Economics 101 vs. Polling 101: Why Daniel Klein may be right, but for the wrong reasons

Nate Silver puts several bullet-holes through this Wall Street Journal op-ed by Daniel Klein, which is a good thing since both Klein’s piece and the poll he conducted and then based the piece on are little more than a broadside against progressives and liberals. Both the Op-Ed and the poll, unfortunately, create a lot more heat than light. Conservatives, of course, are happily disseminating the results across the right-wing blogosphere.

Now, it doesn’t take much time to realize how badly Klein has skewed his poll and its results to the right. It’s hardly as if economic theory has evolved into a hard science overnight. Nor have economists reached any sort of universal consensus on the many economic questions of the day.

As Silver notes, there are broadly held views on issues like free trade, but once you get past the very general consensus you run into myriad points of disagreement. Furthermore, questions about living standards hardly strike me as easily boiled down to right and wrong answers. Many questions are simply vague and misleading.

Silver writes:

“If you were expecting fifth grade questions about supply and demand, you'd be wrong. Let me just say: I come at this as a University of Chicago economics graduate who indeed disagrees with the liberal orthodoxy on many economic matters. But questions such as “[Does] poverty cause crime?”, which was one of the questions that Klein and Buturovic excluded without explanation, are more like Zen meditations than matters of basic economics.

Others were poorly phrased, for instance: “A company that has the largest market share is a monopoly?”. This is confusing; having the largest market share is a necessary, though hardly sufficient, condition for being a monopoly, and no alternative definitions were presented. Is this question really an objective basis for determining whether someone is more or less “enlightened” (that's actually the term that Klein uses!) about economics?

There would have been much better ways to construct a study like this one. For instance, questions could have been developed from standardized tests of high school students, like the AP Economics exam, or from surveys of academic economists. Such studies might well support Klein's thesis. But between the poorly-considered questions and the poor choice of survey partner, this amounts to junk science.”

Ultimately, Klein is polling not on what is right or wrong (or enlightened or unenlightened as he puts it) but rather on whether people agree or disagree with his conclusions. Not surprisingly, we discover that conservatives and libertarians agree with Klein far more than progressives and liberals. Klein is, after all, a libertarian-leaning George Mason University economics professor.

I write all of this well aware that on many of these questions I actually fall more in line with Klein’s economics. Rent control does lead to housing shortages; having the largest market share does not in and of itself mean that a company has a monopoly. Nor do I believe global markets necessarily exploit foreign workers – though in some instances that has certainly happened.

Children in India or China have a better chance making it in a factory job than working as beggars or prostitutes. I’d rather they were given even that meager opportunity than be condemned to starvation and the sex trade.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with Klein’s economics it’s important to note that this is bad polling done for strictly partisan reasons. The bias is practically dripping from the Op-Ed's pages. I wouldn’t be surprised if a good portion of progressives and liberals really did have some fundamental flaws in their thinking on economic matters, but conservatives shouldn’t take too much comfort in the results of a clearly slanted poll either.

Understanding Econ 101 is one thing; understanding the much more complex economic systems of the real world is something else entirely. In that regard, Americans of all political stripes are woefully lacking.

Bay Area NewseconomicsNate SilverPolitics

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