Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The rhetorical advantages of vagueness and handwaving

Three libertarianish posts to chew on: Mario Rizzo on David Brooks, Arnold Kling on lib'ruls and government research, and my response to Buturovic and Klein in EJW (given the Arnold Kling inclusion you can consider this another installment in my "What Was Arnold Kling Thinking?" series... part 3 I think). Each benefits in a slightly different way from vagueness.

1. Mario Rizzo doesn't like David Brooks's op-ed about the need for a more pragmatic, less ideological conservative movement. That's fine. Conservatives and libertarians have been frustrated with Brooks on these points for a while now - this sort of spat is nothing new. I was interested, though, in this point by Rizzo about ideology:

The conservative reaction against “ideology” is a total misconception. A “good” ideology is a philosophy that focuses our attention on the long-run, Bastiat’s unseen,” and the fundamental values of a free society. Most of all, however, it helps us focus on those rules that act to resist the special interests who would undermine the structure of a free society, one issue at a time.
It doesn't get much more vague than that. (1.) The long run, (2.) Bastiat's "unseen", (3.) the values of a free society, and (4.) resisting special interests. Well I agree on all those points, but presumably I'm closer to David Brooks than Mario Rizzo. A lot of people would agree on these points (many would have to be informed about what Bastiat said, after which they would agree) - so how does this level of vagueness advance the discussion at all? It doesn't. And that's fine - Rizzo has every right to fire off a quick unelaborated reaction and there's nothing wrong about this post. My only point is that when things stay this vague we make our opinions look more broadly agreeable than they actually are. I know a lot of what Rizzo thinks in more specific cases, but if someone came up to me who I was not familiar with and said their ideology was composed of those four things, my reaction might be "Hey - we agree! And you know Bastiat! That's fantastic!". Vagueness papers over potential underlying disagreements, and when those disagreements come to the surface people sometimes assume bad faith. Just a thought.

2. Arnold, Arnold, Arnold. So now his point is:

My view on the funding of left and right is that if you include government funding, the left enjoys a huge funding advantage. A single government contract for Jonathan Gruber to lend his technocratic hand in government regulation of health insurance or for Mark Zandi to bless the stimulus with precise estimates of multipliers exceeds what one can earn in a lifetime by writing essays on expert failure. Compared with the amount of money that the government spends on statist propaganda and on promoting research that argues for more state power, the funding of conservative think tanks is miniscule... I do not know any economist on either side who I would accuse of altering his opinions to increase his earning power. But if you do want to prostitute yourself, then my advice is to join the left, not the right. The left is where you are more likely to get tenure and really large research contracts. (emphasis mine).

So I could approach this in one of two ways. The first way was the path I took in the comment section on his blog - pointing out to him that when you bid on government research contracts (and I've bid on millions of dollars worth even over my short career) you present your proposed methodology and a cost estimate. There's no room at all for ideology to creep into that. If you cost too much, you lose. If you suggest that guessing is a better methodology than random assignment, you lose. Moreover, the government takes your results no matter what they are. I've had findings that the government liked and that the government didn't like. I've had findings saying government intervention was effective and that it was ineffective and that it was counter-productive. Guess what - the government publishes all these results. They don't hide the ones that say they didn't do a good job. In fact, when they get a lot of research indicating that they did a bad job they adjust the program. That's why they have research contracts in the first place, after all. Anyway, the second approach I could have taken was highlighting how vague all this is. "Propaganda", "prostitution" - what is Arnold Kling saying here? It's not clear at all. He says that he doesn't think anyone has really changed their views to get a government contract, which makes things even more vague. Usually Arnold isn't shy about what he thinks - but assuming "prostitution" is not to be taken literally here we're left pretty confused. Kling relies on vague pronouncements about "statist propaganda" in an effort to avoid really talking about the process of government research contracting and talking about how a standard methodology has any ideological content at all. Arnold's handwaving and vagueness, in other words, allow him to make a point without really backing it up with anything. It's hard to provide a counter-argument because you can't figure out what the hell the original argument is, and even if you do provide a counter-argument it'll just be branded as "statist propaganda". It's hard to argue with vagueness.

3. Finally - if you haven't read my response to Buturovic and Klein yet, you should. My critique of them boils down to their inexcusable vagueness and hand-waving. The technical term I use is that they suffer from a serious "identification problem". Buturovic and Klein's paper is an exercise in keeping things as vague as possible, and just attributing everything they observe to "economic enlightenment". By ignoring all the other factors that may be driving the result they don't have to worry about any ambiguity or competing interpretations in their findings. I find it incredible hard to believe that either of them are unaware of these sorts of identification problems. Klein sees himself and EJW as a sort of ombudsman for economic journals. You can't possibly take on that role without understanding underidentification issues and parameter identification problems. The same with Buturovic, who is a professional survey researcher. Moreover, both of them have to be aware of these issues because they discuss pre-existing surveys that are specifically designed to address the sorts of problems I discuss in my response. So if you know that these sorts of things exist and are worth worrying about, how do you get around it? I can think of three ways: (1.) design the study to deal with it, (2.) don't draw any firm conclusions as a result of it, or (3.) keep things so vague that the problem never comes up in your discussion and hope nobody notices. Buturovic and Klein pretty blatantly chose option number three. But come on - their audience is economists. Economists savage each other on identification problems for sport. Did they really think they would get away with it? Vagueness and handwaving provide a brief rhetorical advantage in this case, but if you're presenting your findings to people who are trained to ask detailed questions to get behind the vagueness, you're going to be in trouble.

Oh... and somebody let Mario Rizzo know I cited Bastiat's "unseen" in my response...

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