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
Thanks for publishing this, it really opened my eyes to how little we understand about the economy. People are always making speculations about the economy and treating it like fact.

It has always bothered me that even in our daily lives money is a taboo subject. It's treated like it is a more personal subject than your health, your family and your sex life.

In the past apparently you weren't informed enough to vote. Are you informed now?
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
You said "We're probably well beyond the point of diminishing returns for extra funding".
Wrong. Class sizes are directly affected by the budget for more teachers, and that is tied directly to the local tax base, which is directly tied to real estate prices.

Smaller classes help students *in spite* of the quality of the teachers. Google it. It's the best way that we can throw money at the problem and actually see results.

This is an area where most communities are hurting *right now* both in devalued real estate and in citizens resistance to any increase in the local tax. The trend in the next few years will be towards *larger* classes, thanks to the current economic stress.

[Or you might want to Google "diminishing returns." -- Scott]
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
"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."

Apparantly, the Republicans either don't know or don't care how difficult it is to get tenure in the first place. It's hard (and extremely political), and growing harder and harder these days.

"And besides, if economics was a real science, most economists would be rich."

68% making at least $100,000/year, despite the majority of them being in low-paid sectors like academia or public service? I think you've made a convincing argument that economics is a real science.

As far as the survey goes... I was surprised "Reducing capital gains tax," "raising minimum wage," and "eliminating the estate tax" were asked about in such a way that they were suggested to be positive things. All three are, from an economic perspective, BAD ideas, and saying a candidate would do a better job of implementing them should be viewed as a condemnation of the candidate on that issue.

I was also interested to see that the "in the respondents' own words" section's answers for 'why McCain' seemed to, ultimately, consist of the stereotypes of Republicans being good for the economy that have proven to not be particularly accurate over the past eight years.

I'd really like to know when these questions were asked--when in the election cycle the surveys were filled out could have substantially influenced the opinions of the respondents, and I'd be interested to see what range of dates it was filled out over.

I'd also be interested to see how the recently-publicized McCain health care plan to create $2500(individual)/$5000(family) tax credits for individual and remove the employer tax credit for group health insurance policies. The plan would make it obnoxiously difficult for employers to provide group health care (especially with employers having to explain why employees were recieving less take-home pay every time insurance rates went up), forcing more and more Americans into individual health care plans--which are substantially stingier in what they cover in group plans and cost more to boot. It would be a poison pill for the American health care system.
Sep 17, 2008
Did you create that strip just for this entry? That's awesome. It should also see proper syndication through your dailies. It's pretty damn funny.
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 17, 2008
Scott said "I would be persuaded by a candidate who made the following argument: We're going to try something that already worked someplace else."

That is essentially what guides my political philosophy. I look at the countries that are better at us at doing important things (keeping people healthy, educating people, allowing people personal liberties) and want us to emulate them. Note that I'm personally not too concerned about the economy in this paradigm, because the economy (and money in general) are just a means to an end - happy, healthy, educated, free people.

Anyway, Scott, I can tell you from experience that argument is a non-starter. The moment you say that someone does something better than the United States, even if you can get a consensus from diverse organizations such as the UN and the Economist Intelligence Unit, you get immediate and severe responses from people who cannot believe the United States isn't the best at everything.

By most measures, Western European democratic capitalism/socialism is the most successful system in the world (possibly even in the history of the world). But in 2004 and again in 2008, the Democratic candidate (who would at best bring an exceedingly watered-down version of this system to the US) gets demonized as a EUROPEAN SOCIALIST! And that kind of messaging works. There are a lot of people in this country afraid of anything outside the US.

We used to be the country that took other people's ideas and perfected them. No more. Our ideas are, by definition, perfect already. Even if they fail miserably.
Sep 17, 2008
Thanks so much for doing this. It was very informative. It's hard to know whether to separate out political bias or not (maybe most economists are Democrats because Democrats are smarter with the economy ... or maybe it was just a preponderance of Democrats who responded), but even the results breaking pretty much along party lines is useful. From my perspective as someone who plans on voting for Obama, it's reassuring to know he's not going to completely screw up the economy (or at least no worse than the other guy).

One nitpick: on slide 38 of the PPT, some of the %s at the bottom add up to more than 100%.
Sep 17, 2008
Very interesting if not terribly instructive. I'd love to see how it differs from the same questions asked to a group of non-economists. I'd also like to know what cross tabs people would like to see.
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