Dodgy economics is flying around left and right as the new GOP health bill is being piñata-ed from all sides this week. One particular strand is the charge of economism in the political rhetoric around healthcare. I want to talk a little about that since it relates to the teaching of introductory economics. In sum I want to claim that there is no great crisis in econ 101 being reflected here, but that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that marginal changes could have a big impact in how the median econ 101 student absorbs our material.
A foot in the door, citation counts, the academic Overton window
What does it take to build a case for a policy? One interpretation of the increasingly fashionable Overton window is to redefine the limits of the acceptable by systematically injecting extreme positions into the discourse, to the point where the previously-extreme becomes normal. What’s important is to get a foot in the door.
As a practical matter, academic citations are one currency of discourse that can be used and abused in this way. Once an idea has a foot in the door, legitimized by publication in an established, well-regarded outlet, academic culture requires that it will inevitably be cited. The problem of distinguishing positive from negative citations is well known. Exhaustive citation of prior literature is the standard practice, and understandably, since for those with institutional access to academic journals, the cost is low and the benefits—engaging with other researchers, appeasing referees, demonstrating expertise—are quite high.
(On that note, check out this recent Journal of Economic Perspectives article for some I-can’t-believe-this-is-necessary-but-it-definitely-is tips on how to be a good referee. I’ve said before that explicit separation of powers would go a long way—editors make publication decisions, referees review without being asked for a recommendation.)
The influence of an idea becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, then, as citation counts grow. The more subtle stage is when these metrics of influence escape the academic sphere and are used as evidence in external advocacy. Michael Waldman’s book on the Second Amendment makes a case that the strategy of the NRA proceeded from a “foot in the door” of law review articles promoting a particular interpretation, which generated debate and citations, providing a self-perpetuating corpus of material for lawyers and judges to cite in practice.
It’s a Catch-22 and not an easy one. Of course we want to encourage a broad range of ideas and arguments, but it is very difficult to engage with arguments without validating them. The squeaky, motivated wheel gets the grease of scarce academic attention, and so not only enters the discourse but crowds out other efforts. The tactic generates loaded questions and a false dichotomy that moves the rhetorical ground underneath our feet independently of whatever argument we had originally wanted to advance. But this is nothing new. What is special to academia is the we must at this point cite the prior art, and citations are our currency. The institution validates all ideas in the same way, no matter what the average researcher truly thinks of them.
I think few academics would openly advocate for a world in which scholarly communications are passed through politicized filters. Yet that is the world we have. Everything is political, as they say, and so the decision to publish an argument inescapably exercises power far beyond the author and the potential readers.
In the context of economics, so often close to the ground of policy debates but whose intent and bias are so often misunderstood in the popular press, I think surveys of the economics profession are an undervalued weapon. These certainly exist but I think they deserve more resources, prestige, and promotion to act as ballast against a drift towards controversy, misconception, and squeaky wheels. Get them into our top journals and grant money for their thoughtful design and execution. Our areas of consensus should be as clichéd as the old “97% of climate scientists agree” line that I’m sure we have all come across at some time. People should grow bored of how often economists agree.
What if legal permanent residents could vote?
According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are more than 13 million legal permanent residents in the United States. I’m one of them. U.S. politics matters a lot to me, since this is where I live my life, but my fellow green card holders and I have no vote with which to express our opinions on the future of our home country. Perhaps you can imagine how frustrating that is.
Fake news in networks
Fake news is in the news, part of the nauseating task of dressing the ugly wound of the presidential election. The OED has named “post-truth” its word of the year, and the Republican candidate for president aligned himself with the kind of wilful confusion that is known to be a deliberate tool of autocratic regimes.
Imagining a shadow cabinet in the U.S.
In the aftermath of the election, we are seeing the usual, healthy debate within both the winning and losing parties over what to make of the results and what comes next. I do fundamentally believe in the importance of vigorous debate inside political parties followed by unified support of the ultimate platform. It is crucial to avoid fractures that may make it impossible to build a majority coalition.
A very short history of my personal correspondence with Hillary Clinton
So back in the dark days of dial-up internet the White House website was pretty much on a par with your average GeoCities page—a few adorably amateurish pictures, some cobbled together links, probably a MIDI version of The Star-Spangled Banner (OK maybe not that last one). I know this because the internet was just a wee village back then and pre-Google you pretty much typed plausible addresses in to see if they took you anywhere interesting. I was always into the U.S. and its stuff so there I am.
Business ethics vs. political ethics
I think it’s fair to say that the GOP presidential nominee has said, oh, a few things that would have sunk the candidacy of a politician.
From the campus to the ballot box
It’s amazing to me how much this presidential election reflects ideas and conversations that have been percolating around college campuses for the past several years. I often tell students that their movements have an uncanny way of being on the right side of history (OK, I see that I’m begging the question, sue me) and I think that this is being borne out in all caps this year.
What is not measured is lost
In a column yesterday, Tim Harford asks “are universities worth it?“. Surely a topic worth discussing. Yet there is an asymmetry in Harford’s summary of the debate. While Harford explicitly considers not just money but also time and intellectual resources as opportunity costs of running higher education, his taxonomy of the benefits is restricted to the financial.
Thoughts on the NLRB grad student unionization ruling
The National Labor Relations Board today issued a long-awaited ruling that graduate students working as teaching and research assistants at private universities are allowed to unionize. The issue at hand has long been one of semantics: are graduates on paid assistantships more like students, or more like employees? Are the assistantships more like a fundamental training component of a program of study, or more like jobs done by the students to support themselves financially?