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Monday, July 06, 2009

Taking Complete Leave of their Senses

Some examples of economists who "write a piece for public consumption," and in doing so, seem to "take complete leave of [their] senses":

Example 1:

Missing the Point on High-Speed Rail, by Ryan Avent: Ed Glaeser is a fantastic economist. He has done magnificent work analyzing the economics of urban growth and written indispensable papers on the connection between housing regulations and migration.

But when the man picks up his pen to write a piece for public consumption, he tends to take complete leave of his senses. I realize that this is a common affliction among economists, but Glaeser suffers from a severe case of the syndrome.

In a Friday piece in the Boston Globe, Glaeser takes on the administration's push to fund construction of high-speed rail corridors around the country. In doing so, he combines the cognitive failures of every amateur train hater with a serious lapse in critical thinking. ...

Example 2:

Administrative Costs, by Paul Krugman: Whenever you encounter “research” from the Heritage Foundation, you always have to bear in mind that Heritage isn’t really a think tank; it’s a propaganda shop. Everything it says is automatically suspect.

Greg Mankiw forgets this rule, and approvingly (yes, it’s obvious he approves -no wiggling out) links to a recent Heritage attempt to explain away Medicare’s low administrative costs...

Well, whaddya know — this is an old argument, and has been thoroughly refuted. ...

You should always remember:

1. Don’t believe anything Heritage says.

2. If you find what Heritage is saying plausible, remember rule 1.

[Note: Krugman follow up here.]

Continuing with Example 2, Andrew Gelman can't understand why Greg Mankiw quotes the Heritage Foundation instead of someone from "Harvard's world-class Department of Heath Care Policy" with the authority and credibility to speak on these issues (hence the "Eagle Scout" reference):

Does Medicare actually have higher administrative costs than private insurers?, by Andrew Gelman: Greg Mankiw links to an article that illustrates the challenges of interpreting raw numbers causally. This would really be a great example for your introductory statistics or economics classes, because the article, by Robert Book, starts off by identifying a statistical error and then goes on to make a nearly identical error of its own! ...

I'm no expert in health policy. These are just my impressions as a teacher of statistics. It's great to find such examples that are so relevant to policy. I was surprised to see Mankiw quote the above article without criticism; but I'm pretty sure he's studied these issues in a lot more detail than I have, and so perhaps he has additional knowledge that makes him confident in the substance of Book's reasoning.

In particular, I expect that Mankiw has spent some time talking with the faculty at Harvard's world-class Department of Heath Care Policy. I don't know if any of their professors are Eagle Scouts, but they do have this guy, who was the founding editor of the Journal of Health Economics, a member of the editorial board of the New England Journal of Medicine, vice chair of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, etc etc. Also on the board of directors of Aetna so it looks like he has experience on both sides. Perhaps Newhouse or one of his colleagues has done a more detailed study that support's Book's conclusions.

    Posted by on Monday, July 6, 2009 at 01:25 PM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (20)

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