Are Economists as Biased as Everyone Else?

All nine nominees for office in the American Economic Association are from private universities, all from states on an ocean. (All but one member of the Nominating Committee was also on a coast.) Two are friends of mine, and all are good people, but: isn’t this evidence of reverse discrimination? Surely there are scholars from public universities, or from the several top-ten non-coastal private schools, who are at least as qualified.

Like others, we economists favor those like us. That’s the bad news—and it’s been shown in conferring other honorifics (Hamermesh and Schmidt, 2003). The good news is that, where it really matters—in judging scholarly papers for publication—economists are remarkably fair (Blank, 1991; Abrevaya and Hamermesh, 2012), ignoring an author’s affiliation, gender or prior reputation.

Given human nature of helping one’s friends, perhaps we should be congratulated for indulging ourselves only where it’s not important.

The Secret Consensus Among Economists

If you follow the economic policy debate in the popular press, you would be excused for missing one of our best-kept secrets: There’s remarkable agreement among economists on most policy questions.  Unfortunately, this consensus remains obscured by the two laws of punditry: First, for any issue, there’s always at least one idiot willing to claim the spotlight to argue for it; and second, that idiot may sound more respectable if he calls himself an economist. 

How then can the quiet consensus compete with these squawking heads?  A wonderful innovation run by Brian Barry and Anil Kashyap at the University of Chicago’s Booth School Initial on Global Markets provides one answer: Data.  Their “Economic Experts Panel” involves 40 of the leading economists across the US who have agreed to respond on the economic policy question du jour.  The panel involves a geographically and ideologically diverse array of leading economists working across different fields.  The main thing that unites them is that they are outstanding economists who care about public policy.  The most striking result is just how often even this very diverse group of economists agree, even when there’s stark disagreement in Washington. 

That observation is the starting point for my latest column with Betsey Stevenson

Question of the Day: Should We Just Let Murderers Do Their Thing?

A reader named Mark Kozel writes to say:

I heard that Chicago will be pouring up to $14 million into police overtime to prevent murder and violent crime.

It got me thinking: is it cheaper to prevent this kind of crime, or to just let it happen and clean up the mess afterwards?

It would be hard to find many people, even economists, who would arguing that "just letting it happen" isn't an outcome that society should even think about accepting.

Hope and Ye Shall Find

I am not an avid runner but I do it pretty regularly because it is good, cheap, easy exercise. I often run in Central Park. The other day on my run there, it was hotter than usual and I ran further than usual, maybe 5 miles. So I really, really wanted to buy an iced coffee when this ordeal was over. I usually tuck a $5 or $10 bill into my running shorts but I'd forgotten. Oh well.

But then, just a few hundred yards from the end of my run I saw on the ground directly in front of me a suspicious little lump of green paper. I stopped. It was money. Three single dollar bills, crisply folded. Just enough for an iced coffee. I was grateful to whoever dropped it and I hoped it didn't represent their last three dollars.

How to Crowd-Fund an Economics Book

Eva Vivalt, an economist, is looking for financial backers to fund her book on Kickstarter. Along with a group of students from Georgetown and GWU, Vivalt is conducting meta-analyses of various aid programs. Here's her project summary:

Have you ever wondered whether aid programs actually work? Wouldn’t it be useful to know how effective programs are in achieving their objectives (e.g. reducing poverty, improving health, improving education)? This book will review the quantitative evidence on the effectiveness of aid programs in a very thorough and rigorous way, using meta-analysis. After explaining this method and its merits, each of ten chapters will apply it to a different type of aid program. Throughout, the lessons that we can draw from these analyses will be discussed using plain English. 

In Defense of Two-Handed Economists

My latest Bloomberg View column with Betsey Stevenson is now online:

Here’s something you don’t often hear an economist admit: We have very little idea where the economy will be next year.

Truth be told, our best guesses just aren’t very good. Government forecasts regularly go awry. Private-sector economists and cutting-edge macroeconomic models do even worse.

Our objective isn’t to beat up economists. Rather, we want to make the point that when we recognize our shortcomings, we’re forced to confront the enormous uncertainty that lies ahead.  And appropriate humility about the economy changes how we think about policy.

Does Studying Economics Teach You to Lie?

new paper by Raúl López-Pérez and Eli Spiegelman investigates "truth preferences" -- i.e., preferences for being honest versus lying. Their goal was to study whether economics students lie more as a result of their education. Or do liars self-select? From the paper:

Does studying economics give people “maximizing” habits of thought, and thus cause them to  behave more in line with its own predictions, or do people already inclined towards such behavior tend to self-select into economics?

A computer test structured with a slight incentive to lie was administered to 258 students at The Autonomous University of Madrid. The screen showed two colors, and participants were paid 14 euros for declaring blue and 15 euros for declaring green to another person, regardless of the actual color shown on screen. So what happened? According to the authors, the business and economics ("B&E") majors gamed the system.

The Life of the Number-Crunching Analyst

Thousands of economics majors head off to industry each year to work as analysts. They’re lured by the promise that they’ll learn a lot, work hard, play hard and get ahead.  But is it true?  Who better to ask than the brilliant young analyst Elisabeth Fosslien.  And as a good young analyst, she’s distilled her portrait of life as an analyst into charts.  Having once lived the analyst life—my first job out of college was at the Reserve Bank of Australia, crunching numbers and making charts—all of these resonated with me.

Some Links We Like

1. Why people hate economists (HT: Ian McKay)

2. The Planet Money crew holds a live literary event, "Money Greed and Power.”

3. Excellent article by Howard Beck on Jeremy Lin's improvement over past two years; also explains why Golden State cut him:

Unfortunately for the Warriors, they hardly had a chance to assess Lin’s off-season transformation. The N.B.A. lockout prevented them from working with him until camps opened in early December. He was on the court for maybe 90 minutes before the Warriors cut him in a move to clear payroll room to chase a free-agent center.

Happy Valentine's Day: Economist Edition

 You might think that the dismal science has very little to offer on matters of the heart.  But I disagree.  And so does Elisabeth Fosslien. She’s a brilliant young analyst interested in design, math, and economics. Yes, she’s the sort of person who dressed up as a bear market for Halloween.  All this makes her the perfect person for economics-themed data visualization. And so when #FedValentines lit up Twitter last week, she decided to go a step further, and provide the perfect valentine for the economist in your life.  Make your selection, below: