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Whether you believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming. Do you know what the best predictor of whether you believe gun control laws should be relaxed? It’s whether you believe the Fed is being too aggressive at the monetary spigot right now. Now ignore the reason you need to affiliate with a particular political party for the moment. Shouldn’t the forgoing be strange at a minimum and perhaps completely alarming? Think about it – is there any scientific relationship between the impact of gun control laws and Fed policy? There may be a plausible one I suppose – considering that one might take a view on liberty that is consistent with both of those positions. But what about abortion and global warming? Should believing that a woman has a right to choose to abort an unborn child have any bearing whatsoever on whether you think a $30 per ton carbon tax should be applied in the US?

I got to thinking about this the other day when I went through another round of working papers from the NBER – and predicted with 100% accuracy the conclusions of the papers by looking only at the name(s) of the author(s) on the papers (at least for the authors I knew, for those I did not, institutional affiliation was a pretty good indicator of the conclusion). Now, I don’t believe economics is a science, but surely the idea that any of us are dispassionately uncovering absolute economic truths with our research is farcical. By saying this I am actually not suggesting that it ought to be any different – I am of the school of thought that we should simply stop deluding ourselves and outsiders that we are actually dispassionate truth seekers. It might be the case that our discipline will advance better if the strongest partisan spin is put to all research – I cannot say, but it is moderately discomforting.

I suppose I am being a little smug. Maybe I earned it. My entire dissertation looks like it was written by my evil alter ego – and honestly I am not very proud of the work, which is some small reason why I have never written about it here. The issue is germane to current discussions in economics about “codes of ethics” that we are all supposed to follow. For example, if I write a paper arguing that the US is not polluted at all, I must reveal that my funding came from the paper manufacturing association of America, for example. That’s fine, I’m not going to delve into that topic for now. But if so much ink is being spilled over that Code of Ethics, I am utterly astonished that we have not addressed the far more problematic issue of our normative/political code of ethics.

My students know very clearly from early on that I am classically liberal, though I do not lecture directly on the idea and the reasons. And I do my very best to tell them when my mental view of the world is entering into our discussion. Of course, for doing this I am called crazy and all kinds of other things. But in my view, if we are going to spell out in gory detail all of the material that we are going to cover in our courses, it seems odd that political orientation is not openly advertised either (the students have a decent idea anyway). After all, taking an Intro Econ course from a Marxist is going to be very different than taking it from me. And professors should be honest about how and where these biases are likely to enter. For example, whether you are a Marxist or not, the supply and demand process works the same way, and prices play an informational and incentivizing role. However, the way we cover economic history may differ, and the importance that we place on particular market failure arguments may differ, and the confidence that we place in collective action may differ. Most important, the ethical aspects of economics will be presented entirely differently depending on one’s political biases. It is essential that this be made clear to students. And I am sure it rarely happens. I’ll provide particular examples over the coming months.

I remain perplexed at why there is not a stronger push for such “truth in advertising.” After all, the current situation leaves political impressions to students who cannot actually articulate what it is their professors are actually saying and to other professors who like to make their intellectual adversaries the subject of ridicule in their classes. This is not to say that I think there should be more intellectual diversity on campuses – I cannot even imagine how awful the policies would have to be in order to assure it nor do I think that getting more intellectual diversity would be a stable equilibrium. But that’s also a discussion for another day.

The point, in case it is not obvious, is that most of us are delusional about why we hold the particular views we do. In my mental model, we hold particular policy views because it helps us affiliate with groups and other ideas that we want to affiliate with. Is there an empirical test to run to verify that this is how we come to hold our worldviews? And do those of us who have changed at least some of our views over time stand out as anomalies or something else (for example, as recently as a decade ago, I was a vehement anti-free-trader, ask my wife if you don’t believe me).

5 Responses to “Do You Know What the Best Predictor of Your Views on Abortion Are?”

  1. Rod says:

    Back in the olden days when I was an eleven and twelfth grader, I had the good fortune to have as my AP U.S. History teacher an Annapolis grad and former Naval Aviator whose pending PhD dissertation was on bias in the media. We students all had to read Time magazine and take a weekly quiz on the bias in the headlines of the news articles. (I bet the results of the quizzes were compiled into a body of statistics that showed how biased Time magazine was.) Our teacher, Barry Bowen, earned the nickname “Bias Bowen” for his efforts.

    Back in those olden days, Time was generally regarded as a neutral news source, as was The New York Times and The Washington Post, while newspapers like The New York Post and The Philadelphia Daily News were not. Bowen’s thesis was that it was important to know where a writer was coming from, no matter what claim a publication made on objectivity. We learned a lot in that course, including being tuned in to the bias in our history books and in such things as The Federalist Papers.

    So when I became a publisher of a weekly tabloid, I tried my best to keep bias out of the newspaper’s news stories, but I did not attempt to hide my own bias on the editorial pages. Thus everyone knew where the newspaper was coming from — the owner and editor was a conservative to the right of nearly every reader. I did not attempt in my editorials to say, “on one hand this and on the other hand that.” I picked a side and argued my best for it.

    As for the current state of affairs in the academic world, it seems that Reason has been thrown into the trashcan and has been replaced by political correctness. Only one side of the argument is correct under this scheme, and if anyone dares to hang out with people who agree with the incorrect side, they are shunned, or worse. Heaven help you if you have an independent thought in your head — just don’t express that thought at the Gay and Lesbian Student Alliance or at the Faculty Club.

  2. Harry says:

    Well post hoc ergo propeter hoc.

    Not that I am not against loose money and also favor loose gun laws. Talk about a sentence that is tough to parse.

    We used to get a free newsletter from CitiBank, the last page entitled, “The Weekly Fed Watcher”. For the longest time I studied it, pondering the Drain and Add numbers, wondering of their significance. After all, the wizards in the banking business read the same smoke signals from the Fed, who like the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel would send up a burst of black, or finally white, only with the Cardinals it was not months later.

    Milton Friedman was right about all of this idiocy, with every Fed chairman filling up the punch bowl or withdrawing it, depending on how the party was going, depending on what you define is a good party.

    You can have an unemployment rate dollar, or a gold dollar, or a Euro dollar. When people really get concerned about the value of their money and property, they might convert some of it into a Glock, which like a loaf of bread may cost you a whole wheelbarrow of paper money/food stamps.

  3. Harry says:

    At least your students know about classical economics (economics) is an option they might consider, and that they are being taught by a former “fair-trade” user.

  4. Brent says:

    Yeah, kind of like PETA’s stance on abortion…

  5. J Storrs Hall says:

    “We know that political orientation biases scientists’ view of even scientific questions, much less ones of policy.  There is no reason that there should be a strong correlation between the belief that cloud-based radiative climate forcing feedback is positive, and the belief that nationally-administered health care plans are more efficient than privately-administered ones, but there is.  Thus we can take as a working assumption that political views bias scientific judgement.”

    Nanodot blog, by yours truly, 2009

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