Pursuit of Truthiness

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What makes popular academics popular?

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While most academics work in obscurity, we still show up in the media more than most professions, and a few of us approach genuine celebrity status. What makes these outliers so popular?

An article in the latest New Yorker on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon makes for an interesting case study, particularly as he suddenly became internet-famous in his mid-’50’s following relative obscurity in his field and with the public.

Popularity outside the field often stems from success within it; winning a Nobel, for instance, guarantees a lot of coverage. But some academics succeed wildly with the public following an indifferent reception by their peers, as Peterson shows. He has other features common to popular academics- working on topics that a lot of people find accessible and interesting, and speaking with confidence that borders on hyperbole (most of us might as well be in a competition for ‘most nuanced’).

Another important example, especially for people who aren’t already at the top of their fields, seems to be focusing on a new communication technology that the more established players aren’t using yet. A lot of current public intellectuals are those who jumped into blogging, podcasting or Twitter early and put a lot of time and effort into it. In economics, Tyler Cowen has succeeded best at converting this internet popularity into the trappings of more traditional public-intellectual success: best-selling books and New York Times columns.

Of course, now blogging, podcasting and Twitter are relatively saturated, and no longer present such an opportunity for those that aren’t already well-known. Oddly for a platform that most Americans use, Facebook still seems underused as a platform for reaching people you don’t already know; in economics, Robert Reich seems to have gained popularity by realizing this, along with a good dose of hyperbole. For Peterson, the underused platform was Youtube- again, hugely popular but not really used by academics to popularize their work.

The most under-appreciated reason for why most academics aren’t popular is probably that most simply don’t want to be. Either they don’t see fame as a positive, or they recognize that if they get lots of attention, much of it is likely to be negative. At a minimum, anyone with much internet presence is guaranteed to get criticized in the comments, and often in the main articles. Perhaps more importantly for academics, while a few media mentions increase your standing in the field, getting too popular with the public and the press is a near-universal recipe for having your own field turn on you. This can be from jealously, envy, disappointment that you are taking time away from “real work”, or the perception that you are using too much dumbing-down and hyperbole. For instance, economists often express disappointment in Paul Krugman’s journey from great economist in the 1980’s, to good economist and good public intellectual in the 1990’s, to not-an-economist and famous-but-mediocre pundit after turning up the hyperbole in the 2000’s.

Paul Krugman, Slavoj Zizek, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Jared Diamond, Niall Ferguson, Stephen Pinker…. you can debate how much the hate is deserved vs misplaced but it is always there. For Peterson it has come with unusual speed and intensity. Is it that his hyperbole and dumbing-down is really worse than other celebrity psychologists or self-help types? Is it his “anti-radical-left” political stances? Much of it seems to stem from his audience being primarily young men. Focusing on an audience largely ignored by other academics is part of how he succeeded in the first place; most of us are targeting middle-aged NYT-reading, NPR-listening types, without explicitly realizing it of course.

The easiest way to win is always to be playing a different game than everyone else.

Personally, I hope to do work that people will find interesting enough to read and discuss, but this level of fame does not seem appealing.


Written by James Bailey

March 11, 2018 at 11:08 am

Where Academics Succeed, Where We Fail

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Holden Karnofsky’s take from the latest 80,000 Hours podcast on where academics provide the most value and where they could be doing much better aligns a lot with my own, especially as I get ready to write a book that will sum up a lot of the cutting-edge work others have done on US healthcare and try to explain what it all means. Added emphasis is my own:

I used to have this very simplified, “Academia. That’s like this giant set of universities. There’s a whole ton of very smart intellectuals who knows they can do everything. There’s a zillion fields. There’s a literature on everything, as has been written on Marginal Revolution, all that sort of thing.” I really never know when to expect that something was going to be neglected and when it wasn’t. It takes a giant literature review to figure out which is which.

I would say I’ve definitely evolved on that. I, today, when I think about what academia does, I think it is really set up to push the frontier of knowledge, the vast majority, and I think especially in the harder sciences. I would say the vast majority of what is going on in academic is people are trying to do something novel, interesting, clever, creative, different, new, provocative, that really pushes the boundaries of knowledge forward in a new way. I think that’s really important obviously and great thing. I’m really, incredibly glad we have institutions to do it.

I think there are a whole bunch of other activities that are intellectual, that are challenging, that take a lot of intellectual work and that are incredibly important and that are not that. They have nowhere else to live. No one else can do them. I’m especially interested, and my eyes especially light up, when I see an opportunity to … There’s an intellectual topic, it’s really important to the world but it’s not advancing the frontier of knowledge. It’s more figuring out something in a pragmatic way that is going to inform what decision makers should do, and also there’s no one decision maker asking for it as would be the case with Government or corporations.

To give examples of this, I mean I think GiveWell is the first place where I might have initially expected that there was going to be development economics was going to tell us what the best charities are. Or, at least, tell us what the best interventions are. Tell us is bed nets, deworming, cash transfers, agricultural extension programs, education improvement programs, which ones are helping the most people for the least money. There’s really very little work on this in academia.

A lot of times, there will be one study that tries to estimate the impact of deworming, but very few or no attempts to really replicate it. It’s much more valuable to academics to have a new insight, to show something new about the world then to try and nail something down. It really got brought home to me recently when we were doing our Criminal Justice Reform work and we wanted to check ourselves. We wanted to check this basic assumption that it would be good to have less incarceration in the US.

David Roodman, who is basically the person that I consider the gold standard of a critical evidence reviewer, someone who can really dig on a complicated literature and come up with the answers, he did what, I think, was a really wonderful and really fascinating paper, which is up on our website, where he looked for all the studies on the relationship between incarceration and crime, and what happens if you cut incarceration, do you expect crime to rise, to fall, to stay the same? He picked them apart. What happened is he found a lot of the best, most prestigious studies and about half of them, he found fatal flaws in when he just tried to replicate them or redo their conclusions.

When he put it all together, he ended up with a different conclusion from what you would get if you just read the abstracts. It was a completely novel piece of work that reviewed this whole evidence base at a level of thoroughness that had never been done before, came out with a conclusion that was different from what you naively would have thought, which concluded his best estimate is that, at current margins, we could cut incarceration and there would be no expected impact on crime. He did all that. Then, he started submitting it to journals. It’s gotten rejected from a large number of journals by now. I mean starting with the most prestigious ones and then going to the less.

Robert Wiblin: Why is that?

Holden Karnofsky: Because his paper, it’s really, I think, it’s incredibly well done. It’s incredibly important, but there’s nothing in some sense, in some kind of academic taste sense, there’s nothing new in there. He took a bunch of studies. He redid them. He found that they broke. He found new issues with them, and he found new conclusions. From a policy maker or philanthropist perspective, all very interesting stuff, but did we really find a new method for asserting causality? Did we really find a new insight about how the mind of a …

Robert Wiblin: Criminal.

Holden Karnofsky: A perpetrator works. No. We didn’t advance the frontiers of knowledge. We pulled together a bunch of knowledge that we already had, and we synthesized it. I think that’s a common theme is that, I think, our academic institutions were set up a while ago. They were set up at a time when it seemed like the most valuable thing to do was just to search for the next big insight.

These days, they’ve been around for a while. We’ve got a lot of insights. We’ve got a lot of insights sitting around. We’ve got a lot of studies. I think a lot of the times what we need to do is take the information that’s already available, take the studies that already exist, and synthesize them critically and say, “What does this mean for what we should do? Where we should give money, what policy should be.”

I don’t think there’s any home in academia to do that. I think that creates a lot of the gaps. This also applies to AI timelines where it’s like there’s nothing particularly innovative, groundbreaking, knowledge frontier advancing, creative, clever about just … It’s a question that matters. When can we expect transformative AI and with what probability? It matters, but it’s not a work of frontier advancing intellectual creativity to try to answer it.

A very common theme in a lot of the work we advance is instead of pushing the frontiers of knowledge, take knowledge that’s already out there. Pull it together, critique it, synthesize it and decide what that means for what we should do. Especially, I think, there’s also very little in the way of institutions that are trying to anticipate big intellectual breakthroughs down the road, such as AI, such as other technologies that could change the world. Think about how they could make the world better or worse, and what we can do to prepare for them.

I think historically when academia was set up, we were in a world where it was really hard to predict what the next scientific breakthrough was going to be. It was really hard to predict how it would affect the world, but it usually turned out pretty well. I think for various reasons, the scientific landscape maybe changing now where it’s … I think, in some ways, there are arguments it’s getting easier to see where things are headed. We know more about science. We know more about the ground rules. We know more about what cannot be done. We know more about what probably, eventually can be done.

I think it’s somewhat of a happy coincidence so far that most breakthroughs have been good. To say, I see a breakthrough on the horizon. Is that good or bad? How can we prepare for it? That’s another thing academia is really not set up to do. Academia is set up to get the breakthrough. That is a question I ask myself a lot is here’s an intellectual activity. Why can’t it be done in academia? These days, my answer is if it’s really primarily of interest to a very cosmopolitan philanthropist trying to help the whole future, and there’s no one client and it’s not frontier advancing, then I think that does make it pretty plausible to me that there’s no one doing it. We would love to change that, at least somewhat, by funding what we think is the most important work.

Written by James Bailey

March 1, 2018 at 12:32 pm

ACA Repeal- Is There Any Safe Way Out?

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It’s not the first time I’ve thought so, but it now looks like efforts to repeal most or all of the ACA are now well and truly dead, and Republicans are wondering what to do instead.

The option currently on the table is the so-called “skinny repeal” of the ACA that repeals only the individual and employer mandates, leaving the rest in place. I haven’t said much about the repeal efforts so far, partly because I don’t think the economics of the issue are likely to change minds on either side. But the “skinny repeal” is one case where the effects are a bit different than you might think at first.

It might seem like a “skinny repeal” is a compromise position between full repeal and no repeal, and so it would have effects on premiums, the number of uninsured, and other outcomes of interest that are in between the two. But in fact, it is likely that repealing  the individual mandate alone would be worse than either full repeal or no repeal, because it more likely to cause an adverse selection death spiral.

Basically, pre-ACA in most states, individual insurance was cheap if you were healthy but hard to get if you were sick. With the ACA insurers had to sell to everyone (sick and healthy) at the same price, so healthy people were forced to pay more but sick people benefited. Take away only the individual mandate but leave the other parts that make insurance more expensive and healthy people leave the market; when only sick people buy insurance then average costs go up, so premiums go up, so more healthy people leave… and soon insurers will just leave the market because they are losing so much money, so both healthy and sick people are worse off.

I can see the political appeal of doing guaranteed issue but dropping the individual mandate; it sounds like a compromise, and dropping guaranteed issue sounds mean (you must hate sick people) while dropping the mandate sounds nice (freedom!). But it is likely to be the worst of both worlds. Several states have found this out the hard way, including Massachusetts (in a fascinating political twist, this was actually why Romneycare really was different from and better than Obamacare).

If Republicans really want to kill off part of Obamacare in order to take a scalp and say with a somewhat straight face they kept their repeal promise, the employer mandate is much safer to repeal on its own; it might actually strengthen the exchanges by pushing more healthy people on to them, and it was a bit bizarre and counterproductive in the first place from the economist’s perspective. Just repeal the employer mandate, claim victory, and go home. Or, while I’m dreaming, turn to reforming the supply side of health care instead of messing around with insurance.




Written by James Bailey

July 27, 2017 at 4:14 pm

Want single-payer? Figure out how to fix Medicare.

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The biggest barrier to single-payer in the US, other than politics, is the inefficiency of Medicare. Medicare alone spends more than $2000 per American but only manages to cover 14% of us. Yes, they are a particularly costly 14%- but some governments, like Greece and Portugal, manage to cover 100% of their population by spending similar amounts.

Medicaid spends just under $2000 per American and manages to cover 20% of the population. Together our two big government health programs spend about $4000 per American and cover 34% of the population. Almost every country with universal coverage manages to achieve it while their government spends less than $4000 per person.

This means that Medicare and Medicaid are collectively either 3 times better, or 3 times more inefficient, than the government health programs in other rich countries. Which do you think it is?

The problem isn’t that American taxpayers aren’t willing to finance universal coverage. The problem is that they already pay enough for a competent government to bring about universal coverage, but our government does not seem to qualify.


Written by James Bailey

March 1, 2017 at 11:11 pm

Pope Francis and Economics: A Partial Reconciliation

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It is always easiest to evaluate the views of others by fitting them into pre-existing categories. When Pope Francis released his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, many people pegged him as saying “left-wing economics good, free markets bad”. This lead to celebrations on the left and denunciations on the right. Some thought him to be showing ignorance of, or even Pope Paul V vs Galileo style hostility to, economic science.


After actually reading much of the encyclical, I found it much more nuanced. In particular, the Pope seems to be deeply ambivalent about the welfare state, warning of those who exploit the poor for their own political interest. He would much prefer that people earn a living through work:

“Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses”

“it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives”

Of course, he does want these workers to be earning a “just wage”. While many readers will assume this implies a government-mandated minimum wage, Francis doesn’t go there; one could just as well expect that he is encouraging just wages through increased human capital, tax credits, employer generosity, or something else.

He is generally supportive of private property and business:

“The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good”

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.”

Like many on the left, the Pope is worried about inequality. But his reason for worry isn’t really about the distribution of material goods, so much as the social distance that economic inequality can create:

“the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of
spiritual care”

“No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own
lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard
in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles”

For those worried about his Argentine background:

“I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism.”

He concedes a role for science in figuring out how best to do all this, though it does sound like he wants to make economics oikonomia again:

“Economy, as the very word indicates, should be the art of achieving a fitting management of our common home, which is the world as a whole.”

In any hundred page document, it can be too easy to cherry-pick quotes. Indeed this is what I have done here, if only to balance the much larger number of pieces that cherry-picked the quotes that seem to be from another side. But real people are usually more complex than a one-dimensional political spectrum.


Written by James Bailey

April 15, 2016 at 4:56 pm

Mad Economists

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Who is the closest person out there to being a “mad economist”, in the sense of a mad scientist?

I have a hard time thinking of anyone who really qualifies. I think this is because mad scientists do practical things that directly affect the real world- either by building crazy things (death ray, killer robot, 5 assed baboon, et c), or by using crazy methods for research (harming human/animal subjects, making their base underwater/ in an active volcano / on the moon).

Economists tend to be bound to relatively boring methods (doing math on a chalkboard or analyzing data on a computer) that lead to relatively boring outcomes (writing papers that expand our understanding of the world a bit and possibly tell policymakers what to do).

The recent trend toward lab and field experiments in economics certainly expands the possibilities for madness. Prisoners’ Dilemma experiments are a nice touch here, especially when someone decided to run them with actual prisoners. The Phillips machine was a fun one-off. But I can’t think of anything that rises to the level of psychology’s Milgram Experiment, much less the things that have been done in the “real” sciences of biology, chemistry and physics.

Occasionally economists get some power within companies, or start their own. But coming up with a new strategy for a hedge fund or designing auctions for Google doesn’t really get into “madness” territory either. Economists are forever telling the government what to do, but rarely get listened to. During total war they have been vested with lots of power over the economy, though I haven’t heard of any particularly crazy things they did with this power. Levitt’s long con to catch terrorists was a nice touch. Armen Alchian used economics to discover that lithium was the moderator for the atomic bomb, but his only plan to use that information was to write a paper about it, and he abandoned even that at the request of the government.

Image result for dr horrible

But is there anything an economist has done that rises to the level of a Tesla, Mengele, Musk, or TunaPig? Anything an economist might do that could match a single invention of Drs Kreiger, Evil, or Horrible?

Marx? GiveDirectly founders? Shleifer? Jeff Sachs?

In general, PhD economists (myself certainly included) are too much thinkers rather than doers. The closest people we have to mad economists are probably people who learned some undergraduate economics, then went out to change the world- people like Elon Musk or Dread Pirate Roberts.

Who am I forgetting? What would a real mad economist look like?


Written by James Bailey

January 18, 2016 at 6:42 pm


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A new article in the Journal of Wine Economics gives an informative and interesting history of beer in the United States, with a special focus on craft beer. While they do some statistical analysis at the end, most of the article tells a story that everyone should be able to understand. I could give you the basics of the story but I think their graphs do that best:

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 2.27.46 PM

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 2.30.45 PM

We have gone from the dark ages of 1979 when Americans only drank Bud and Miller to the amazing variety of beer available today. Check out the article for stories of the people behind the craft beer revolution, and for an attempt to explain why it happened and why it happened in the states where it did.


Written by James Bailey

January 6, 2016 at 4:37 pm