Saturday, January 28, 2006

Political Preferences of Economists

Todd Zywicki posts on observations on the political stripes of economists:
"The latest issue of Econ Journal Watch is out and I wanted to call readers' attention to a couple of articles in particular.

William McEachern of the University of Connecticut has an article presenting evidence on the campaign contributions of 'American Economic Association Members, Committee Members, Officers, Editors, Referees, Authors, and Acknowledgees.' Subject to obvious caveats about the nature of the data set, McEachern finds that in the AEA generally the Democratic to Republican contribution ratio is 5.1 to 1 and that on average contributions to Democrats were approximately 20 percent larger than to Republicans. He also finds that about 10% of the editors of the American Economic Review contributed to candidates (9 out of 84 Americans), and of those, all of them contributed to Democrats. McEachern similarly studies the editors, referees, etc., of the Journal of Economic Literature, and Journal of Economic Perspectives. He concludes by asking whether it is possible that the ideological orientations of editors and referees have the potential for influencing their opinions as to the quality and relevance of various articles.

Dan Klein follows-up with an an essay on the possible implications of McEachern's research (and that of others) for the professional practice of economics. Klein makes the provocative argument that the editorial leadership of the AER's various journals may be reflected in the pattern of articles published there. These journals are among the most prestigious in the profession, so there is some import from this. Klein suggests that the ideological predispositions of the editors is reflected in the type of articles that are accepted and published (his argument that McEachern's data reflects itself in the articles published is largely anecdotal). Put crudely here (and with more nuance there), Klein suggests that 'liberal' economists who serve as editors of the AER are less likely to publish articles that are critical of interventionist economic policies."
I don't know if this specific concern with respect to editors makes sense or not. I do wonder if concern about the wider political preferences of economists would be worth considering.

It seems to me that many economists are not very careful these days to keep their positive analyses separated from their normative analyses. The old principle that economists as economists would not recommend the value judgments used to choose alternative policies, but instead would merely develop the implications of different value judgments, seems to have fallen by the wayside. Many times I've read an economist writing about the efficiency implications of public policy as though their analysis is positive in character, and not normative.

Now consider something Arnold Kling writes about a new book by his fellow blogger Brian Caplan:
"For Caplan, the 'wisdom of crowds' only applies in market settings, where people have the incentive to make rational choices. When it comes to voting, we have majority fools.

Conventional wisdom says that democratic choices are good ones. Caplan, correctly in my view, says otherwise.

Conventional wisdom says that when there are market imperfections, government should step in, implicitly assuming that government is carried out by welfare-maximizing omniscient technocrats. Caplan, correctly in my view, suggests that we should worry about government, because ultimately it is driven by irrational voters."
The idea I note here is that there is an implicit assumption that "government is carried out by welfare-maximizing omniscient technocrats." I can't prove my intution here, but I think many economists seem to harbor this assumption in their normative analyses of the economic efficiency of markets and of public policies. If we also assume that the Democrat political party tends to view government is this way, then perhaps one could justify at least a little concern in the observation that a majority of economists seem to be of the Democrat political persuasion. Of course, there should be less, or little concern, to the extent that economists write about public policy with very explicit statements about their normative views and value judgments.

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