% of those you sent it to if I remember the numbers correctly. You may have had a large contingent of Independent or Republican or other economists that didn't bother. Plus, this was only to those in that organization. I think stating that most economists are Democrats is a leap even as I think there is some validity to what you found.

So when are you going to be willing to vote third party and try to spur more people to do so instead of continuing to settle for a "lesser of two evils". Doing that just shows they are truly the same and have been for decades.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
Hi Scott,

Thanks for the study. I appreciate your participant description and direct discussion of potential bias.

I find slide 37 from your presentation very interesting. It confirms why I believe McCain is the right choice for economic issues. My priority of issues is surprisingly close to those economists who favor McCain. What is stunning is that social security is not on the Obama economist list of top issues. That coupled with the fact that mortgage/housing crisis is on their list says that Obama economists are short sighted. Anyway, that is one take away I first noticed.

Again, thanks for the survey I am still going through the results.

Sep 17, 2008
Thanks very much.
Sep 17, 2008
Thank you for doing this Scott. I know that it was pricey, and wish you would tell us how much, but the results were quite enlightening. It would be interesting to see the survey results completely broken down by the economists party affiliation.

Thanks again!

+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
Scott, thanks for doing this.
It is, however, not extremely surprising that there are more economists who are Democrats. From the teachers that I had since elementary school (elementary, high school, college, post grad), most, if not all, are strong Democrats and some are extreme Socialists (I live in California). The views of the teachers do rub off onto the students! So, I suppose the Democrats are smarter in that they corner and work their ideology in education to indoctrinate and mold the youths in their image (much like Apple) and within a generation, the results are very clear.
Sep 17, 2008

I used to think that you were one of the few in the media/blogosphere who remained relatively unbiased. But, your explanation of why most of the economists in your survey are democrats reveals your democratic/liberal bias. Which is easier to believe:

1. Economists are democrats because democrats are just smarter on the economy
2. Economists are democrats because they are academia and academia are democrats

Everyone knows that academia leans very far left, and thus it is easy to see that a majority of people that belong to that group also lean left, what is so hard to figure out about that? Where is the corallary or evidence that democrats are smarter on the economy? I can't think of any examples.

Academias typically lean left because of the sheltered environment in which they exist. This is true for celebrities as well. It is easy to feel good about yourself for promoting a ton of expensive government programs for the less fortunate when you have plenty of money and a tax hike won't hurt your day to day life. This is contrary to people working in the real world who struggle tooth and nail to get where they are life, only to see it taken away and given to those who didn't work 2-3 jobs, didn't pay 100,000 in student loans to get through school, etc. If you ask most people who have had to truly struggle to get to a successful position in life, those people I would argue tend to lean Republic and Capitalism. It is the sheltered/priviledged people who love the "idea" of socialism.
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