Why The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page is a Disgrace

Stephen Moore has the dubious honor of being a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.  He lives up (or down) to that honor by imparting his wisdom from time to time in signed columns appearing on the Journal’s editorial page.  His contribution in today’s Journal (“Why Americans Hate Economics”) is noteworthy for typifying the sad decline of the Journal’s editorial page into a self-parody of obnoxious, philistine anti-intellectualism.

Mr. Moore begins by repeating a joke once told by Professor Christina Romer, formerly President Obama’s chief economist, now on the economics department at the University of California at Berkeley.  The joke, not really that funny, is that there are two kinds of students:  those who hate economics and those who really hate economics.  Professor Romer apparently told the joke to explain that it’s not true.  Mr. Moore repeats it to explain why he thinks it really is.  Why does he?  Let Mr. Moore speak for himself:  “Because too often economic theories defy common sense.”  That’s it in a nutshell for Mr. Moore:  common sense — the ultimate standard of truth.

So what’s that you say, Galileo?  The sun is stationary and the earth travels around it?  You must be kidding!  Why any child can tell you that the sun rises in the east and moves across the sky every day and then travels beneath the earth at night to reappear in the east the next morning.  And you expect anyone in his right mind to believe otherwise.  What?  It’s the earth rotating on its axis?  Are you possessed of demons?  And you say that the earth is round?  If the earth were round, how could anybody stand at the bottom of the earth and not fall off?  Galileo, you are a raving lunatic.  And you, Mr. Einstein, you say that there is something called a space-time continuum, so that time slows down as the speed one travels approaches the speed of light.  My God, where could you have come up with such an idea?  By that reasoning, two people could not agree on which of two events happened first if one of them was stationary and the other traveling at half the speed of light.  Away with you, and don’t ever dare speak such nonsense again, or, by God, you shall be really, really sorry.

The point of course is not to disregard common sense — that would not be very intelligent — but to recognize that common sense isn’t enough.  Sometimes things are not what they seem – the earth, Mr. Moore, is not flat – and our common sense has to be trained to correspond with a reality that can only be discerned by the intensive application of our reasoning powers, in other words, by thinking harder about what the world is really like than just accepting what common sense seems to be telling us.  But once you recognize that common sense has its limitations, the snide populist sneers — the stock-in-trade of the Journal editorial page — mocking economists with degrees from elite universities in which Mr. Moore likes to indulge are exposed for what they are:  the puerile defensiveness of those unwilling to do the hard thinking required to push back the frontiers of their own ignorance.

In today’s column, Mr. Moore directs his ridicule at a number of Keynesian nostrums that I would not necessarily subscribe to, at least not without significant qualification.  But Keynesian ideas are also rooted in certain common-sense notions, for example, the idea that income and expenditure are mutually interdependent, the income of one person being derived from the expenditure of another.  So when Mr. Moore simply dismisses as “nonsensical” the idea that extending unemployment insurance to keep the unemployed from having to stop spending, he is in fact rejecting an idea that is no less grounded in common sense than the idea that paying people not to work discourages work.  The problem is that our common sense cuts in both directions.  Mr. Moore likes one and wants to ignore the other.

What we would like economists — even those unfortunate enough to have graduated from an elite university — to tell us is which effect is stronger or, perhaps, when is one effect stronger and when is the other stronger.  But all that would be too complicated and messy for Mr. Moore’s — and the Journal‘s — cartoonish view of the world.

In that cartoonish view, the problem is that good old Adam Smith of “invisible hand” fame and his virtuous economic doctrines supporting free enterprise got tossed aside when the dastardly Keynes invented “macroeconomics” in the 1930s.  And here is Mr. Moore’s understanding of macroeconomics.

Macroeconomics simply took basic laws of economics we know to be true for the firm or family –i.e., that demand curves are downward-sloping; that when you tax something, you get less of it; that debts have to be repaid—and turned them on their head as national policy.

Simple, isn’t it?  The economics of Adam Smith (the microeconomics of firm and family) is good because it is based on common sense; the macroeconomics of Keynes is bad because it turns common sense on its head.  Now I don’t know how much Mr. Moore knows about economics other than that demand curves are downward-sloping, but perhaps he has heard of, or even studied, the law of comparative advantage.

The law of comparative advantage says, in one of its formulations, that even if a country is less productive (because of, say, backward technology or a poor endowment of natural resources) than other countries in producing every single product that it produces, it would still have a lower cost of production in at least one of those products, and could profitably export that product (or those products) in international markets in sufficient amounts to pay for its imports of other products.  If there is a less common-sensical notion than that in all of macroeconomics, indeed in any scientific discipline, I would like to hear about it.  And trust me as a former university teacher of economics, there is no proposition in economics that students hate more or find harder to reconcile with their notions of common sense than the law of comparative advantage.  Indeed, even most students who can correctly answer an exam question about comparative advantage don’t believe a word of what they wrote.  The only students who actually do believe it are the ones who become economists.

But the law of comparative advantage is logically unassailable; you might as well try to disprove “two plus two equals four.”  So, no, Mr. Moore, you don’t know why Americans hate economics, not unless, by Americans you mean that (one hopes small) group of individuals who happen to think exactly the same way as does the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.

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49 Responses to “Why The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page is a Disgrace”


  1. 1 Luis H Arroyo August 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    very good example David. However, Mises said it was the most important law of economics. His follower of today have not read him.

  2. 2 ECON August 20, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Who is the owner of WSJ? Somebody told me it was R. Murdoch. No further comment on the apparent economic illiteracy of the broad American public with channel changer in hand looking for common sense economics.

  3. 3 Cahal Moran (@tmmbloguk) August 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    I’m sorry, comparative advantage is a ‘law’? There is no such thing as a law in economics because it is a social science- it saddens me to see people suffering from such blatant physics envy.

    If CA is such an important ‘law’, why did most rich countries get rich through protectionism? Why did the Southeast Asian ‘miracle’ economies work so well with the governments picking winners? Why is it working so well for China right now?

  4. 4 boutagy August 20, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    I’m very heartened by your article because I now believe in the law of comparative advantage (although it did take a while) Therefore I must now be a real economist. It is a great feeling – thank you.

  5. 5 Greg vP August 20, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    No disagreement at all with your message here. Just one observation.

    Speaking from personal experience, the beginning student faces two problems with comparative advantage. The first is the name. The word “comparative” brings with it a mental framework of competition _with others_. This “mental static” obscures the message.

    I think that students would grasp the concept much more easily if it were called the “Rule for Choosing the Best Thing to Do” — at least, in introductory courses.

    The second problem is with the traditional treatment in introductory texts. Treatments have tables and diagrams in which Home and Foreign are shown together, reinforcing the wrong mental framework. The discussion alternates between the countries.

    A better treatment would minimise inter-country comparision, instead devoting nearly all of the discussion to the choices available to one country – the absolutely disadvantaged one – from its point of view. An analogy could usefully be drawn to the choices facing an individual looking for an income.

    Only at the end of the discussion would it be stated that this “rule of what to do” is traditionally called the law of comparative advantage.

    But, of course, asking the profession to change its teaching practices to improve outcomes — and perhaps forestall outbursts like that of Mr Moore — is futile.

  6. 6 brucetheeconomist August 20, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Murdoch has only owned the Journal for about 5 years I think. Even before that the editorial page was always quite conservative, mostly reflecting the views its readership would be comfortable hearing I think.

    That is to say usually suggesting that what every is good for GM and owners was good for everyone. I think that’s true often times, but it shouldn’t become an article of faith.

  7. 7 brucetheeconomist August 20, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    The news content of the Journal has traditionally not been overly impacted by the editorial page, as it shouldn’t.

    In the Murdoch era, it seems to me also that that the ideology of the editorial page has begun to bleed over into the rest of the paper.

    Am I the only one who thinks so.

  8. 8 Yosef August 20, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    What’s that you say, there are as many numbers between 0 and 1 as between 0 and 1/2? That’s ridiculous, don’t you have common sense! That is easily the most counter-intuitive thing. How can any system which accepts that be trusted. Certainly no such system is acceptable to the WSJ.

  9. 9 David Glasner August 20, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    Thanks, Luis. Yes, I recall that Mises said something like that. I am not sure that Stephen Moore would consider himself an Austrian, although he is probably at least a sympathizer.

    Econ, Yes Murdoch, or NewsCorp to be more precise, bought the WSJ a few years ago.

    Cahal, Just because the law of comparative advantage implies that certain arguments for protectionist policies are logically incorrect does not mean that there are not valid arguments for protection (or at least arguments for protection that are not logically incorrect). Still less does it imply that protectionist policies are impossible. The second law of thermodynamics says that it is impossible to build a perpetual motion machine. The law of comparative advantage does not say that it is impossible to impose a tariff.

    Boutagy, Welcome aboard, you’re one of us.

    Greg, I haven’t taught for years. Why don’t you send your idea to someone still teaching and see what kind of a reaction you get.

    Bruce, I can still remember when The Journal editorial page was very low key and intellectual, the days of Vermont Royster, who seemed to me to be a very scholarly and fair-minded individual. I believe that he was succeeded by Robert Bartley, who, through the influence of Jude Wanninski, a brilliant but unstable thinker, started advocating extreme supply -side doctrines and became obsessed with the gold standard. But even in the Bartley period the Journal had some standards and the pieces that were published usually made interesting arguments. What the Journal prints now is just shockingly bad, and seems to have completely adopted the faux populism of the other Murdoch publications.

    Yosef, Nice one.

  10. 10 Barry August 21, 2011 at 5:45 am

    “Murdoch has only owned the Journal for about 5 years I think. Even before that the editorial page was always quite conservative, mostly reflecting the views its readership would be comfortable hearing I think.”

    The editorial has been batsh*t insane a least since Bartley took the helm in the early 1970’s.

  11. 11 RJ August 21, 2011 at 11:12 am

    I’m sorry, comparative advantage is a ‘law’? There is no such thing as a law in economics because it is a social science- it saddens me to see people suffering from such blatant physics envy.

    Don’t be so arrogant. Last time I checked, economics was way more in line and useful with solving the immediate and fundamental problems of everyday human interactions. Physics has its own place.

    If CA is such an important ‘law’, why did most rich countries get rich through protectionism?

    Protectionism in general hurts both countries, benefiting few at the expense of many. However, there are cases in which a large country enacting protectionist measures can gain absolutely at the expense of the smaller country if the terms of trade are tilted in such a way that the smaller country’s losses are directed toward the larger country’s gain, instead of becoming a ‘deadweight loss.’ It’d be easier to show with a graph, but I’m not permitted that luxury here.

    CA was a huge breakthrough in economic thought, overshadowing Smith’s absolute advantage law. However, for the most part now it’s obsolete because….

    ” … if capital freely flowed towards those countries where it could be most profitably employed, there could be no difference in the rate of profit, and no other difference in the real or labour price of commodities, than the additional quantity of labour required to convey them to the various markets where they were to be sold.” -David Ricardo

    Thus, the free-floating ability of capital in today’s world renders the theory of comparative advantage to a mere consideration instead of an actual generalized law.

    Why did the Southeast Asian ‘miracle’ economies work so well with the governments picking winners? Why is it working so well for China right now?

    I’ll let Adam Smith take it from here…I’m too lazy to type a response other than it’s not really working well with China.

    thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expence to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.

    In general, it’s healthy to be skeptical of government intrusion into the matter. But sometimes they get it right, like with public schools, healthcare (not in the US case), technology, etc.

  12. 12 evets August 21, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    This is simply too commonsensical. I’m not buying.

  13. 13 Scott August 21, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    “But Keynesian ideas are also rooted in certain common-sense notions, for example, the idea that income and expenditure are mutually interdependent, the income of one person being derived from the expenditure of another. ”

    Let’s compare the pair. All being equal:
    1. One borrows $10,000 to repair their house.
    2. The other borrows $10,000 to have a party.

    Which is better for the economy? Same income same expediture. Different outcomes. One left with a hangover and a broken house the other with greater equity.

    Sorry to dumb it down, but this is meant for a former university professor. A space no longer visited by common sense.

  14. 14 Barry August 22, 2011 at 5:52 am

    “If CA is such an important ‘law’, why did most rich countries get rich through protectionism?”

    Actually, why did almost *all* rich countries get rich through protectionism?
    IIRC, the only country which didn’t industrialize through protectionism was Great Britain, and they were the first.

  15. 15 David Glasner August 22, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    RJ, Thanks for your detailed discussion of comparative advantage. The underlying principle, opportunity cost, is actually about as general a law as exists in economics with or without capital mobility.

    evets, You are being clever, aren’t you?

    Scott, I don’t think that I am getting your drift. At any rate, to do a proper comparison of your two cases, one would have to know a lot more information than you have provided. But the expenditures made for the party may finance investments made by someone else, so just focusing on two individuals doesn’t really get you very far.

    Barry, I already made this point, but I am happy to repeat it. The law of comparative advantage does not say that protectionism is impossible; it does not even say that protectionism cannot be in the interest of a country that practices it. What it says is that every country will be “competitive” in world trade specializing in producing products in which it has the lowest cost, and that, as a matter of logic, every country must be a low-cost producer of some product. That’s all. But that is not something that we would have known just by consulting our common sense.

  16. 16 Cahal Moran (@cahalmoran) August 24, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    ‘Don’t be so arrogant. Last time I checked, economics was way more in line and useful with solving the immediate and fundamental problems of everyday human interactions. Physics has its own place.’

    You misunderstand the meaning of physics envy. It implies nothing about the usefulness of a subject – it is to do with how precisely physics has managed to define its models, and the attempts of other subjects to imitate that.

    Economics, without a doubt, suffers from it – the overly complex, sometimes vacuous mathematical models, the assumptions, the assertion that there are ‘laws’.

    ‘Protectionism in general hurts both countries, benefiting few at the expense of many. However, there are cases in which a large country enacting protectionist measures can gain absolutely at the expense of the smaller country if the terms of trade are tilted in such a way that the smaller country’s losses are directed toward the larger country’s gain, instead of becoming a ‘deadweight loss.’ It’d be easier to show with a graph, but I’m not permitted that luxury here.’

    If you buy the ‘infant industry’ argument (which I happen to, based on empirical evidence) then this kind of reasoning becomes obsolete for developing countries. Did you ever consider your diagram might be an incomplete theory?

    ‘I’ll let Adam Smith take it from here…I’m too lazy to type a response other than it’s not really working well with China.

    thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expence to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.’

    Ehm…we aren’t talking school and hospitals here, we’re talking manufacturing firms. Toyata, Siemens, etc. And China isn’t doing well? It’s had the longest sustained growth boom in history iirc.

    Barry,

    If you think CA is compatible with protectionism under certain circumstances, it appears our misunderstanding is basically cosmetic. I do not like to see things in economics referred to as ‘laws’, and I feel your use of the word is misguided – you essentially seem to be stating CA is a law with no implications, so I’m not sure how it can be considered a law.

  17. 17 Cahal Moran (@cahalmoran) August 24, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Britain also used protectionism.

    Netherlands & Hong Kong are the only two I can think of, though HK doesn’t really count as it’s a bit special.

  18. 18 David Glasner August 24, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    Cahal, I think you meant to respond to me not Barry about whether the law of comparative advantage has any implications. Yes, it has many, but you seem to think that the implications are prescriptive. I am suggesting that they are logical and empirical. Whether it’s appropriate to refer to a logical relationship in economics is a matter of taste (I think they argue about it in the natural sciences also) and if you don’t want to call it a law I won’t get upset with you, but the usage is by now rather well accepted among economists at any rate and as a linguistic conservative I prefer to stick with the traditional usage.

  19. 19 Mitch August 25, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Speaking of physics vs. economics: one need know no more to determine the quality of the WSJ editorial page than to observe its perennial flacking for climate change denialism. Economists of with different viewpoints can disagree with the merits of one or another approach – no such diversity of opinion is possible with climate change. Yet the WSJ is forever publishing wrongheaded pieces on this most important of issues

  20. 20 Morgan Warstler (@morganwarstler) August 25, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    MY GOD.

    Microeconomics is good because it is practiced by the people who MATTER – the people who OWN THINGS.

    It boggles my mind that you lack so much as an ounce of introspection about your motives for chattering about macro.

    Macro PRESUMES there are more important people in this society than the guys who start businesses and runt he show. Without macro, there are LESS eggheads allowed to matter.

    Macro assumes the government is higher than the winners of micro, and that is a wish, it is also a lie.

    Now within that line of thought, we can get back to my real message which you shy away from directly arguing with…

    Government and Money are created BY AND FOR people who own things. So policy that pretends you will not have to grovel before the deciders before it is enacted is not policy – it is THEORY.

    And nice theories are a yawner.

    Because a man from Texas is going to come put his boot on DC and pull Obamacare up by the roots, and public employees are going to be systematically weakened as a political force until the only thing left of progressive thought will be DeKrugman’s blog.

    And we did it all on purpose! We started in 1980 and have played up quick by a number of pawns, and traded real pieces until we finally got to the end game.

    You fools talk about monetary at the zero bound, what is far more meaningful is fiscal at the debt limit. That’s checkmate.

    Look David, you ought to really roll around in the idea of economist as political player even within the science of right and wrong – timing is after all everything.

    The point is I’d be far more interested to hear a REAL strategy for convincing the Tea Party to take your blue pill. And not some silly assertion that you have “proven” your stuff is good for the folks who pay the inflation tax.

    What I mean is WHAT could you do to PAY OFF just the Tea Party – in the way you argue for QE – as in how do you put the new money in their hands AND NOT Dem voters or bankers.

    if Glodman Sach’s makes $1 the answer is NO, now with that rule in place, how do structure fed action.

  21. 21 David Glasner August 25, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    Mitch, I have to admit that I don’t have a strong view about climate change even though for a variety of reasons including possible climate change I would favor phasing in a carbon tax gradually over time. Science advances precisely by overturning factual and theoretical presumptions that, at one time or another, reflected what was once the consensus view of scientists. So I am not comfortable with a view that says that once the majority of scientists agree on a particular proposition, the issue is settled, and anyone who disagrees is a “know-nothing.” I think that those who believe in climate change and in doing something about it have made a mistake by over-reliance on the authority of science.

    Morgan, I hope that you can recover from my boggling your mind. But we all have our blind spots, don’t we? Since my views about macro have not changed radically since I was a graduate student, I am curious to hear if you think my motives in espousing those view are the same now as they were when I was graduate student. By the way, are you aware that by arguing that my opinions are governed by my material motives you are subscribing to a basic Marxist tenet that attributes all opinions to the material motives of those espousing them?

    If I understand what you are asking me to do, Morgan, is to come up with an explanation of why monetary expansion and inflation will actually work to the benefit of the Tea Partyers rather than the benefit of the Democrats, federal employees, and other undesirables. That is an interesting question and it deserves some thought. I promise to think about it and get back to you, but don’t get your hopes up. I am really not that smart.

    By the way, your charming little vision of life under President Perry

    Because a man from Texas is going to come put his boot on DC and pull Obamacare up by the roots, and public employees are going to be systematically weakened as a political force until the only thing left of progressive thought will be DeKrugman’s blog.

    reminded me of this passage from Orwell’s 1984 (Part III, Chapter III).

    There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.

  22. 22 Lewis August 25, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Just when you thought demand-side policy may yet live, folks like Morgan come along and shout at you until you put any notion of contrary thought out of your mind and kowtow before the might of the Conservative Movement. And they use CAPITAL LETTERS to make SURE you UNDERSTAND. FOR YOUR OWN GOOD.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Common sense is an idiot. As you rightly point out, common sense thought the Earth was flat. Common sense thought the Sun was a god, and that spirits living inside house-idols would bring you holy blessings if you rubbed their bellies on the way to work every morning. Policy should not be made by common sense. Policy should be made by exceptional sense. Common sense suffers from superstition, groupthink, inflexibility and just plain ol’ fashioned stupid. Actual, deep thought definitionally avoids all of these problems. And yet people want leaders who follow their “common sense”. Heaven forbid.

    That last sentence wasn’t actually sarcastic.

    Neither was that one.

    I think you’ve earned yourself another reader, Mr. Glasner. That makes two serious economic thinkers whom I can read on a regular basis. I’ve broken into plural numbers. Huzzah.

  23. 23 Barry August 26, 2011 at 7:00 am

    David Glasner:

    “Mitch, I have to admit that I don’t have a strong view about climate change even though for a variety of reasons including possible climate change I would favor phasing in a carbon tax gradually over time. Science advances precisely by overturning factual and theoretical presumptions that, at one time or another, reflected what was once the consensus view of scientists. So I am not comfortable with a view that says that once the majority of scientists agree on a particular proposition, the issue is settled, and anyone who disagrees is a “know-nothing.” I think that those who believe in climate change and in doing something about it have made a mistake by over-reliance on the authority of science.”

    Oh my God. A Harvard professor.

    I saw your interview on the Daily Show, and thought better of you.

    This explains a lot about the economics professoriate.

  24. 24 Mitch August 26, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    I stumbled across this blog because Krugman referred to it in one of his posts on the NYTimes site. You seem like a reasonably thoughtful person, and while I find myself differing with you on some matters, I think your perspective is generally reasonable.

    However, I am quite disappointed in your reply regarding climate change. In essence, it appears to me you have bought into the anti-intellectualism you decried when it came from the WSJ editorial page.

    The science of climate change is base on very simple physical considerations. It was predicted more than a century ago, and it has been intensively studied since the middle of the last century. The consensus (not “majority”) has persisted for decades. There is no reason not to trust the climate scientists on their assessment of how sure they are. The people who disagree are not ignored or rejected by dint of their simple disagreement, but rather because of the quality of the arguments they put forward.

    If you are suspicious of argument from authority (a reasonable position) it isn’t hard to find out why the case for the consensus position is so strong. You could read the summary of the IPCC report yourself. If that isn’t what you want, I’d be happy to point you in the right directions if you e-mail me.

    I should also point out physical sciences virtually never proceed in the manner you suggest. There are practically no cases of a well-established theory being “overturned”, as opposed to refined or extended.

    What I fail to understand is why so many economists find physical sciences difficult to trust.

  25. 25 Barry August 27, 2011 at 5:59 am

    David, I’d like to apologize for my tone.

  26. 26 Barry August 27, 2011 at 9:03 am

    “What I fail to understand is why so many economists find physical sciences difficult to trust.”

    Perhaps it’s because they project upon other fields what they know to be happening in their own field. For example, in economics, if one wishes to find BS artists who blithely talk in total disregard to the data, one doesn’t have to go to propaganda mills or fourth-tier colleges. One can just swing by Harvard, Chicago, UCLA and Stanford. In economics, people will talk about the Great Depression in direct contradiction to clear facts – just like the hacks who talk like we’re cooling, rather than warming, or bring up non-existent ‘debunking’.

    In economics, there’s vast and well-funded conspiracies to lie (CATO, Hoover, Heritage, AEI, CEI, Manhattan, Heartland, Mercatus, and soon the Friedman Institute). These propaganda mills work hand-in-glove with the elites of economics.

    Of course, anybody paying actual attention would note that these same institutions are in the AGW denialist movement, but it’s hard to realize that it might not work the same way in other places as at home (I had a discussion about Hungarian politics where the knowledgeable person had to straighten me out that ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t break down the same there as here in the USA).

    What I’ll ask Professor Glasner is this:

    Professor, what parts of economics do you have a smilar skepticism about, which have 98%+ consensus among economists, massive support from other fields, and ever-increasing flood of supporting data reaching farther and farther into more and more fields, have prevailed in the teeth of extremely well-funded fraud campaigns, and whose opponents, although well-funded and with considerable resources, can’t come up with any true counter-arguments?

  27. 27 James Bradbury August 27, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    The word “populist” is vague and ill-defined. But while Steve Moore’s editorial is clearly very much directed at those with zero economics training, and its explanations of what constitutes Keynesianism are correspondingly dumbed down, and while it could even be described as anti-intellectual, I would still not call it populist. I reserve that word for views which are not based in any form of legitimate economic thought. In my mind, The Wall Street Journal editorial page has been, over the past few years, a major force against populism on the right. Against a strong current of anti-immigrant sentiment in the Republican Party, they have strongly supported immigration reform; against a strong current of gold-bug-ism they have allowed gold-bug op-eds to run but kept a much more moderate line (not sure how you’d describe it-maybe neoclassical?) in the editorials. His ideas do not satisfy me (nor does Keynesianism; there’s a reason your blog immediately appealed to me when I first saw it today…) but they are still both intellectually consistent and based in more than just common sense.

    Lastly, I’ve met Mr. Moore in person, and I know he can do better.

  28. 28 David Glasner August 27, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Mitch and Barry, Apparently I didn’t make myself clear. I didn’t say that I thought the science on climate change was wrong. I have to admit that I know little or nothing about the science of climate change and I have no basis for making my own independent assessment without making an investment of time and effort that I am unwilling to make. That may not speak well of my public spiritedness of intellectual curiosity, but that’s just the way it is. If asked what I think about climate change I would answer that I would tend to rely on what the experts think, and I already said that I favor a carbon tax phased in gradually over a period of years. You seem to take offense that I suggest that a scientific consensus could be wrong. Well I am sorry, but that’s what I think and there have been any number of historical episodes in which that was the case. I am not an expert on the history of science so I am just repeating what I have read from people like T.S. Kuhn and Karl Popper (who differed greatly on a number of historical and philosophical issues but agreed that there had been scientific revolutions). So, operating with very little first hand knowledge of the science about climate change, I maintain that the scientific consensus could be wrong, I don’t say that it is wrong or likely to be wrong, just that it could be wrong. And your outraged reaction to my very tentative and modest statement of what seems to me to be almost a truism strikes me as an example of the attitude I was taking (rather mild) exception to. I would commend to you the very wise statement by one of the greatest judges who ever lived, Learned Hand. “The spirit of liberty is the spirit that it not too sure that it is right.”

    Lewis, Thanks for including me in such an elite group.

    Barry, Apology unnecessary, but certainly accepted.

    James, Well, the meaning of “populist” is sort of vague, isn’t it. The reason that I used it was frequent digs that Moore made at professors from elite universities and so forth. The Journal too its credit sometimes does take a more enlightened stand than other right-wing journals on issues like immigration reform and ending ethanol subsidies even if not accompanied by a corresponding cut in taxes. But the tone of the paper — though this is just my general impression — has become more strident and more extreme over the past few years.

  29. 29 hoping for better August 29, 2011 at 12:05 am

    David

    Pardon me for saying so but what you actually stated, that Mitch and Barry took issue with, was:
    “I think that those who believe in climate change and in doing something about it have made a mistake by over-reliance on the authority of science.”

    That statement is not compatible with your subsequent admission: “I have to admit that I know little or nothing about the science of climate change and I have no basis for making my own independent assessment “.

    Either you have a basis to make an assessment that those who believe in climate change are mistaken, or you don’t. You can’t have it both ways. Before making such an assessment, you should be aware that the basic science of climate change is simple, was settled in the 19th century, and there is 100% consensus amongst atmospheric physicists and climate scientists.
    I’d recommend http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/08/recipe-for-climate-change/ for a quick and painless briefing.

  30. 30 David Glasner August 29, 2011 at 9:11 am

    Hoping, Thanks for your comment, which I greatly appreciate for identifying for me the source of the misunderstanding here. When I said:

    “I think that those who believe in climate change and in doing something about it have made a mistake by over-reliance on the authority of science.”

    what I meant was that they have made a rhetorical mistake by insisting that because their position is backed by a scientific consensus people who disagree with their position are idiots. I agree that many of the people who disagree with them are idiots, but the reason is that they are making idiotic arguments. But disagreeing with a scientific consensus does not, ipso facto, make someone an idiot. So rather than constantly invoking the Authority of Science, a deplorable rhetorical strategy, people concerned about climate change should follow the harder and more tedious path, explaining what is wrong with arguments made by the deniers and skeptics. Simply repeating that Science has shown that they are wrong is not an argument, it is a form of intellectual intimidation. Stick to arguments on the merits, and show that arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny. That’s all I was saying

  31. 31 hoping for better August 29, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    “That’s all I was saying” ???

    You’re weaseling. If that’s all you meant, then that’s what you should have said.

    But when you say “I think that those who believe in climate change and in doing something about it have made a mistake by over-reliance on the authority of science.” you’re including everyone who believes in climate change (including, for example, Jim Hansen.. and I’m assuming even an economist knows little or nothing about the science of climate change knows who he is) and not just the tiny minority who believe in principle that if you disagree with any scientific consensus then you are, ipso facto, an idiot.

    You also must be aware that the point that there is a very strong scientific consensus on climate change is largely merely a reply to the common lie of climate denialists (they’re not skeptics) that there is no consensus. So your choice of words was really not the greatest.

  32. 32 Mitch August 29, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    If I could chime in here again – to bring it back where I started:

    For me, climate science is a litmus test. I meant that in its actual scientific sense – as a measure. If a journal adopts the “skeptic” position on climate science, it tells me something.

    There is no example of a simpler matter to cover than climate science: There are no he-said, she-said issues, the discussion is all public. The scientists are all available, and happy to explain why they’re saying what they’re saying. It is a physical science, and the arguments are based on the laws of physics – so anyone covering it should be able to follow the issues and understand the nature of the arguments. Moreover, all major scientific bodies are on one side of the issue (as Wikipedia states: “Since 2007, when the American Association of Petroleum Geologists released a revised statement, no scientific body of national or international standing rejects the findings of human-induced effects on climate change” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change#Statements_by_dissenting_organizations) as are the overwhelming majority of individual scientists.

    Moreover, as I have stated, if you look into this yourself (which you really should do, given its importance) you’ll see that what the mainstream scientists are saying is inherently more plausible than the statements of the deniers.

    What the litmus test reveals is this: if you can’t get climate science right, what can you get right?

    Yet the WSJ (and its sibling Murdoch media) get this wrong consistently. The WSJ editorial page is where you go to find out what the deniers are saying, not to learn simple facts.

    Two additional points:

    1) I find myself in agreement with some of the others that your statements are less than clear. The original point of this discussion was my comment about the WSJ editorial page and its coverage of climate science – as another example of the anti-intellectualism you yourself decry. How people who want to enact this or that policy should talk about science is pretty irrelevant to that. You either agree that climate science is as I have described it above or not, and if you do, you should be pretty appalled by the WSJ (not to mention lots of the rest of the media).

    Moreover, how would you propose to “stick to arguments on the merits, and show that arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny”? The point you seem to me making (now, at least) is about the nature of the public debate, not the scientific one. People who take the time to examine the arguments come down on the side of the consensus. That is, in fact, why there is a consensus. So my question to you is How would you propose “showing” anything about a technical matter to a non-technical public?

    2) You are misreading Kuhn – but this is easy to do, as it is pretty obscure stuff. Kuhn talks about the breakdown of scientific paradigms. When, for example, classical mechanics no longer can explain observations, scientists have to move on to a new way of looking at the world, quantum mechanics. However, Kuhn does not make the claim that the results of the science of the previous paradigm were “wrong”. If they were wrong, they wouldn’t have explained the data. In general, what usually happens is that the old science becomes a limiting case of the new science, which can derive all the results of the old science in a different way.

    Popper’s work was more about falsifiability than scientific revolutions per se.

    I should note that climate science is pretty far afield from all of this anyway. The science of the atmosphere is really based on entirely non-controversial and well established chemistry and physics, such as the transmission of light and heat and the properties of gasses. Moreover, it not an issue that it’s phrased in a way that makes it non-falsifiable. Either temperatures will increase or not.

  33. 33 David Glasner August 29, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    Hoping, I concede once again, as I did in my previous response to you, that I should have chosen my words more carefully. That doesn’t mean that I am weaseling. The phrase “over-reliance on the authority of science” confirms that I was referring not to any substantive position taken, but to a mode of argumentation. Nevertheless, although my intention could be inferred from a careful parsing of my statement, I agreed that I had not been as clear as I should have been in explaining what I was referring to. So your charge is not only insulting, it is untrue, and demonstrably so.

  34. 34 David Glasner August 30, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Mitch, Thanks for your careful explanation of the issues. Again I will repeat I have nothing to say about the science of climate change about which I shamefacedly plead ignorance. In my ignorance, I am inclined to accept (tentatively, which is the only way that any scientific proposition ought to be accepted) the position of those whom I find more credible. I do not find the position espoused by the Wall Street Journal editorial page to be more credible. The only issue that I, admittedly clumsily, wanted to raise in connection with climate change was that I take exception to the tendency of advocates of the climate change position to invoke the authority of science to support their position. I reject ex cathedra arguments, whether they come from organized religion or organized science. You ask::

    How would you propose “showing” anything about a technical matter to a non-technical public?

    My answer is not by saying this is the scientific consensus, therefore you must accept it, or you are a disbeliever in science. That is the easy way out. To be fair, you correctly tell me that I should not be content to remain ignorant of the science of climate change. I agree that I should not be, but in the long list of my shortcomings that is probably not in the top 25. But I admit it, I am too lazy to study the issue, so that I could discuss it intelligently. I agree that it is hard not to invoke the authority of science when the Wall Street Journal tries to dismiss what you believe are clearly compelling scientific arguments, so I understand why it is tempting to say well there is a scientific consensus and you ought to accept it. But I don’t believe that that is a proper argument to make, especially because it violates what makes science special which is that every question remains open if someone can up with a new hypothesis and a new argument for a different way to solve a scientific problem.

    About Kuhn. He called his book The structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s true that a scientific revolution has to explain the observations of the old paradigm, but no doubt a revolutionary theory of climate change that overturned the currently accepted paradigm would do that as well, but in the new paradigm it would have a completely different meaning from the one you attach to it just as Galileo explained the observation that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west in a completely different way from how the earlier paradigm explained it. About Popper, you really cannot summarize his work in one sentence. And he had a lot to say about scientific revolutions.

  35. 35 Lewis August 30, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    This particular spat has evolved from a somewhat juvenile snipe-fest into a pretty interesting discussion about the nature of science, its place in public discourse and what constitutes a valid lay-made scientific argument.

    While I get your point regarding how best (or at least most honestly) to treat scientific disagreement, I feel as if you gloss over something. When lay people, a group in which I consider myself a lifelong member, talk about science, or indeed any technical field in which they are not trained, deference to expertise and/or to expert consensus is not, I think, in derogation of some perceived notion of democracy. True, very little in science is as immutable as people seem to think, but general peer consensus really is, in many cases, the best authority available.

    With that in mind, I would reemphasize that, when climate change proponents and opponents argue, they rarely express genuine disagreements about alternative interpretations of climate data. Instead, they more often than not fling political platitudes about liberal conspiracies or luddite-ism. Both side are, of course, guilty of this (sound the cliche alarm). When you begged off allegiance to what is (and it really is) the general consensus of contemporary climate science, you hit a nerve not so much because you pointed out that holdouts exist, but because your agnosticism evoked hours of mindless “drill baby drill”.

    Do smart people disagree about man-made, carbon-induced global warming? Sure. But that does not mean that most people who disagree about man-made, carbon-induced global warming /are smart/. Or even that they know what they’re talking about.

    The flip side of your argument David is that even the presence of technically expert contrary opinions do not unmake a consensus, and, if I may return to the democracy theme, in science, the majority rules. The majority certainly isn’t infallible, but it is the closest thing to final authority available, at least to the lay community. For the same reason I, a lawyer with a degree who has written on constitutional law, get infuriated chills every time I hear some nitwit talk about the Affordable Care Act being unconstitutional, I suspect that scientists who agree with the consensus about climate change don’t much appreciate lay people telling them they’re wrong when they have a PhD and the other guy has little more than a loud voice and a foam board sign.

    I hope you’ll agree that one should trust the expert’s opinion before one trust’s the layperson’s opinion. It follows that one should trust more experts before one trusts fewer experts. It’s really as simple as that.

  36. 36 David Glasner August 30, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Lewis, Thanks for your comment. Faced with an array of conflicting opinions about something I don’t know enough about to trust my own opinion, I defer to the experts that I trust most, or feel are most competent. That’s normal — I hate to say this — common sense. And that is, more or less, how I choose a side in the climate change debate. But there is a tendency — and we see it not only in the climate change debate — for one side to try to discredit the other side by saying that science is on its side. So science has replaced God. I don’t think that science needs — or deserves — to be put in that position. In choosing which opinion to follow it’s reasonable to have a presumption in favor of the majority opinion, but only a presumption. The presumption should not allow one side effectively to end the discussion on its terms. I am not sure what it means to say that the majority rules in science. The minority does not have to concede that the majority is right in science the way that the minority has to concede that the majority gets to govern.

  37. 37 Mitch August 31, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    We will have to agree to disagree about the relevance of Kuhn and Popper to this discussion. I still want to revisit the point about “showing” things to a nontechnical audience.

    You haven’t actually addressed the issue as it exists today. What is happening is that there are a set of manufactured “experts” who spout nonsense on the subject, but who are given significant media coverage. This is because (a) the WSJ and other Murdoch media want to misinform the public, and (b) the rest of the media is cowed by them, and (c) there is this fixation in modern journalism on “balance”, so if someone says “X”, you will always counterpose someone who says “not X”.

    So, for example, Joe Bastardi (a meteorologist) goes on Fox News frequently. He makes a whole slew of scientific-sounding but completely absurd statements that purport to show that the first law of thermodynamics rules out global warming.

    Anyone who knows anything about the subject would roll her eyes at this stuff, but that’s not the point – they’re not the target audience. How does the lay public respond? They say, “wow this guy seems to have credentials and what he is saying sounds like science. So there must be some real debate about climate. Let’s not do anything about it until the debate is settled.”

    Or maybe they say: “I have to admit that I don’t have a strong view about climate change even though for a variety of reasons including possible climate change I would favor phasing in a carbon tax gradually over time.”

    Yes, if you can get people to listen to you, you could patiently explain why what Bastardi is saying wouldn’t get you through an undergraduate course in physics. But it’s just whack-a-mole. There’ll be another Bastardi (say, Chris Monckton, look him up) to spout something else.

    BTW, I don’t mean to say that Bastardi and Monckton et al haven’t been debunked, they have – repeatedly and carefully. Good luck getting the debunking covered in the news. Monckton has been invited to testify on climate science to Congress (by the Republicans, of course).

    So what is a layperson to do? One is either willing to look into these things oneself, or one has to rely on someone else. If one is relying on someone else, it’s worthwhile to look at who they are and how they work. If literally *all* of the relevant scientific bodies have come down on one side of the issue, and on the other side you have Joe Bastardi, a reasonable member of the public *should* probably begin to doubt that Bastardi is right. But the public (especially the members of the public that get their news from Fox and the WSJ editorial page) don’t even know what the state of scientific opinion is. That is why it is not necessarily fruitless to keep pointing out what the scientists are saying.

  38. 38 David Glasner September 1, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Mitch, I don’t say that one shouldn’t call people to account for making preposterous claims about science. But I do say that just because it’s annoying to respond to a constant stream of fallacious statements, that doesn’t give people the right to say: “I’m sorry, but science has already settled this question, so I don’t have to explain why you are wrong and an idiot. Just go away and don’t bother me any more.”

  39. 39 Barry September 1, 2011 at 8:40 am

    David, it has. When one read the anti-AGW work, it’s basically a bunch of either non-scientists or non-climate scientists using bad logic and claims which have been disproven (and endlessly recycled, as zombies). The the predictions made by anti-AGW people have been overwhelmingly wrong. The best that they have has been ‘walking slowly backwards’.

    In addition, the data just keeps pouring on in supporting AGW.

    In terms of explaining technical work to non-technical people, this is not foreign to economics.

    So I ask (apologies if you’ve already answered; it’s getting hard to track things through these threads):

    Where else does this skepticism apply? Where in economics, for example, do you reject something with the same level of consensus and data (and where the consensus was developed against similar David-and-Goliath levels of money)?

  40. 40 Barry September 1, 2011 at 8:42 am

    In addition, what’s striking about the AGW debate is that it’s also a very clear case of science vs. monied interests interested in trashing the science. It’s as traceable as the tobacco lie campaign, with some of the same organizations.

    It’s not like there’s a secret campaign to trash the science, which would excuse people being fooled.

  41. 41 Mitch September 1, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    You have quotes around that, but it is a strawman argument. No one uses these terms and no one says what you’re quoting. People are quite happy to explain why what the deniers are saying is wrong. The problem is that it gets them nowhere, as the WSJ and its ilk are forever willing to repeat the same wrong arguments even after they’re been debunked for the 1000th time.

  42. 42 David Glasner September 10, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Mitch and Barry, Sorry to take so long to get back to this (by now stale) thread. I don’t have much to add to what I have already said. I think science and scientists do not themselves a service when they make statements that suggest that science has proven anything and that people who question any scientific proposition cannot possibly have any basis for dissenting from what science has “established” to be true. The question is not whether what science says is always true, because what science says often turns out to be false, but whether people who are disputing a given scientific proposition are able to offer any reasonable basis for their position. That’s all I am saying. Don’t use science as an authority, rather focus on the incoherence of what the anti-climate change people are saying. As far as economics goes, I used to think that every economist believed that minimum wage laws increase unemployment among the low-skilled. But Obama’s new chairman of the council of economic advisers wrote a paper in the 1990s in which he claimed to have found evidence to the contrary. Questions were raised about whether his evidence was reliable and convincing but I don’t know if the paper’s conclusions were ever supported by other evidence.


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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing that you read on this blog necessarily reflects the views of the FTC or the individual commissioners. Although I work at the FTC as an antitrust economist, most of my research and writing has been on monetary economics and policy and the history of monetary theory. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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