Friday, June 11, 2010

A Biased Study on "Dumb" Liberals

Libertarian economics professor Daniel Klein puts on his ideological blinders in a highly dubious study (promoted by him in the Wall Street Journal) claiming to prove that liberals are stupid about economic facts. Klein's simplistic libertarian ideology does not make him "better informed" than those who disagree with him. To the contrary, I think his assumption that an ideological disagreement makes those who disagree intellectually inferior makes him less informed about economics.

Those of us who are well-informed about economics understand how complex many of these issues are. I am a liberal libertarian, and therefore I perform slightly better on this libertarian-biased test than the average liberal. But my belief is that with one possible exception (the monopoly question), none of the answers offered on either side are stupid. But Klein's analysis, published in his own journal and in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, represents a serious violation of academic norms for accuracy and intellectual honesty.

Klein claims that he used a "Zogby International survey" with more than 4800 respondents. That's a damn big number for a poll, which would normally be very expensive. But this wasn't a real poll, it turns out. It was a Zogby Interactive poll. "Interactive" in this case means "crap." Basically, Zogby has a pool of self-selected individuals who desire to participate in polls. Then cheap-ass people hire Zogby to send out questions to this group, which is not a representative sample. Absolutely no Zogby Interactive poll can be regarded as trustworthy in any way. It is no different than the "polls" on the local news asking viewers to call in with a response. (Note, this critique does not apply to Zogby's regular polls, but Zogby is widely regarded as a lousy pollster.)

Polling genius Nate Silver of 538 calls
the Zogby internet "poll" "by far the worst polling instrument that they could have selected."

Any political reporter who invokes a Zogby Interactive poll as providing reliable numbers must be dismissed as a lousy journalist. Any academic who purchases such an unreliable "poll" is almost certainly an ideologue interested in getting a result rather than the truth. Any academic who uses a Zogby Interactive "poll" without mentioning the fact in the op-eds he writes about it has engaged in a serious act of dishonesty and poor scholarship. (I should be clear that I firmly oppose any investigation or punishment for this kind of dishonesty; condemnation alone is the only proper response.) Klein needs to offer a correction and an apology for deceiving his readers.

Now, it is quite possible that the numbers found by this "poll" are accurate even though the "polling" apparatus was terrible. However, that's only the beginning of Klein's distortions. His statements are not objective economic facts; they are simply a list of libertarian talking points.

Here's the list of Klein's eight statements, followed by my answer and explanation. Let me be clear here: my disagreement with Klein's questions has nothing to do with ignorance. Instead, it reflects my considered judgment on economic questions.

"Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services (unenlightened answer: disagree)."
Somewhat agree: yes, this is technically true, but it's a very odd question. I assume that letting faith healers declare themselves to be medical doctors and practice medicine would reduce prices: quackery comes cheap. But it's a very strange thing to desire as a good thing and assume that price should be the only consideration.

"Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago (unenlightened answer: disagree)."
Somewhat agree: I'm working on a computer right now that I consider a great improvement on my living standards, something that didn't exist 30 years ago. However, I'm also aware that for the average person in America (which is how I define "overall"), the levels of wealth and wages after accounting for inflation have not increased substantially and indeed may have decreased. Certainly technological improvements may make up for that, but I think it's a reasonable issue to disagree about.

"Rent control leads to housing shortages (unenlightened answer: disagree)."
Somewhat disagree: I'm not a fan of rent control, and I think it does create some problems, including the potential for housing shortages. However, it's not inevitable that rent control would cause an actual housing shortage in every case, which is what this statement declares.

"A company with the largest market share is a monopoly (unenlightened answer: agree)"
Strongly disagree. Yes, this is a stupid thing to agree with, but the odd wording may have confused some people because having the largest market share is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a monopoly. Basically, since libertarians generally don't believe in or care about monopolies, they would usually answer "disagree" even if they didn't understand the concept, so it was a question designed to make liberals look stupid.

"Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited (unenlightened answer: agree)."
Strongly agree: What is exploitation? Let's stick to the easy ones. I believe that child labor is a form of exploitation. Can anyone claim that there is no child labor in the world? I also believe that workers are exploited if they are denied the fundamental right to choose whether or not to form a union, or if they are brutally treated by their employers. Again, it's quite certain that this happens at times. Now, reasonable people can disagree with me on these points. But it doesn't make them smart and me stupid because we have an ideological disagreement about deeply ideological terms.

"Free trade leads to unemployment (unenlightened answer: agree)."
Somewhat disagree: Obviously, free trade (like any change in trade rules) creates labor force changes. Some people do become unemployed as a result of free trade. However, I'm assuming that this question refers to overall unemployment rates, and the strong wording of the statement makes me somewhat disagree.

"Minimum wage laws raise unemployment (unenlightened answer: disagree)."
Somewhat disagree: yes, minimum wages will cause some hiring that would have occurred at lower wages to cease. However, that doesn't automatically increase unemployment rates. People who get higher wages may not need to work multiple part-time jobs, allowing more people to get a job. Others may have an incentive from a higher minimum wage to give up unemployment compensation or welfare payments. So, unemployment rates could actually decrease because of a minimum wage increase, although it's not very likely. Scientifically, if we look at the unemployment rates in the wake of minimum wage increases, there is far from any clear-cut correlation that I'm aware of. So the strong assertion of this statement seems unsupported, and therefore I somewhat disagree.

So, I finished with four "right" and four "wrong" answers. (To be more precise, I think that Klein finished with four "right" and four "wrong" answers, and that conservatives and libertarians were "dumber" than liberals according to this survey. But I disagree with Klein's notion that this test reveals ignorance about basic economic facts.)

I could easily design questions to make conservatives look stupid. For example, "do increases in income tax rates cause decreases in tax revenue?" The correct answer is clearly "disagree," as the Clinton Era shows beyond any doubt. Does anyone wonder which ideology would come up with the wrong answer to this kind of question, which is far less biased and more of an economic fact than Klein's questionnaire?

Klein's claim that "the left flunks Econ 101" only shows the ideological bias of mainstream economics teaching in America. Some may argue that professors in the humanities are similarly biased toward liberalism. But I've never seen a liberal academic come up with such a simplistic questionnaire about, say, sociological facts, and conclude that anyone who disagrees is an idiot.

Mark Bauerlein at Minding the Campus argues about the Klein "poll," "the survey does support the notion of factual blind spots, and we may infer that in more or less closed bodies such as academic departments in which one ideology reigns, the blind spots can dilate, progressively turning into accepted wisdom."

No, it doesn't. The Klein "survey" has nothing to do with academics. Even if Klein was correct in identifying liberal economic views as stupid (and he's not), Bauerlein has no reasonable basis for concluding that all economists who vote for Democrats would answer the same way as bozos on the internet who volunteer to take polls. The only blind spot here belongs to Bauerlein, who uses his ignorant assumptions about Democrats to smear all professors.

It's really annoying when ideological disagreements become the basis for accusations of stupidity. Now, I like to call people stupid as much as the next person (probably more). But I never use that word simply because of an ideological disagreement where there is plenty of room for rational debate.

But Bauerlein is right to use the phrase, "a formula for intellectual weakness." When a shoddy, dishonest "poll" is falsely used to smear all liberals as idiots, and the conservative movement promotes this superficial analysis as proof of the evils of liberal academics, it shows the intellectual weakness of the right-wing today.

Crossposted at DailyKos.


Lester Hunt said...

I know Dan Klein. Dan Klein is a friend of mine. And you're no Dan Klein.

Escape America: Offshore & Ex-Pat Relocation Svcs said...

Seems to me that Klein was right, your doubts about his method and logic notwithstanding.

John K. Wilson said...

Update: Dan Klein has now admitted that he was wrong: