Saturday, July 22, 2017

Public Choice Under Fire

The recent publication of Duke historian Nancy MacLean's book entitled "Democracy in Chains" has caused quite a stir among economists interested in public choice and political economy. Having read several positive and negative (links to the many positive and negative reviews and commentary can be found in the updates to this post) reviews and comments on the book, it's clear to me that MacLean's thesis is something like the following: James Buchanan (Nobel Laureate in economics, 1986) along with this colleagues developed a school of economic thought (public choice) with the express intention to undermine democratic institutions in the U.S. to benefit the wealth interests that funded them. Also, as a man from the south, Buchanan was motivated by racism and based his ideas on the thought of other racist scholars.

Aside from the accusations of racism, the substantive critique made clear in the title strikes me as odd. What does it mean to put democracy "in chains?" Does making clear, in a scientific way, the limits of collective decision making put democracy "in chains" or does it allow us to determine what set of underlying institutions provides for the best set of laws?

The normative aspects of public choice are, in my mind, about the latter. The descriptive analysis of the inefficiencies in our actions as politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, political interest groups, voters, etc. helps us understand the characteristics of institutions that might limit such inefficiencies. We have, for instance, minority protections in the constitution precisely because a democratic majority might harm them.

MacLean insistst, for example, that libertarians long ago opposed Brown v. Board of Education. In fact, the source she cites comes to precisely the opposite conclusion. Further, Brown is a good example of a minority protection that restricts the will of the majority. If it is "unchained" majority rule that MacLean praises, she should oppose the Brown decision because it explicitly ensured that a problematic majority-rule decision was corrected.

There are, it seems, many other problems with MacLean's book, but her insistence that public choice economics is a tool for the powerful is obviously off base.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How Do YOU Read Papers?

by Levi Russell

The other day I put out a Twitter poll with the intent of determining which section of an academic article economists read first. I only included the Introduction, Model, Results, and Conclusions, since Twitter only allows 4 options and I assume most of us read the abstract since it's normally the first thing we see before we download the paper. I typically read articles in the following order: abstract, model, conclusions, results, then intro if I need it. I've recently seen successful economists encouraging young economists to focus on the introduction, so I thought it was worthwhile to see how wrong I am about the "correct" reading order. After all, if it is crucial to focus on writing the intro, it must be the first thing a lot of us read!

Here are the poll results:

My sample was about 60 votes and this included, I imagine, mostly economists who follow me and maybe some of the economists or other academics who follow them. Introduction and Conclusions were nearly tied with just over a third of respondents saying those sections were the first they read. The remainder were split almost evenly between model and results.
The comments were interesting as well.

Good writing in general is necessary to publish. If your goal is to get citations, perhaps focusing on the writing in the intro and conclusions is a good strategy. However, to get cited you first must get published. I don't know about you, but when I review articles I always read them straight through from page 1 to n. First impressions are important, so maybe that's the best argument for focusing on the introduction. Then again, if only about 1/3 of us read the intro first, then perhaps reviewers (assuming they read like I do when reviewing) are reading the wrong way. I don't know if this fits into the broader discussion on academic publishing, peer review reform, and other such issues, but it is interesting to see how people read articles.

What do you think? What section do you read first? How important (relatively speaking) is a well-written introduction?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Economics Resource for High School Students

by Levi Russell

I recently ran across a great web-based resource for teaching economics to high school students. uses a series of short animated videos, each with an even shorter lecture, to explain basic economic concepts like capital and risk, opportunity cost, comparative advantage, moral hazard, and several others.

The program is free, but you do have to give them your email to get access to the videos. If you want the standards-based evaluation materials, they want a little more info. Overall this seems like a great supplement for high-school students and a great resource for home schoolers!