Saturday, February 4, 2012

Below the belt, unsubstantiated, innuendo-based arguments are bad no matter who makes them

[NOTE: There are probably only one or two people who will even care about this post, but it is a good point to reiterate]

F&OST is part of the economics blogosophere. The economics blogosphere ain't exactly downtown Caracas or South Sudan, but it can still get a little rough by blogging standards. Part of the reason for that is that the issues we discuss have major consequences for billions of people. So arguments can get heated. A style of argument that will quickly convince me you're astoundingly stupid and not worth paying attention to is to say something like "Keynesians say what they do because it rationalizes their attempt to get and wield power, to steal from citizens and call it 'taxes' and to wage wars the consequences of which they are indifferent to". OK, so I mixed several memes in there, but it's all of the same ilk. And it's all pure innuendo, of course - it sounds semi-logical so people try to say it emphatically enough that others might actually buy it.

Well I don't like that at all, and when I can I try to call it out on the my side too. One regular example of this on "my side", if you want to call it that, is commenter 'Invisible Backhand' (hereafter 'IB') who regularly asserts that Austrian economists are bought and paid for by powerful corporate interests. Again, such a thing is certainly not implausible - these sorts of things are known to happen - but IB never offers any proof of it. I've tried to bring this to his attention on numerous occasions and impress upon him that he really has no basis for making such a serious charge. Bob Murphy recently wished I had challenged IB more directly on this point (and it's true - I could have), and I assured him I'd taken up the fight before. For Bob's sake, I wanted to collect a few exchanges between IB and myself (I dare say there's a dozen more like this - just between me and IB - out in the internets somewhere).

Here IB says: "Don't forget Austrians are NOT SINCERE. They are paid by the rich and powerful to spread propaganda."

I responded: "I'm not sure your conclusion follows from that premise, much as I like a lot of your comments at Cafe Hayek. I'd be thrilled to have money from the rich and powerful (in fact my research has been paid for by the rich and powerful before), and I don't consider myself compromised by it. You can't just presume how people are going to respond to financial support like that. Many of the rich and power are likely interested in funding dependably objective researchers and would be less interested in insincere people."

When in this post about Dan Klein's retraction of certain claims he published at Econ Journal Watch, IB suggested to "follow the money"

I tried to push him in a more likely direction to look for an explanation: "Well, one thing I’m wondering is what the editorial process is like at EJW. I disagree with you (and have disagreed with you many times before) that financial support biases GMU economists. However, Klein edits his own publication and any other editors he uses are likely to think a lot like him. A more diverse editorial staff might have caught the first article before it was even published."

Similarly, in talking about these issues at Coordination Problem (not to IB) I stressed the point that it really doesn't matter what billionaires fund. Someone out there is going to agree with them ex ante, and those people are going to be more likely to get the billionaire's money - but that's different from the billionaires actually biasing people. What matters more is the sort of institutional framework that is generated. I write: "Koch and Soros will fund what Koch and Soros will fund - and they're going to fund people that think like them (although Soros - admirably - is casting a somewhat wider net with INET). If they fund whole institutions that will publish papers, evaluations, and reports, this is more of a concern for me. There is little critical review, in that case, from an outside audience. I would rather see Koch and Soros funded scholars publishing in peer reviewed venues and generalist venues. This doesn't mean that anyone that is supported by money from these guys is suspect, of course. It's just an extra layer of guarantee that Koch and Soros are funding excellent research because they want to fund excellent research - NOT that they are providing letterhead, a website, and a printer to people that they expect to say what they want them to say."

And I've made these points to more people than IB.

Here I write something (to an anonymous commenter who I think actually may be IB) that really gets to the heart of my view on this stuff: "Don clearly has a point of view and the Koch brothers have a point of view. How much of Don's view is determined by his politics and how much is determined by objective consideration of the facts is unknown. Clearly a lot of what he says is pure normative claims - which is fine. Everyone's entitled to their opinion.The coincidence of his claims and Koch's views supports at least two causal explanations: (1.) The Koch brothers pay Don to say what they want him to say, or (2.) Don says what the Koch brothers happen to want people to think - so they support efforts that he would have pursued anyway. If the Koch brothers didn't exist, do you think Don would still think and say roughly what he thinks and says today? I think it's likely that he would. Therefore, the second causal story seems to me to be a considerably more likely explanation of what we observe. Sometimes pulling apart causality is tough. It doesn't seem all that tough in this case."

Further down, in response to a challenge by commenter Cahal, I write: "I'm not arguing that the Koch brothers are in the market for objective economic analysis. I agree they are in the market for libertarian analysis. I simply think there is a ready supply of libertarians willing to provide that analysis. I don't think Koch money generates libertarians from scratch, from a malleable supply pool." and I even go on to say "If anyone cares, I'd take Koch money to produce research if they gave it to me." - and actually I did apply for Koch money this winter, and should hear back on it in a couple months. I'm hoping they will fund lots and lots of great research on the labor market for scientists and engineers.

And to bring this full circle, I've even criticized an Invisible Backhandesque comment from Bob Murphy criticizing Mishkin and Hubbard!

And IB has learned to anticipate my response to these comments! Here's a very self-aware, self-censoring comment of his more recently: "It's almost as if someone is fundin--get down, Backhand! Bad Backhand!"


The point is this: People out there with money want to fund research. That's the way it is. I put food on the table for five years with those peoples' money. After a brief academic interlude I'll probably put food on the table for the rest of my life with those peoples' money. There are plenty of people who already agree with them to choose from. The share of people who actually distort a result to please their funders are probably few and far between. This isn't to say there isn't bad research out there. There is. Such researchers may even be particularly attractive to some funders. But they were probably bad researchers before they even got their funding.

Even given all that, you don't know that the person you're criticizing at any given point is actually guilty of this sort of malfeasance.

So don't insinuate it.

There's plenty of crappy arguments out there to debunk without messing around with this sort of thing. How banal. Go for the more intellectually challenging arguments.


  1. And nobody is perfect. It goes without saying, if I slip into this unsusbtantiated inuendo, call me out on it! I'm very, very likely to concede the point. And if I vehemently refuse to concede the point it's probably because what you think is baseless I think there's more evidence for... and then we can argue about that.

  2. Why didn't you say something? I don't post it because you delete my posts that get too specific.

    Why not start with this documentary about it. The title of it is in the picture:

    Want the Form 990 from Mercatus too? Charles Koch is a director.

    Sorry I don't have the actual cancelled checks, but those are hard to document.

    I shouldn't have to say this, but please don't delete this comment.


    1. I don't think I've deleted too much from you. It would have to have been something like a direct insult. I don't usually delete what I just think are bad logical chains. "Don Boudreaux is a dirty liar" I would delete. "Don Boudreaux is pushing a Koch agenda" I probably wouldn't.

      Or maybe I was just grouchy that day.

      Anyway - I don't think Koch's funding activities are a secret. We're all pretty well aware there's Koch money in Mercatus, Cato, IHS, etc.


      This is not some big reveal IB.

      Now - if you actually have a shred of evidence that any of these researchers changed a result or lied in order to toe the Koch line, then I will be very disappointed and I will back you in shedding light on that. But in all our time interacting, I haven't seen anything like that kind of evidence from you.

    2. Disregarding all of the "cult" accusations, what would you describe as the major distinction between those that are of the GMU/Koch libertarians vs that of the Austro-libertarians? Keep in mind that this question of mine has major implications upon your opinion that libertarians wish to impose upon others a particular system of governance.

    3. Is that for me or Anonymous Joseph? I see it as a distinction between more minarchist libertarians and more ancap libertarians - "Hayek vs. Rothbard" if you will, but that doesn't exactly get at it. Boettke is happy as a clam with Rothbard and Mises and he's certainly a GMU Austrian. There are also methodological points - I think of the LvMI crowd as less enamored with the market process theory and public choice theory stuff, and GMU people generally have less interest in the praxeology.

  3. Heh that is pretty funny, I forgot about the Inside Job dispute. The true irony is that in that post, I was warning free-market people not to let the economists off the hook, just because the documentary maker was for more regulation.

    The only predictable thing is that we will argue, Daniel...

  4. Daniel

    1. You can rationalize something that is amoral all you want. You apparently have never heard the joke about the girl who revealed what kind of a person she was by saying she would do it for a million dollars.

    2. My mother taught me that just because other people do it, or are willing to do it, doesn't make it right.

    3. "A shred of evidence that any of these researchers changed a result or lied in order to toe the Koch line." What a crock. Don lies about everything. His favorite tool is omission. He just leaves out the truth. Name one subject on which he has ever written the whole truth? Don lies from when he gets up to when he goes to bed. Take trade for example. Don lies by omitting to ever discuss the adverse second and third order effects that cancel any benefit of trade. Dan lies by omitting to ever discuss location theory and trade (firms and people move).

    Don lies about peoples motives. Look at the lies he repeats about FDR and the New Deal.

    He lies about economic propositions by stating assertions that are false, i.e., Ricardian Equivalence

    He lies when he asserts that gov't borrowing cannot grow an economy. If that is true, then neither can private borrowing. For example, how does it differ if students borrow money to pay for college or the gov't borrows money to pay for college and lets students attend free, promising to repay the debt from future income. The same is true for a factory.

    Don lies when he says that markets can provide public goods or deal with pollution or a myriad of other issues.

    Beyond that, economics isn't researched based and doesn't rely on "results." Economists have no "experiments," that produce results, which impeaches your choice of that word. Economists, at best, take historical data and argue there is some correlation. Don lies about correlations.

    1. I like the cut of your jib, Anonymous

      (that post wasn't by me, if you can't tell by the writing style)



      If a documentary produced by a major news network isn't evidence, and the standard for evidence requires me to prove the state of mind of what people do in a room with the door closed, then I don't have a shred of evidence.

    2. Anonymous -
      Don makes low quality arguments on a regular basis. He avoids inconvenient lines of argument where a guy like Bob Murphy would jump right in and work through it. He can also be really nasty (something that people who whine about Krugman never call him out on) - and that's not just on the blog. I've had GMU students tell me he's not a nice guy.

      All of that may be true - but that is not the same as lying or the fraud of claiming something just because someone paid you to claim it. Don is flawed, and I've exhibited those flaws prominently on this blog. But you can't trump up those flaws into dishonorable acts and expect me to give you the time of day if you just make it up.

      Come back here and give me an argument for why Don is wrong on something he says. That's much more productive and useful to all of us than half-baked claims with no evidence.

    3. IB.
      I have not seen your Al Jezeera documentary. Tell me the most damning piece of evidence they reveal.

      Give me one case where they show that a researcher changed his result due to Koch influence. I just need one example - not an example of where the perspective of the researcher and the perspective of the funder conveniently coincided.

      I'm guessing it's all innuendo too - but if you can give me one example of that, I'll try to take the time to watch it.

    4. Dan is not a researcher and neither are you. You run no experiments and have no results to report. Don works in exactly the opposite way of a researcher, who runs experiments and reports the results.

      Don selects a theory and then he reads the past, looking for some evidence which, by inference, he says proves his point. He has no results to change. He is just a walking bag of false premises.

      Look at the current trash Don is writing on British austerity. Taxes are up and spending is down and the UK economy is tanking, but Don instead claims that Britian still has a larger deficiit than anyone but Greece. That is just total disinformation, being just a mendacious as possible.

    5. Excuse me - don't presume to tell me who or what I am. I'm guessing you have no concept of what my research activities are.

      It's true - I've only been involved in work on one or two experiments in my time. But the fact that you zero in on experiments demonstrates that you don't know all that much about what scientific research is and isn't. I do a large amount of non-experimental empirical research which you're probably completely unaware of.

      Stop commenting here anonymously. Use a pseudonym.

    6. Daniel

      You set up a false defense of Dan, claiming that the doesn't falsity results. This implied he does experiments that have results, that the experiments can be repeated by others to check his work.

      Economists, save perhaps behavorial, cannot do experiments. I very accurately described what Dan does (and what you do). You pick a theory and then you look for circumstantial evidence that you say corroborates your theory. Look at your 1920-21 paper. You don't do research, generally, the way a scientist would. You read and you pull such data as is available and you can statistically manipulate the data (Cochrane just wrote some pointless piece on this). Now, I realize that some physical sciences are pretty much the same (climatology comes to mind). And some of those sciences have the problems as economics---lots of academic manipulation arising out of incentive caused bias.

      Now I have read your paper. To be blunt, it is pointless to me for it contains no discussion of either what caused the downturn or the level of private debt, before, during, and after, the savings available, etc. I could go on but there is not point.

      It really doesn't take any reading or thinking at all to understand that there is no connection between 1920/21 and where we are today. For starters, we won WWI and we just lost three wars, back to back. 9/11, Iraq, and Afgh. Now if you have a math model that can taken into account the difference in mental outlook between then and now, I will eat my hat.

      Additionally, I have no handle or feel for the state of banking at the time. Now I have a pretty good knowledge of the history of private banking in the US since 1875, since all the failures end up as court cases and I have read the court cases. Nothing stands out about 1920-21, but I could be wrong.

      Having 40 years experience in evaluting "empirical research," I have first had knowledge of how unreliable such really is. About all you can do is identify a corrolation. Some of this corrolations may sometimes be statisically pretty strong, but such is still weak, very weak proof.

      If the proof were strong, we would have the deep and bitter divisions we now have in macroeconomics.

    7. First - his name is "Don" not "Dan"

      Second - "results" does not imply experimental empirical work. There's plenty of non-experimental empirical work. There's also experiments used all the time outside of behavioral economics. All the experimental work I've been involved with have had to do with labor economics.

      Third - You really have no clue what you're talking about when you tell me what kind of work I do. My 1920-1921 paper is not typical of most of my work. That's really a historical piece, although I didn't "pick a theory and look for circumstantial evidence" - I evaluated the evidence to assess what conclusions could be drawn from it. You could think of it as a case study. But normally I do quasi-experimental studies in labor economics. It's absolutely science, and I certainly don't go looking for circumstantial evidence to support a theory I have.

      re: "If the proof were strong, we would have the deep and bitter divisions we now have in macroeconomics."

      That's part of the reason why we have division - the data is a lot more sparse.

      re: "Having 40 years experience in evaluting "empirical research," I have first had knowledge of how unreliable such really is."

      You made a living evaluating empirical research and your lecturing me about experimental vs. non-experimental empiricism? I have a very hard time believing that.

  5. Do campaign contributions influence the votes of politicians and the actions of bureaucrats?

    How are economists different from politicians and the actions of bureaucrats?

    To suggest that Don doesn't play to the Kochs, just did Hayek is silly

  6. I'm funded by the illuminati.

    I may get my funding cut in the future though. Being a minion for cabal's of mysterious oligarchs isn't the steady earner it once was. The main problem is the quality of the opposition. So, please, convincing arguments from now on or I get my funding cut and have to sell my Porsche.

  7. Cahal = me, btw.

    I'm somewhere between you and invisible backhand. On the one hand, the libertarian movement has been funded SUBSTANTIALLY by big business, no question about it. Check all their funding sources (the ones they reveal, anyway). Economists seem incredibly unwilling to apply 'public choice' considerations to themselves.

    However, I'm not talking about a smoke filled room. I think the majority of libertarians are intellectually honest (note this isn't the same as not blinded by ideology). I doubt the Koch brothers have much day to day influence on people like Don.


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