Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Klein and Buturovic are back! More thoughts on the article and on EJW

A couple weeks ago I blogged about a new article in Economic Journal Watch by Daniel Klein and Zeljka Buturovic on the relationship between "economic enlightenment" and political ideology. They concluded that liberals are considerably less "enlightened" than conservatives and libertarians. The Klein and Buturovic article has resurfaced again with a new article in the Wall Street Journal by Klein, claiming (despite the critical reviews of the initial article) that his findings are "unequivocal". Strong words for a quick write-up of what are basically descriptive statistics.

In my first post, I had lots of specific concerns about each of the eight questions that were asked. I'd encourage people to go back and read that, but I'll just summarize here: My concern is that (when the questions are coherent - which they aren't always), Klein and Buturovic present a dumbed down version of economics, and they call that "enlightenment". There are also concerns about normative vs. positive responses, and the prospect that Klein and Buturovic may be inappropriately penalizing normative responses as "unenlightened". Even if we were to assume that liberals, conservatives, and libertarians had the exact same propensity to respond normatively rather than positively, you would expect to see conservatives and libertarians be "right" more often. Because their normative positions line up with the positive positions in these questions. There's no need to assume differential reading comprehension between the groups. Even with the exact same reading comprehension you'd expect to see these results, simply by virtue of the questions asked. It seems considerably more probable to me that conservatives, liberals, and libertarians have the same economic enlightenment, the same reading comprehension, and the same propensity to respond normatively rather than positively than that liberals are "less enlightened". Why that wasn't Klein and Buturovic's conclusion, I couldn't say - but the fact that it wasn't really makes me wonder about them (and Buturovic works for a survey firm - this stuff should be on her radar).

If I had been given this data I would have just concluded it was useless and not even worth writing a paper with. This kind of data interpretation would not have passed muster in the dinky little intro research methods class I took for my policy degree, much less in the economics department. Which makes me increasingly curious about what exactly Klein was thinking when he published this. What's most ironic is that it appears in Economic Journal Watch, which is ostensibly a journal dedicated to improving scientific standards in economics. My guess is there will be a thorough review of this article in future issues of the journal.

I want to raise another issue that I didn't in my last blog post. The response options they provide are: (1.) strongly agree, (2.) somewhat agree, (3.) somewhat disagree, (4.) strongly disagree, and (5.) not sure. If we consider the question "does the minimum wage increase unemployment", they consider (3.) and (4.) to be "unenlightened". They suggest that a virtue of their study is that "not sure" is never counted as "wrong", to account for people who are thinking of very special cases or nuances (the kind I always drone on about), or who think the answer is ambiguous. My personal take on the minimum wage is that it has no real effect on unemployment. The empirical evidence isn't particularly dramatic on either side, which supports my theoretical disposition towards believing that there is monospony power in labor markets (which would predict a minimum wage that increases employment). How would I answer this? Klein and Buturovic suggest that I might be in their "not sure" category, and therefore safe! But that's not the most obvious way to answer the question. I quite decisively "disagree" that the minimum wage increases unemployment. I also quite decisively "disagree" that it decreases unemployment. I guess I'm "unenlightened".

Bruce Bartlett comes out and calls the research "sloppy" and the data "pretty much worthless". Nate Silver has a biting review where he asks "are you smarter than a George Mason University economics professor?". Silver points out that Klein should know better on some of these questions. For example, Klein has done considerable research on the positions of economists on the minimum wage. Of all people, he should know that while there may be an answer he prefers, there is no definitive "enlightened" answer to that question.

I think Klein and Buturovic should have submitted this to another journal. I was first introduced to Economic Journal Watch in an econometrics class, where my professor presented us with a few articles on the Deirdre McCloskey school of thought on significance testing. So I had always thought of it as a somewhat heterodox, but rigorous sentry watching over economic methodology and economic science. This Klein and Buturovic affair is raising serious doubts in my mind about that assessment, despite my respect for McCloskey. If you dig a little deeper, Economic Journal Watch is quite an incestuous outfit. Daniel Klein is the editor for one thing. All five of his co-editors are well known libertarians. If you cycle through the "testimonials" (what a bizarre thing to have on a journal website!), most of them are also well known libertarians. Where else does this happen? Perhaps the Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics. There are a lot of non-liberal Keynesians out there, but not a lot of non-liberal Post-Keynesians. A few others, perhaps. But this is not intended to be a "libertarian" journal, where you would expect and even want a primarily libertarian editorial staff. The Review of Austrian Economics has Austrian editors for a very obvious reason. The Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics has Post-Keynesian editors for a very obvious reason. What is the reason for this kind of editorial staff given the state mission of EJW? I think Klein should have submitted his article to another journal that he is not the editor for. Perhaps the Journal of Economic Education or just one of the major journals that isn't topic specific. Cross-pollinate a little and get some critical reviews. If Klein got any critical reviews for his article at EJW, it didn't show. If he did get this peer reviewed in another journal, I doubt he would have used words like "unequivocal" in his recent WSJ article. I, for one, am not "unequivocal" on this and I guarantee you I'm not the only one. It's more than a little arrogant to apply a word like that to a piece like this.

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