Sunday, June 10, 2012

new empirical research on unions and upward mobility

At various points during Anti-Mankiw's history we've devoted ourselves to a topic that is often completely ignored by the mainstream: institutions. And even when they are talked about, it's usually in the context of their distorting or enhancing effects on economic efficiency. Schooling, we are told, raises the productive potential of the individual by imparting on him or her the skills or signals conducive to success in the labor market. Unions, we are told, distort labor market equilibrium by artificially raising wages. No matter the story, you can bet that it has something to do, in the end, with economic efficiency. [Read this post which sums up Anti-Mankiw's view of the education debate with the mainstream quite well.]

Those devoted to a social economy approach, on the other hand, realize that mainstream economics' views about efficiency are overly simplified at best and downright biased at most. Boiling efficiency down to a simple, monetized concept of "welfare" in which outcomes are compared to an idealized market equilibrium is inappropriate when other social desiderata are relevant -- such as health, or stable living standards, or a sustainable environment. In the social economy approach, unions are signals of a stable society because collective bargaining can be used to counter employer power.

New state-level evidence from the U.S. presented by our colleague at UMass Eric Hoyt as well as CEPR senior economist John Schmitt shows that there is at least a weak positive relationship between union density and various measures of upward economic mobility (see the link for the details -- it's a short post and would be a great teaching resource in an intro-level course). Such evidence goes a long way in furthering the social economy approach to economics, in which economic mobility is dealt with in a concrete manner. While Mankiw may suggest time and again that education is the means by which economic opportunity is realized, neither the data nor the theory -- from a social-institutional standpoint -- validates his claim (at least, not as education is currently done in the U.S.!).

Hoyt and Schmitt, on the other hand, suggest an alternative institution for enhancing economic mobility and have the data to back it up.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

the weaknesses of analogical reasoning

This article, shared recently by Marginal Revolution, got Anti-Mankiw's blood boiling, for all the wrong reasons. The core issue was the defense of mainstream economics through the use of particular analogies that we believe are fundamentally flawed.

As we explain elsewhere, analogies are often a deceptive way of explaining the core analytical framework of a concept, because an analogy between A and B is only as good as the likeness between A and B. It seems better to start off by explaining the core logical framework from within the language of economics, instead of alluding to its likeness to other sciences. Unfortunately, that is not the approach taken in Mankiw's textbook -- as early as chapter 2 he analogizes the study of "economic science" to physics.

What are the specific offenses that the article makes?

1. Saying that economics is like other sciences, such as medicine. As the article states,
"Galbraith’s and Varoufakis’s worry [that economics has become too mathematical] has been around for 20 years, says Grossman at Princeton. “It comes and goes. It particularly comes when economic times are hard, when it appears that the old way has let us down.” Did the old way let us down? “No,” he answers, “which is very different from saying we know everything. … I don’t think medicine has let us down because there are diseases we don’t know how to cure.”"
Economics is not like medical science. In medicine, all hypotheses go through rigorous empirical testing before they can be accepted by the field, and even at that point, caution is exercised when it comes to making generalizations. Also, in medicine, we don't have to make assumptions about how cells or molecules behave, while with people, making such assumptions is not only very important, but subject to a much wider menu of possible interpretations, often with dramatically different, and political, implications.

2. The idea that there is a "free market" in economics departments, so that graduate students can pick the ones that seem to be offering the most realistic version of economic theory out there. As the article states,
"Harald Uhlig, chair of the economics department at the University of Chicago, another of the No. 1-rated economics graduate schools in the U.S., offers a kind of a model of his own. In an e-mail, he writes: “Above all, I do not believe in central planning. What is true in private markets is true in PhD education as well: It is good to see different places try different approaches, to let the PhD students decide where they want to be educated, and to let the marketplace for future scientists decide what works and what does not. I am sure that if the new PhD program in Athens is successful and produces the top young economics researchers of the next generation, many other PhD programs will take notice.”
Such a comment ignores the very real differences between top graduate programs and lower-ranked schools in terms of prestige -- something that often goes hand-in-hand with support for the status quo and getting top (influential) jobs, and refraining from any radical criticism of the current paradigm (which is what economics needs at this point).

The thing that concerns us most about these analogies is that, for the casual reader who doesn't know much about the field of economics, it is very easy to take these analogies for granted. Without any rigorous knowledge of the field, understanding is made easier by analogy.

But for those who have an advanced understanding of the field, the weakness of the analogical approach is clear. We are, indeed, actively promoting ignorance by taking such an approach, instead of being honest about our flaws and about the structure of graduate education.