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).