Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I don't think what Noah Smith suggests I think Noah Smith forces me to severely discount his reading comprehension skills

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.


  1. So you take down the original post so we can't decide for ourselves what you meant. Noah was right to take you to task.

    1. If I had anything like the platform Noah has, that might be plausible.

      I'd rather take down something that's going to be presented as a defense of Landsburg and leave the position that I've held all along entirely unambiguous.

      Here's the thing anonymous - you don't get to decide what I meant. If you are curious about what I mean, you should ask me to clarify. I know what I think on all this, and no one is in any position to tell me what it is I think.

      It's precisely because people like you think you can do this that I figured I was better off only keeping what was impossible to bungle up on the blog. The last thing I need is to be considered a defender of Limbaugh and Landsburg.

    2. Indeed, I daresay it's reasonable to conceal an original post while calling out Noah Smith in a reply titled "Noah Smith forces me to severely discount his reading comprehension skills"-- whenever I make a statement that draws some fire, I do the same thing. I know personally that the best honest route to a good discussion is to assert my questioner lacks reading comprehension and hide the post.

      In fact, Kuehn has definitely removed any thought in my mind that he might have been defending Limbaugh and Landsburg by concealing his original post. This is the best route to the truth.

    3. Well, the decision to remove the post came after the title to this post - I'll change the title to this post if you prefer.

      If there's going to be someone out there saying I am a defender of Landsburg when I'm not, I don't want to hand them ammunition. Maybe that's the wrong decision, but it's my decision - and frankly you're not the one that's getting accused of these things.

      I'd rather put my views out there unambiguously, because that's ultimately the only reason to for having this blog. If you don't like that, sorry.

    4. That's fair enough. Sarcasm aside, it is well within your rights to remove a post or retract a statement that you don't believe accurately represents your views. This is especially true since you're blogging with your full name rather than a pseudonym. Thanks for editing the title-- if your position isn't that Noah had poor reading comprehension, but that your original post was open to misinterpretation, the new title is much better.

  2. Take this as a representative reaction of someone encountering your blog for the first time from the outside (I'm coming to it via Andrew Gelman/Noah Smith):

    * You made an argument
    * Your argument caught the notice of a wider audience and received some negative attention
    * You didn't have the stones to stand by your words and took the original post down.

    That's not the worst thing in the world, but it probably does far worse damage to your reputation as a writer than anything you originally wrote.

    I doubt your original post was anything awful, but hiding it sends the clear message that you are embarrassed by what you wrote, and therefore that you wrote something truly heinous. For your own self-interest, put the post back up.

    Just thinking like an economist here.

    1. I really don't appreciate you coming on here anonymously and insulting me.

      I didn't want something out there associated with my name that anyone could construe as giving cover to Landsburg and Limbaugh. As I've said several times, maybe that was a mistake - when the first person raised this point and checked, and as far as I can tell I can't recover the post.

      I have copied and shared the important passage that Noah decided to leave off.

      Anyway - there shouldn't be any more concerns. I have stated very clearly now what my views on this are. If you're still curious, you can ask me. Since the only purpose of this blog is to get my views out there, I don't see what the problem is. Why would I want a post up, with my name on it, that contains what some people may construe to be views that aren't mine?

    2. If you're looking at Gelman's blog you might be interested in some comments of mine that are waiting for moderation, but I imagine should be up soon.

      One of the things I mention is that I agree with him that an attitude of "exceptionalism" is uncalled for - he interprets me as promoting economic exceptionalism, but I actually agree with him on that point.

      It is true, I seem to disagree with him on how common a sense of exceptionalism is among economists. He appears to think it's prevalent. I don't think it is. But we are in agreement that no such position is justified.

    3. One more point on Noah Smith.

      This blog is not a forum where Noah Smith and commenters get to do exegesis of my posts, you know? This blog is a forum for me to say things that I think. It shouldn't matter to anyone whether I leave the post up or not. Noah Smith is not qualified to tell you what I think - nobody really is but me. I took it down to make what I think clear. Leaving it up would have had the exact opposite effect.

      You may like the idea of blogging-as-exegesis, but it's not really something I care all that much about. It's bad enough that there's a post on Noah's blog identifying me as a defender of Landsburg. My blog doesn't need to contribute to that misconception, and certainly not just so you can decide what you think of Noah's interpretation, which I've already made clear is wrong.

  3. Daniel, if your initial post makes the point that you say it makes, then why on earth would you delete it? You'd be much better served by directing people to it.

    1. Apparently the original post was ambiguous. Why would I want a post sitting around, with my name on it, that might give that impression.

      This blog isn't here for textual analysis. It's here for me to express my views. If someone as smart as Noah wasn't getting what I was saying, it's not doing a very good job at expressing my views (and since the subject matter here is so off-putting, I definitely don't want any confusion).

      If you want to get into the question of "how should we interpret this or that sentence" be my guest, but I have no interest in that conversation and I don't feel any obligation to host it here.

      If you want to know what Daniel Kuehn thinks, that is a conversation I'm interested in. I think this post puts it best, and if you have any other questions feel free to ask.


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.