Wow - I woke up this morning to a post from Noah Smith that completely flips what I said about Steve Landsburg on its head, and makes me sound like I'm defending these vile attacks on Sandra Fluke, which of course is precisely the opposite of what I've done.
The post is titled "Offensiveness does not make you a better economist", which could have been the title of my post on Steve Landsburg - the trouble is, Noah used my post as an example of the argument that offensiveness does make you a better economist.
Take this: "But yet the narrative that Kuehn pushes - a clear-thinking, rational, but somewhat Asperger-y economist flouting social norms with an analysis that is insensitive but correct on technical grounds - sounds very plausible. It is a narrative we expect to see played out. It is a narrative that, in my experience, is central to economists' image of their profession's social worth."
I "push" that Noah? No. Precisley the opposite. I highlight that that's what's wrong with the way some economists approach it. I wrote: "And that's really the thing about "thinking like an economist" - you have to be careful. From a broader, scientific perspective I think it's absolutely legitimate to study humans like any other animal, because we are animals. But we've achieved what we've achieved because we maintain social norms that require us to maintain the fiction that we aren't just animals. Economists should always be careful about confusing those social norms with the scientific project that we're conducting. Anything that gets into politics and ethics - and certainly anything that gets into commentary on individuals like Sandra Fluke or anyone else - gets into the realm of social norms. The science should inform this stuff, but you can't rely on the science alone to make these judgements."
My WHOLE POINT was that while there is a real meaning to this thing we call "thinking like an economist" you're not doing that when you use it as an excuse to flaunt social norms. That was my entire indictment of Steve Landsburg. Noah's thesis here is exactly my point. I don't know how he managed to turn that completely on its head into an endorsement of ignoring social norms. Maybe he just read the first paragraph and then wrote his post - I don't know.
There are perhaps two things I say that you might legitimately disagree with:
1. That Steve Landsburg probably isn't the jerk that Rush Limbaugh is. If you think that's a bad assessment, fine - I'm basing that on the few intereactions I've had with him online and on the fact that a lot of this recent stuff out of Landsburg seems like it can be attributed to "thinking like an economist" spilling over into areas where it has no place. I could be wrong - Landsburg could be as big of a jerk as Limbaugh - I'll probably never know.
2. That Steve Landsburg tried to articulate an argument. Noah Smith get's really offended at this one. It wasn't a good argument obviously. If I thought it was a good argument I'd be agreeing with Landsburg. But he tries to articulate an argument where Limbaugh doesn't. What I thought was funniest about Noah's response on this point was that he started pointing out things (like the fact that the public isn't paying for Fluke's insurance) that I've already highlighted on this very blog as an argument against the Limbaughs and the Landsburg's of the world.
The point is this - there are some things in economics that it would be nice if they weren't true, but are true. Labor supply impacts of welfare. Not nice, but this is the world we live in. If we want to provid a strong safety net (which we should), we need to keep that in mind. Things like that. There's value in "thinking like an economist". But that does not mean that being offensive makes you a better economist.