Alas, Poor Yoram

crazyskullThis just in: The study of physics makes people less compassionate. Data show that when cornered at a party by the inventor of a perpetual motion machine, physics majors are particularly unlikely to offer positive encouragement.

Also, the study of history leads to closed-mindedness. After taking an American history course, students become considerably less open to the idea that Millard Fillmore might have been Abraham Lincoln’s vice president.

Meanwhile, the study of chemistry makes people less ambitious. Chemistry students are particularly unwilling to invest in lead-to-gold conversion kits, even when they are conveniently offered over the Internet.

Geology students are just plain nasty. Among all majors, they are the least likely to participate in coordinated meditation exercises for the prevention of earthquakes — even when the organizers estimate that hundreds of thousands of lives might be at stake.

And economics majors are so greedy that they are particularly unlikely to donate to left-wing interest groups that seek to undermine capitalism.

I made all of those up except for the last one, which I got from University of Washington Lecturer Yoram Bauman’s contribution to yesterday’s New York Times, where he actually (and this part I swear to God I am not making up!!!) draws the conclusion that students who have studied the merits of capitalism are among the least likely to support its detractors and then manages to conclude that this is because economics students are greedy.

What can one possibly say? Did no alternative hypothesis present itself to the editors of the New York Times? Did it not occur to them, for example, that economics courses might, you know, teach something about critical thinking? Except, of course, when those courses are taught by the likes of Yoram Bauman.

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149 Responses to “Alas, Poor Yoram”


  1. 1 1 JohnW

    What is an “environmental economist” anyway?

  2. 2 2 Jason

    How is economics students’ disapproval of anti-capitalism any different to homeopathy students’ disapproval of mainstream medicine? Or med students’ disapproval of homeopathy for that matter?

    I mean, Steve and I presumably agree with the stances of two of the three groups above but this thought experiment doesn’t do much to help us agree on which one is wrong.

  3. 3 3 Bennett Haselton

    Some experiments suggest that people who study economics really are more greedy:
    http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/economics_frank/
    In one survey, economics professors were more than twice as likely as professors in any other subject, to report that they had given no money to charity in the previous year.

    In this case the explanation can’t be that they refused to donate to groups that “undermine capitalism”, because you can donate to charities supporting any view that you want, including pro-libertarian ones. And even most libertarians don’t think that donating to AIDS orphans in Rwanda is “undermining capitalism”.

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t answer the question of whether the study of economics *caused* the professors to become less inclined to give. Maybe they were born selfish and that made them study econ :)

    To really establish cause and effect, it seems like this would work: divide people into two random groups, teach econ to half of them (however much you think makes a difference), then ask some subset of each group to donate to a left-wing group, and ask another subset to donate to a politically neutral but obviously worthy cause, like support for AIDS orphans in Africa (administered by a group that is known to be trustworthy).

    Based on prior experiments, we already expect that econ students will be less likely to donate to the left-wing group, either because taking the econ course has made them selfish, or (as you hypothesize) because taking econ has taught them the merits of capitalism. But if they’re also less likely to donate to AIDS orphans, that would seem to indicate that taking econ really did make them more selfish.

  4. 4 4 Roger Schlafly

    I guess you are arguing that Econ majors and students would be better able to evaluate the utility of a donation to a left-wing student organization, and more likely to conclude that it is a waste of money, or worse. Or at least the study should have considered that possibility before deciding that the students were more selfish. This point was made on Yoram’s blog, and his response is:

    But I will note that the conclusion that you and Ari lean towards — that student giving is changed by their views on “the usefulness of the organization and its purpose” — is in an important way unknowable and untestable. … I think it makes more sense to take a critical look and conclude that an organization dedicated to reducing student tuition fees is in fact a public good from the perspective of the students.

    So you are right. He does not consider the obvious alternative hypothesis, and suffers from the Psychologist’s fallacy. He even ends his paper (free link from his blog) by saying, “training students in ways that make them more self-interested makes them worse off.”

  5. 5 5 Andy

    Remarkable how someone can actually draw such a conclusion, I’m at a loss for words…

    This also touches on something I have thought about: how do you define if someone is greedy or not? Example: I never give to charity but I do give almost everything I earn (what’s left after the government has forced me to give 40% to everyone else) to my family, am I greedy or not greedy? I would wager that I give away more, both of my income and in absolute terms since I earn more than average, than most people who give to charity but I would show up as greedy in the test proposed by Bennett.

  6. 6 6 The Anonymous Cosmologist

    Maybe the problem is that Yoram Bauman is described in the NYT as “an environmental economist”. That sounds a bit like an astrological astronomer, or a homeopathic doctor.

  7. 7 7 Cos

    Your post has inspired me and reminded me that I meant to make a few more donations to left-wing organizations and candidates before the end of the year.

  8. 8 8 Ken B

    I think Bennett is missing the point. He could as well argue that the only way we can tell if learning American history makes you more close-minded is to . The point is not whether people who study econ really are . It is that Baumann’s conclusion is such a howling non-sequitur that it would be obvious in any subject like hiotory or physics. It should be equally obvious in econ.

    Steve omits a self-referential example. Mathematicians are less patient. We’ve seen Steve lose his when people try to tell him that the Peano Axioms are inconsistent!

  9. 9 9 Ross Levatter

    Well, of course Yoram is well known as the “Stand up Economist” (analogous: Stand up Comedian), and his “10 Principles of Economics” (5:21, office safe) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVp8UGjECt4 is hilarious.

    So at first I thought it was a joke. But I can’t read between the lines of his original article to conclude it’s anything but a non-sequitur.

    It’s interesting that less than 24 hours before Steve’s post, Bryan Caplan at Econlog praised Yoram’s new book, volume 2 of a graphic novel (comic book) explaining economics [The Cartoon Book of Economics, Vol. 2: Macro, http://www.amazon.com/Cartoon-Introduction-Economics-Two-Macroeconomics/dp/0809033615/ref=pd_bxgy_b_text_b ]. Bryan felt Yoram got most everything spot on.

  10. 10 10 Yoram Bauman

    Thanks for the comments on my article, Steven. But you should look at our research in the context of the previous literature. Frey and Meier (2004) look at a nearly identical situation at the University of Zurich, where students are asked if they want to contribute to scholarship funds for needy students and for foreign students; almost 60% of students donate (!) and again economists donate less than the rest. Perhaps you want to argue that these scholarship funds are also not public goods, or perhaps you want to argue that “all taxation is theft” and therefore that there is a fundamental flaw in all public goods experiments? (Your comment on my blog (here) comes dangerously close to this when you argue that ATN is not a public good for students because “*somebody else is paying for that lunch*. Why is it more altruistic to care about students than to care about taxpayers?” Indeed, why is national defense a public good… think about it from the perspective of Iran! For that matter, classroom public goods experiments—where the experimenter hands out “free money”—are perhaps also not public goods… after all, that money belongs to someone, and if it didn’t go to me it would go to somebody else, like the experimenter or the school or the foundation that paid for the experiment. That’s why I didn’t contribute!!) So I stand by the claim in the NYT article that “academic research suggests that there’s a good deal of truth to the stereotype.” Having said that, I will also concede that your criticism is a fair one, albeit one that has been made before: “Indeed, it is possible in this case – as in, say, a requested donation for an organization dedicated to replacing competitive markets with economy-wide price controls – that economics training would reduce donation rates not because students become more SELFISH but because they become more EDUCATED. Regardless of the cause, however, it is clear that economics training changes the giving behavior of non-majors.” That’s from the last sentence of our published journal article; perhaps you should read it :)

    PS. Maybe you will find more to your liking the 2nd volume of my Cartoon Introduction to Economics, just released! Bryan Caplan over at Econlib loved it.

  11. 11 11 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram: Not contributing to scholarship funds for needy students is arguably evidence of selfishness. Not contributing to a program that wants to take money from people named A, B and C in order to give money to people named X, Y and Z is not by any conceivable standard evidence of selfishness.

    Regarding classroom public goods experiments, you are absolutely right, and I have made this point in print multiple times (in Slate, in Reason, and on this blog). The student who pays the experimenter to hand out “free money” to his fellow students is most assuredly not demonstrating altruism, or selflessness, or anything of the kind. You write “That money belons to someone and if it didn’t go to me it would go to someone else” as if we were supposed to point at this and laugh. In fact, I’d be disappointed in any economics student who failed to grasp this simple truth.

    What about my other examples? What about the white person who opposes massive racially-based transfers from blacks to whites? Is he demonstrating selflessness? How does this differ from the student who opposes transfers from non-students to students?

  12. 12 12 Ken B

    I note that Yoram is spending time replying. This is good and I am pleased to see the response. But it is also time he is not spending at a food bank. I conclude that reading Landsburg makes people less caring.

    This is absurd of course. It is not just that the causal link from reading Landsburg to spending time writing is unproven. Even if I could prove that, and even if I could prove that that meant fewer hours at a food bank it would still not prove the ‘less caring’ claim.

  13. 13 13 Ken B

    @Yoram: Did I read what you said correctly? You have just admitted (I choose the verb carefully) that what you said in the NYT is disclaimed in the last sentence of your journal article, but not in the NYT article? That in other words when presenting your data in a detailed report to competent peers you add the disclaimer, but when writing an opinion piece for broader consumption you suppress the rather large and serious caveat?

  14. 14 14 Ken B

    I assume that Yoram’s experiment used “Affordable Tuition Now” becasue he assumes that this is a cause that all (or nearly all) the students will support, so that he can see the refusal to donate $3 as an attempt to free-ride. But there are reasons why this is a bad choice. First, students might NOT support the ATN idea. Or they might support them only out of selfishness, as in Steve’s several examples. Or they might realize the program has little chance of success because they just read Mancur Olson in class.

    ATN seems almost exactly wrong for the purpose intended.

  15. 15 15 Roger Schlafly

    Yoram, you claim to quote your paper, but I downloaded your paper from your blog and it does not say that at all.

    I infer from this that an editor forced you to change your conclusion in order to publish the paper. But you do not agree with the change, so you are distributing a version of the paper without the change on your blog, and describing your results without the change in the NY Times. Is that correct?

  16. 16 16 Patrick R. Sullivan

    ‘Perhaps you want to argue that these scholarship funds are also not public goods….’

    There’s no perhaps about it. Clearly they are not public goods in the Paul Samuelson (1954) definition of the term; non rivalrous and non excludable in consumption.

    You teach economics?

  17. 17 17 iceman

    So apparently pure transfers are a “public” good from the perspective of the recipients, whereas national defense is not a public “good” from the perspective of those who might wish to attack us. (How about people who like to pollute?) Before today I would’ve thought ‘public good for some’ was an oxymoron, and every $ one chooses (or not) to give to a student etc. has a corresponding impact on the amount of benefits provided.

  18. 18 18 iceman

    Here’s a theory (I just made up) that might also be “cool” to examine: Economists like John List have found that people often behave quite differently in ‘the field’ – when they don’t know they’re being watched or judged by someone – than in ‘the lab’. (The results have called into question some of the basic tenets of behavioral economics.) Could there be some reason people who study economics are more likely to respond based on their actual convictions (e.g. due to their greater exposure to the realities of trade-offs), rather than the way they believe the experimenter ‘wants’ and/or how others might view their actions in terms of (less so informed notions of) ‘compassion’? If so, that wouldn’t seem to provide much of a commentary in terms of self-interest.

  19. 19 19 nobody.really

    Not sure I’m getting all the nuances here, but here’s what I’ve gleaned so far:

    Yoram Mauman interprets a study to demonstrate that students who become econ majors are less likely to give to charity than other students, and the act of taking an econ class tends to cause students who major in other subjects to become less willing to give to charity.

    Landsburg offers an alternative interp of the data: Students who become econ majors are less likely to give to the particular charities in the study than are other students, and the act of taking an econ class tends to cause students that major in other subjects to become less willing to give to the particular charities in the study. But offer other charities, and perhaps you’d get different results.

    I can’t deny the possibility of Landsburg’s analysis. In order to explore the analysis further, I’d be interested in hearing people’s nominations of charities that we imagine would be especially appealing to econ majors. (And perhaps we could then identify an actual working economist who has contact with students and who might be able to conduct an actual experiment….?)

    But, for what it’s worth, I find Mauman’s thesis entirely plausible. For those of you who don’t speak Blog, this translates to, “Mauman’s thesis (to the extent that I understand it) conforms to my personal experience.”

    I found my first econ class to be a revelation. It shook my world view quite a bit. It stripped a lot of sentimentality from my analyses and challenged conventional thinking. More importantly, it provided a framework from which to admire people who flouted conventional thinking, rather than to disdain them. And in helping me gain a new vantage point from which to view conventional thinking, my first econ class broke me free from a certain amount of groupthink.

    Was there a loss of group cohesion? I expect so. Did that cause me to stop giving to charity? I’m not so sure….

    …because, honestly, I’ve always been a cheapskate. I’ve always had a propensity for strategic (dare I say, back-stabbing?) behavior. And I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my strategic propensities. A study of economics ushered me into a community of people who regarded such strategic behavior as clever and laudable, within limits, and helped me come to terms with it. So, while I don’t know that I gave any less to charity than I had in the past, I suspect I stopped hassling other people (such as my parents) about the merits of giving to the Salvation Army guy at the storefront.

    And yes, I opted to major in econ – a field of study I had never given a thought to upon entering college.

    Just one more data point for your consideration.

  20. 20 20 Yoram Bauman

    In an ideal world we would be able to test how students behave with regard to an ideal public good. (I’m curious about what you think such a thing would be, incidentally. What about my example about national defense and Iran?) In the real world we have to look at the data we have, and the data set we had concerned donations to WashPIRG and ATN. We also had a fairly large body of evidence from other experiments, most of which pointed in the same direction. You’re free to quibble with bits of it, but I think you’re barking up the wrong tree when you look at the big picture.

    The good news is that we can attempt to make some progress on this problem experimentally. Go and ask your students whether they think it’s a public good for students at a public university to spend their own money lobbying for lower tuition rates for all the students at that public university. I bet you $1 that approximately zero percent bring up the issue you raise. (For the record, I would not make this bet if you asked them about white students lobbying for race-base transfers. Why that is I leave as a question for you to ponder, although I’d be happy to share my thoughts upon request.)

    PS. Do these sorts of discussions really have to turn into scorched-earth battles filled with sarcasm and name-calling, and if so why? Remember that this study not only got past the editors at the NYT, but also the editors at JEBO; are you also going to go after them for being morons? (Pretty soon you’ll have nobody left to come to your holiday party :) Look, apparently we have a difference of opinion about what constitutes a public good, and perhaps I can even learn something from exchanging views on your blog, but I’m not going to keep coming here if all I find is vitriol.

    PPS to Roger: I can’t post the final version of the paper online, but if you email me I will send you a PDF. You can contact me through my website.

  21. 21 21 Bob Murphy

    Wow, remind me never to cross Landsburg. Your readers got your back, Steve.

  22. 22 22 Ken B

    Merlin leaves 2 huge piles. Anyone can remove items if he wants; plenty to go around. He refills them.
    One is a pile of pills. Anyone who takes a pill needs no food as long as he is working towards a degree.
    Is this a public good?
    The second is a pile of slips with names. Anyone who picks one of the slips is entitled to have the named person pay for his food as long as he is working towards a degree.
    Is this a public good?

  23. 23 23 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram: I do prefer to avoid vitriol (and as I think you know, there’s much about you that I admire). But it’s impossible for me to comment honestly on your piece without saying that I think it’s idiotic. It really does seem to me that there’s no other way to read it.

    Here’s a simpler example: Ask your students how many of them are willing to pay $5 for the privilege of forcing a randomly chosen classmate to give $10 to another randomly chosen classmate. I am willing to bet that you will get no takers. Assuming that to be the case, are you honestly willing to view this outcome as evidence of selfishness among your students?

  24. 24 24 neil

    Yoram Bauman is confusing a collective interest with a public good. OPEC nations may have a collective interest in raising oil prices, but that is not a public good. Sugar producers may have a collective interest in lobbying for sugar quota, but that is not a public good either.

    And the NYT and JEBO, if not morons, are negligent in failing to see the distinction and its relevance for the absurd conclusion that Bauman draws.

  25. 25 25 Patrick R. Sullivan

    ‘In the real world we have to look at the data we have, and the data set we had concerned donations to WashPIRG and ATN.’

    Passerby to drunk on hands and knees under lamppost: ‘Did you lose something here?’

    Drunk: ‘No, I lost my car keys over there, but the light’s better here.’

  26. 26 26 Ken B

    ‘In the real world we have to look at the data we have, and the data set we had concerned donations to WashPIRG and ATN.’

    Either this is an admission that the data chosen does not quite fit, or it’s an assertion that it simply has to, being the best at hand. The decision to interpret this as free-riding is tendentious. Surely the more natural implication is resistance to redistributive schemes.

    In Yoram’s response to Roger he notes that — as Roger speculated — the early draft did not match the published paper. This vindicates Roger, not refutes him, and still leaves open the question Roger raised.

  27. 27 27 Roger Schlafly

    Yoram, the version of your paper that you distribute on your web site is good enough. I assume that it accurately reflects your opinion or you would not be posting it.

    The fact that your study got past the editors at the NYTimes and JEBO means that it begs criticism all the more. If you can defend it, then please go ahead.

  28. 28 28 Bob Murphy

    Steve Landsburg wrote:

    Yoram[,] I do prefer to avoid vitriol (and as I think you know, there’s much about you that I admire). But it’s impossible for me to comment honestly on your piece without saying that I think it’s idiotic.

    There is only one Steve Landsburg. Accept no substitutes.

  29. 29 29 John

    Perhaps it is just that econ students figure they can spend their money more effectively and with less overhead than nearly any charity by targeting a recipient personally and directly. Few charities have zero overhead costs, and I don’t know of any which let an arbitrary donor decide who actually receives the donations.

    As an example, perhaps they help a friend pay their tuition rather than contributing to a scholarship fund, or take a bag of groceries to a neighbor who lost their job instead of donating to the food bank. Or maybe they decide because of their new understanding of compound interest to save their money so that they can become a philanthropist when they retire.

    Without knowing why, what is of little use.

  30. 30 30 Mike H

    Well, I read Yoram’s article, and it does seem to me that he needs to do more research on the causality side.

    Perhaps he could look for differences in patterns of giving, in those situations where students do donate. Do economics students have the same pattern of giving, but give less overall? Or do they focus their giving more onto specific types of charity? Do they care about evidence that a charity is actually doing what they set out to do?

    Or, he could place students in simulated “tragedy of the commons” situations, some with real money, and some with virtual money to avoid objections about “who pays for this experiment” – to see how they actually behave, not just infer their behaviour from a very specific experiment about a very specific charity. Or survey them about their opinions on congestion charges and global warming.

    Or, he could examine people who do economics ‘mini-courses’ that focus on specific concepts in economics courses, to see if the effect depends on exactly what gets taught.

    Or, he could try to correlate giving and other ‘commons’ behaviour with the grades obtained in economics courses. Do students stop giving more, the more they understand?

    Does it depend which college they studied at, and therefore which “brand” of economics (Freshwater, Saltwater, Austrian, etc) is emphasised?

    Does the effect extend to graduates of courses in personal finance? Bookkeeping? Marketing? Accounting? Actuarial studies?

    Answers to any of these questions would still not address the question of causality. But they would certainly help tease the issue out.

  31. 31 31 David Wallin

    I add one simple alternate hypothesis. Economics majors learn that it makes economic sense for them to contribute to just one charity. It makes no sense contributing $3 to each charity. I assume they could contribute $3 through the check-off to one group and another $3 through other means. And, of course, this assumes that either would be their number one choice. So, I’d expect neither to get any once one learns the silliness of spreading out the contributions (in most scenarios).
    That said, I cannot fathom how anyone could view these two groups as anywhere near close to a “neutral” public good. Then again, I am one of those running laboratory experiments.

  32. 32 32 Yoram Bauman

    Unfortunately, we are still at the name-calling stage, although happily some of the names are now positive. (Being called an idiot is always nicer when it’s paired with words of admiration, so thank you for that, Steve.)

    As for why we’re still at the name-calling stage, I think the answer is easy: you and your blog readers are unwilling to engage on the key issues, one theoretical and one practical.

    The key theoretical issue is about what exactly counts as a public good… and perhaps even what counts as a good, period. You have failed to address my question about whether national security is a public good given the negative impacts on Iran, and more generally you have failed to give a definition. You have also failed to give examples. Anybody throwing around the word “idiotic” owes it to the world (not to mention to the idiot!) to do better.

    The key practical question is exactly how likely it is that students are not giving money to ATN because they feel concern for the general taxpayers who would be on the hook if tuition rates went down. You keep trying to equate this with other situations—about race-based transfers or some student taking $10 from some other student—but we are talking here about practice, not theory, and as a practical matter I think it is obvious that these are not the same. In any case, the paper is about ATN, not about race-based transfers, so the appropriate test here is clear: ask students about the ATN situation. I have already offered to bet a dollar that approximately zero percent of them will say that student contributions to ATN are not a public good because of the impacts on taxpayers. But instead of taking me up on my bet—or addressing the theoretical question about public goods—you duck and weave and change the subject.

    You have given me some good things to think about, Steve, and I deeply appreciate that, but you are failing to engage on either of those key issues. Why that is I don’t know, but of course I’m inclined to think that it’s because my point of view is not as idiotic as you claim :)

  33. 33 33 Mike

    You offer two charities. The first is left-wing and therefore to find meaningful differences in support you would have to control for political leanings of the students in different faculties which you show no sign of having done.
    The second charity is one which in pure theory is a transfer from an outgroup to an ingroup. Even if economics students do not consciously express that reason the classes teach the principle that such transfers tend to be bad (immigration restrictions,farm subsidies, tariffs, etc.)
    You wish to make the claim that economics students give less to this charity because they become selfish through their classes, not because they learn theories which would indicate against that cause. That is a claim which needs more evidence than you seem to have given which seems to be, c’mon everybody knows low tuition is good so it must be selfishness.

  34. 34 34 Mike

    Furthermore both charities are not in fact public goods in the sense that the market undersupplies the goods currently, the market does not provide too little of either political lobbying or education.

  35. 35 35 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram: As economists say all the time, and as I’ve consistently said in my books and on this blog, asking people why they did something is generally a very poor way to find out why they did something. Often they don’t know themselves.

    But here’s an experiment you could do in principle: Ask students how much they’re willing to contribute to an organization that lobbies to reduce taxpayer-funded subsidies to public education. That’s the exact parallel of the study you did, and my guess is that if you do this, you’ll suddenly discover that economics majors are among the most generous of students.

    Edited to add: Your position, incidentally, seems to be that economics instructors don’t do a very good job. After all, one of the main things we seek to instill in our students is an instinctive recognition that redistribution is a very different thing from wealth creation, and that in a redistribution scheme, every winner is paired with a loser. You’re guessing that econ students never learn that lesson. If so, you should be expressing disappointment with the quality of their education, not their morals.

  36. 36 36 Ken B

    Yoram writes:
    your blog readers are unwilling to engage on the key issues, one theoretical and one practical.

    The key theoretical issue is about what exactly counts as a public good…

    I am one of the readers and I posted two examples on this, which go directly to point at issue: is it still a public good if it’s a transfer scheme.

    Yoram has not responded.

  37. 37 37 Patrick R. Sullivan

    ‘You have failed to address my question about whether national security is a public good given the negative impacts on Iran, and more generally you have failed to give a definition. You have also failed to give examples. Anybody throwing around the word “idiotic” owes it to the world (not to mention to the idiot!) to do better.’

    ‘national’ excludes Iran from consideration for Americans. No?

    Btw, I have given you (here and at your blog) the classic definition of a public good; non rivalrous consumption and non excludability. Also a specific example; radio broadcasts.

    Even your rebuttals are fact free.

  38. 38 38 Ken B

    I want to go back to this: “your blog readers are unwilling to engage on the [...]key theoretical issue is about what exactly counts as a public good”

    Patrick R Sullivan posted the definition.

    Ken B posted contrasting examples going to the heart of the disagreement.

    Iceman posted about transfers and if they can be public goods.

    Neil wrote “Yoram Bauman is confusing a collective interest with a public good.”

    David Wallin disputed Yoram’s notion of a public good.

    All of these comments precede Yoram’s assertion. I’d say the readers have addressed the issue quite directly. Yoram’s claim is absurd.

  39. 39 39 nobody.really

    I’d be interested in hearing people’s nominations of charities that we imagine would be especially appealing to econ majors. (And perhaps we could then identify an actual working economist who has contact with students and who might be able to conduct an actual experiment….?)

    Ask students how much they’re willing to contribute to an organization that lobbies to reduce taxpayer-funded subsidies to public education. That’s the exact parallel of the study you did, and my guess is that if you do this, you’ll suddenly discover that economics majors are among the most generous of students.

    Yippie! Game on. Now, if only we could find an economist with access to students that would be interested in this issue. Anybody come to mind…?

    That said, if we think that there were experimental design problems with the original study, do we really want to create a parallel study that mirrors those same problems? Or do we want to design a study that eliminates the problems? To put it another way, what exactly are we trying to demonstrate here?

    Bauman interprets data to show that econ majors, and people with econ training, are less charitable than others. Landsburg contests this interpretation, suggesting that the outcome of Bauman’s study can be explained by considering the nature of the social causes in question. In brief, Landsburg argues that the charitable causes in the study would repel students who have developed a greater aversion to subsidies than the student body in general, and that econ majors (or those with some econ training) might comprise a disproportionate share of this group.

    To offset this bias, Landsburg suggests inviting students to contribute to an organization dedicated to reducing subsidies to education. But in interpreting those results, we’d confront a similar problem we’ve confronted in the original study: it is still foreseeable that the subject matter of the social cause will repel (at least some) students. So we would again end up with results that would be hard to interpret, because people would need to balance their distaste for subsidies in general with their affinity for subsidies that benefit themselves.

    What would be the likely outcome of Landsburg’s study? I would expect that almost no students would contribute to the cause — but of the three that did, two would be econ majors. Whether this outcome would demonstrate that “economics majors are among the most generous of students” would be a matter of interpretation, I guess.

    Perhaps a better design would identify some social cause that would not foreseeably attract or repel students, a cause in which students would have no special self-interest in contributing or resisting contributions (other than the self-interest of holding onto their money).

    Admittedly, I lack much of the libertarian sensibilities of other commenters here, so I’m not confident I could identify an appropriate cause. Is the Red Cross/Red Crescent too tainted with statism (or religious symbolism) for people’s tastes? Oxfam? Heifer Project? Micro-credit organizations?

  40. 40 40 Yoram Bauman

    Steve: Your claim that student efforts to increase tuition rates is “the exact parallel” of student efforts to reduce tuition rates is bizarre. You remain unwilling to engage on the main issues I raised earlier, and as a result this conversation is going nowhere. So let me close by noting that I’m glad that there’s much about me that you admire—very kind of you to say so!—and I hope my Cartoon Macro book will get added to the list. (My publisher will be sending you a copy. The rest of you can buy it, e.g., on Amazon for $12.) Over and out, Yoram.

  41. 41 41 Ken B

    Speaking personally, Yoram’s drive-by mischaracterizations do no inspire me to read his book.

    He complained that no-one addressed his points. I listed people who did. He misrepresents Steve’s (brilliant) counter-example. He suggests that when Steve provides such a counter-example Steve is in fact dodging the issue!

    “Over and out, Yoram.” Brave Sir Robin.

  42. 42 42 Bob_Mac

    From Yoram’s article:

    “You may question whether these groups actually serve the common good, but that’s mostly beside the point”

    No way. It couldn’t possibly be more ‘on’ point. The simplest explanation is that Economic students are simply more likely to:

    a) Find WashPIRG morally conflicting with their personal/political values

    and

    b) Feel that it’s not fair to try to force someone else to pay for their tuition (ATN)

    Try something like a donation to “The Adam Smith Legacy Museum” and see what happens. Like, duh. The nature of the organization is the ‘key’ factor to someone who thinks about where money goes.

    Bob

  43. 43 43 JohnW

    I’d say Yoram should stick to his economic humor in the future, and avoid attempts at serious economics research. Clearly humor is where his competitive advantage lies.

  44. 44 44 nobody.really

    I previously remarked about how my first econ class striped a bit of sentimentality from my thinking. Did others have a similar experience? I have to wonder.

    Economic students are simply more likely to … Feel that it’s not fair to try to force someone else to pay for their tuition (ATN)

    I vaguely recall a guy who said that economics teaches that people respond to incentives, and that the rest is just detail. Whatever a student might think about the merits of forcing others to pay for her tuition, a student would seem to have an incentive to support such a policy. To expect otherwise, even of econ students, would be to expect them to reject a fundamental premise of economics.

    The nature of the organization is the ‘key’ factor to someone who thinks about where money goes.

    Is this offered as a statement of faith, or a hypothesis? Because if it’s the latter, I humbly observe that we have not yet conducted the experiment.

  45. 45 45 Keshav Srinivasan

    Steve, in what book do you discuss why asking people why they did something is a bad idea?

    I think this is an important issue, for instance when you consider celebrity endorsements in the Armchair Economist. If you asked people why they buy products endorsed by celebrities, they could say

    1. “I love that celebrity, so the product must be good, so I decided to buy it.” or

    2. “The company must have paid the celebrity a lot of money, so the company must be reliable, so I decided to buy the product.”

    I think that most people would likely say 1, and that this is an important fact. It’s an indication that they probably hadn’t thought of the chain of reasoning in 2. To test this, we could see what happens when celebrities just choose to endorse something without being paid. It seems to me that the fact that people said 1 rather than 2 implies that they would still buy products based on “natural” endorsement, and they might even buy it in roughly the same quantities as if the celebrity was paid (discounting for the fact that a paid endorsement is usually more publicized in advertising by the company in question).

  46. 46 46 Patrick R. Sullivan

    Yoram may be a stand-up comedian, but he’s clearly not a stand up guy.

  47. 47 47 Jeffrey

    Content has been covered. Moving on to tone:

    Yoram: People who study economics are bad people.
    People who study economics: Yoram made an idiotic argument.
    Yoram: I don’t like it when you insult me.

  48. 48 48 Roger Schlafly

    Yoram, I would be willing to bet that there are econ students who say that ATN is not a public good. I would also bet that there are students who are concerned about what some military action might do to Iran.

  49. 49 49 Scott F

    Yoram:
    Would you send me a copy of your macro text book. I’m a very recent college graduate with minimal resources to get it; the kind of person I believe your research is aimed at helping. It seems you would only be out $12 so that should be of little concern to a man publishing articles in NYT.
    I don’t have the $12 to spare, I could put it on the credit card I have, but would you really be so selfish as to make a poor student take out more loans? Mind you, your book is not worth $12 to me. If I had that $12 dollars I would likely spend it on groceries. Though perhaps we should hope that, through being educated by it, the world should on balance be a richer place. Don’t you think so, or are you one of the awful 40%? I will give you the address where to send it as soon as you would like. Thanks.

    PS The twelve dollars towards groceries would also be graciously accepted.

  50. 50 50 Bob_Mac

    @nobody.really –

    ” Whatever a student might think about the merits of forcing others to pay for her tuition, a student would seem to have an incentive to support such a policy. ”

    The point here is that an Economics student is (probably) more likely to think more clearly and completely about the entire effect of taxation and not just the short-term personal incentive. Or, a slightly different way of wording the question – do you think that Economics students are more likely to support high taxation, or lower tax burdens as a general principle? The answer to this question will be important to how they respond to a ATN donation.

    “Is this offered as a statement of faith, or a hypothesis? Because if it’s the latter, I humbly observe that we have not yet conducted the experiment.”

    No, this is a statement of Economic first principles – That people actually consider and think about what it is that they spend money on – that the product, be it a widget or a charity, is a key factor in whether the money is spent.

    Would you conclude that Republicans are less generous because you found out that they give less money to Democratic candidates?????

    Bob

  51. 51 51 Yoram Bauman

    Wait, I’m back… with a meta-comment: the way to settle this—and put more educational value into it—is to have a debate. So I propose an Idiot Debate, with the following proposed rules: (1) I will pay my own way to come to Rochester this spring on a mutually agreeable date. (2) In addition to my doing an economics comedy show, Steve and I will have an open-to-the-public debate centered on my paper and the topic of “Who is the bigger idiot, Yoram or Steve?” (3) At the end of the debate, the audience will vote on who is the bigger idiot, Yoram or Steve, or if it’s a tie. (4) If more than 60% of the audience vote that Yoram is a bigger idiot, I will leave town with my tail between my legs and you will have gotten a free comedy show. (5) If the vote is tied—less than 60% for Yoram, less than 60% for Steve—then you will pay me my standard college fee of $3000. (6) If more than than 60% of the audience vote that Steve is a bigger idiot, you will pay me double my standard college fee.

    What do you say, Steve? I’m open to modifications of the rules, but if you truly believe what you wrote (“But it’s impossible for me to comment honestly on your piece without saying that I think it’s idiotic. It really does seem to me that there’s no other way to read it.”) then it seems there should be a way for us to put this to the test.

  52. 52 52 Neal Hockley

    Yoram: Please note, I think Steve said your study was idiotic, he didn’t call you idiotic. There’s a subtle but important difference. See arguments “ad hominem”.

    Anon cosmoslogist et al: Its nothing to do with being an environmental economist! I’m an “environmental economist” (i.e. an economist interested in the environment, among other things*) and I agree with Steve (though I haven’t read the original paper) – indeed, I tweeted much the same thing days back.

    On the subject of what is a public good, I would suggest that
    a) National Defence is actually a club good for Americans (nonrivalrous, but excludable through immigration restrictions). It may however have public good properties as well (including for many Iranians) if it deters the Iranian regime from attacking the US. (whether the US military/government’s actions have actually made such an attack more or less likely is another question)

    Finally, looking forward to cartoon macro Yoram!

    *indeed, you could argue that Steve is an environmental economist as well!

  53. 53 53 Neal Hockley

    p.s. this is essentially an empirical question, so a study is more appropriate than a debate.

    The problem is, it is very hard to find a test of altruism which would be viewed similarly by economists and non-economists, both morally and in terms of its perceived efficacy. Even transfers from the subject to a “deserving” recipient might be viewed differently – e.g. economists may think about the disincentives to work created by charitable donations.

    Steve’s solution is neat, but even then economists might have less faith in the campaigning ability of charitable organisations etc.

    A tough one.

  54. 54 54 Wonks Anonymous

    “Indeed, why is national defense a public good… think about it from the perspective of Iran!”
    Bryan Caplan has made just that point.

  55. 55 55 Wonks Anonymous

    For what it’s worth, I’ve seen other studies indicating econ students are more greedy. I just think Yoram used FANTASTICALLY bad examples to make that argument.

  56. 56 56 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram: Our point of contention is not “Who is the bigger idiot?”; it’s whether a specific argument that you made is idiotic.

    I’d happily accept your terms for a debate confined to that topic, except that it’s very hard for me to imagine that the topic is of sufficient general interest to draw an audience.

    So let me propose an alternative bet, which, unlike your bet, actually addresses our differences. Let’s run an experiment to see whether econ students are more or less willing than others to contribute to 1) an organization that opposes the estate tax and 2) an organization that opposes tuition subsidies. If they turn out more willing, you will write a blog post advertising that economics courses promote generosity. If they turn out less willing, I will write a blog post advertising the opposite. The loser will pay for the cost of the experiment (including the fees of the neutral and respected experimentalists we will hire to design the study) and donate $3000 to the “public good” of the winner’s choice.

    Look: You keep saying that “transferring money from taxpayers to students and/or colleges” is a public good; surely this is true or false to exactly the same extent that “transferring money from students and/or colleges to taxpayers” is a public good. So this experiment, in conjunction with yours, is exactly what it will take to separate the question of willingness to pay for public goods from the question of which public goods various sorts of students are most likely to value.

    You wrote: “It seems there should be a way to put this to the test”. Yes. I’ve just proposed it. Do you accept?

  57. 57 57 Ken B

    You are an evil man Steven Landsburg.

    That is of course a large part of the reasdon I read you.

  58. 58 58 Patrick R. Sullivan

    Originally the argument was whether or not Yoram’s NY Times piece was idiotic, but it seems to have evolved into whether or not Yoram is in fact an idiot (someone who teaches economics without understanding its elementary principles).

    Since I’m writing from Seattle it would be a simple matter for me to appear at the UW and debate you on either topic. I won’t even ask you to pay for my parking. Let me know where and when.

  59. 59 59 Pavel

    Steve, why are you saying that not contributing to scholarship funds for needy students evidence of selfishness? I clearly remember reading in one of your books that it doesn’t make any sense to contribute to multiple charities and it should be pretty easy to find more worthy causes than needy students in Switzerland(for example AIDS orphans in Rwanda).
    Isn’t the opposite more reasonable since an average student in Zurich significantly more likely to become a needy Swiss student than an AIDS orphan in Rwanda?

  60. 60 60 Steve Landsburg

    Pavel: Point extremely well taken.

    Yet another point: Econ students are (I hope) more likely than others to realize that a policy of subsidizing tuition has the primary effect of raising tuition by approximately the amount of the subsidy (given that a state-issued license to educate is a good that’s pretty much in fixed supply).

  61. 61 61 Pavel

    If Bryan Caplan is correct and education is mostly signalling then subsidizing it is most likely bad for the society and good for students/suppliers-of-education even if the supply of license to educate is non-fixed making donations to ATN a rather antisocial activity.

  62. 62 62 Silas Barta

    It’s pretty depressing that someone can make the errors Yoram_Bauman has made here and still hold a steady job as an economist, publishing this kind of stuff.

    And that’s even *before* we get to the bit about a guy who makes $3000 just for showing up and yet lectures econ geeks about generosity!

    (I know, probably not on-topic enough to make it through the Silas filter, but I had to say it.)

    (Btw, has Steve_Landsburg ever gone so far as to use the “idiot” appellation for anything I’ve said?)

  63. 63 63 Daryn

    Steve Landsburg: Yoram Bauman must have a hard time teaching students to think critically.

    Steve Landsburg: I’m not saying Yoram Bauman is an idiot. He’s just making a specific idiotic argument.

    Seems pretty disingenuous to me.

  64. 64 64 Cameron Murray

    To Steve Landsburg,

    I don’t really understand you attempt at a humorous critique. From my reading, the donation will advance the cause of those who donate, since they are all students paying tuition fees, and will all benefit from successful lobbying by ATN (and possibly the other mob).

    Your analogies with physics and chemistry etc make no sense.

    The article even said -
    “You may question whether these groups actually serve the common good, but that’s mostly beside the point. Regardless of the groups’ actual social value, a purely self-interested individual would choose to free-ride rather than contribute; after all, a single $3 donation is not going to make a noticeable difference in tuition rates.”

    What you are saying is that free-riding less selfish than contributing. When in fact, the best course of action is to rise up and make stand for students to pay the full cost of their tuition, and get rid of subsidies from tertiary education.

    What you seem to point at, but I don’t see it clearly articulated, is that one can’t distinguish between free riding, and not believing in the cause. Economic students, for example, may believe that if they support these causes they will be taxed higher in the future.

    I guess you could ask students in a later survey whether they actually support the cause or not? But surely there are surveys of students asking about optimal tertiary funding structures that would complement these findings.

    What you need is to determine a situation where the economist has a conscious incentive to free-ride. Maybe a raffle where there are free or paid tickets?

  65. 65 65 ThomasBayes

    Just caught up on this. I believe David Henderson summed it up well over at econlog:
    http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/12/bauman_versus_l.html

    Bauman wrote an article making a strong claim.
    Landsburg showed that the claim did not follow from the evidence.
    Bauman admitted that the claim did not follow from the evidence and pointed out that his and Elaina Rose’s original study had pointed that out.

    I need to think more about the conclusion from Bauman’s NYT column: people who study economics are less likely to give money to left-leaning organizations, therefore economics professors should teach more about the shortcomings of free markets. I’m just not following that.

  66. 66 66 Yoram Bauman

    Steve:

    1) You write that I “keep saying that ‘transferring money from taxpayers to students and/or colleges’ is a public good”. This is wrong, and as Cameron writes above I say explicitly in the op-ed that the big-picture social value of a group like ATN is “mostly besides the point” in terms of our study. What I do keep saying (and what I said in the article) is that students donating money to an organization that fights for lower tuition for students is subject to the sorts of free-rider issues we associate with public goods. As Cameron writes above, “the donation will advance the cause of those who donate, since they are all students paying tuition fees, and will all benefit from successful lobbying by ATN.” If you like, you can think of ATN as a public good when the public is limited to college students. This is the same reason that national defense is thought of as a public good even though it hurts the Iranians: it’s (arguably) a public good for America. Is it possible that some Americans are opposed to funding national defense because of their concerns for Iran? Yes, it’s possible, but I believe that empirically it’s not likely to be very important. Similarly, it’s possible that students choose not to fund ATN because they’re concerned about the general welfare of taxpayers, but I believe that empirically it’s not likely to be very important. Ultimately our research was an empirical study, and you’re criticizing it on the basis of a theoretical possibility that in my opinion is not very likely. It’s as if I wrote an empirical paper about whether people believed in the fossil record, and we asked people whether they believed that dinosaurs roamed the earth millions of years ago during the Carboniferous Period, and they said No, and so I wrote that “our research suggests that people don’t believe in the fossil record”… and then you jumped in and said “Aha! People are saying No because dinosaurs didn’t appear until the Triassic Period!” Yes it’s possible… in my opinion it’s just not very likely.

    2) I don’t like your debate topic proposal and want to go back to something more like my proposal. If you’d like we can narrow it down to which of us has the most idiotic arguments surrounding the topic at hand. You claim that it’s idiotic to argue that college student donations to a group that fights for lower tuition for college students is a public-goods game. I claim that it’s idiotic to argue that “ask[ing] students how much they’re willing to contribute to an organization that lobbies to reduce taxpayer-funded subsidies to public education” is the “exact parallel” of asking students how much they’re willing to contribute to an organization that lobbies to increase taxpayer-funded subsidies to public education.

    PS. I think we could get a good turn-out for the debate and if necessary we could pay people to attend :)

  67. 67 67 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram:

    it’s possible that students choose not to fund ATN because they’re concerned about the general welfare of taxpayers, but I believe that empirically it’s not likely to be very important.

    So…just to be sure I’ve got this right — your conclusion that econ students are “Grinchlike” is founded on your prior belief that econ students don’t care about the welfare of strangers. Given that, why bother with a study?

  68. 68 68 Henry

    Suppose we took Yoram’s word for it that non-contributors are overwhelmingly free-riders. What does this imply?

    Should we automatically label their actions as ungenerous? No – an action can be free-riding without being seen as socially undesirable. For example, suppose we were all to work together to rob a bank, but I slacked off, causing us to steal less money than we otherwise would have. My behaviour may have been self-interested, but few observers would condemn me for not doing more for my fellow robbers. This is not to say that supporting lower student tuition is morally equivalent to robbing a bank, just that “helping your in-group” would not considered by most people as an umambigiously altruistic act.

    What can we say then? Well, it’s plausible that free-riders in this experiment are likely to act in ways that are more umambigiously selfish. So if we accept that economics students didn’t have deeper objections than free-riding and if we accept that free-riders here are more likely to be selfish in other areas, then we could accept Yoram’s conclusions about the lack of generosity in economics students.

    But wait – Yoram already acknowledges previous research which does show economics students acting in more umambigiously selfish ways. Rather than do something boring like try to replicate that research, he decided he wanted to try his own take on it, damned if it’s a strictly inferior approach!

  69. 69 69 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram:

    Let’s go a little farther with your national defense analogy. The key difference between national defense and tuition subsidies is that national defense can easily be welfare-enhancing, *even if you account for the Iranians in your calculus*. Tuition subsidies (unless you concoct some self-serving and implausible story about positive externalities) can’t.

    Here’s why that matters:

    Suppose that we ask Americans to contribute voluntarily to national defense. Most of them say no. A plausible explanation is that they’d rather free ride.

    Now ask Americans to contribute voluntarily to a program of attacking small defenseless countries and taking their resources. Most of them say no. Free riding is no longer the most plausible explanation here. Instead, the most plausible explanation is that most Americans feel squeamish about attacking small defenseless countries and taking their resources — *even if that policy benefits Americans*.

    In other words, there’s a difference between an actual public good, the provision of which can be welfare-enhancing, and a transfer of resources, which can’t be. And this difference matters crucially when you’re trying to explain why people don’t mail checks to the government to support these very different policies.

    Now tuition subsidies are, of course, not at all like national defense and very much like attacking small countries and taking their resources. This is not an ideological point; it’s the purely economic point that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I’d hope that any college student would grasp it instinctively, but I suspect that ini practice, it’s mostly the economics students who grasp it. That’s the obvious reason why economics students are less likely to back this program.

    Summary: When people won’t contribute to welfare-enhancing public goods like national defense, it’s fair to call them free riders. When they won’t contribute to welfare-decreasing policies like wars of conquest, it’s not. This is particularly true when they *realize* that those programs are welfare-decreasing. Tuition subsidies are welfare-decreasing; economics students get that; that’s why economics students don’t contribute. And no, they might not give this explanation if you asked them; they’re acting on instinct. But it’s a trained and educated instinct.

    So here’s a question for you: Suppose an organization supports sending out gangs of marauders to stop people in the street, kill them, take their money, and give it to college students. When students fail to contribute to this organization, do you want to call them free riders?

    You don’t have to believe that tuition subsidies are the moral equivalent of killing people and taking their money for this analogy to work. You only have to believe that both policies benefit students, that both are welfare-decreasing, and that economics students will naturally care about that. The welfare-decreasing aspect of the marauders will be obvious to everyone; with the tuition subsidies, maybe just to the econ students.

    I repeat this question, and I’d like you to answer it: If students won’t contribute to the marauding bands, are you prepared to label them free riders?

  70. 70 70 Ken B

    Yoram earlier:
    In an ideal world we would be able to test how students behave with regard to an ideal public good. (I’m curious about what you think such a thing would be, incidentally. What about my example about national defense and Iran?) In the real world we have to look at the data we have, and the data set we had concerned donations to WashPIRG and ATN.

    Yoram now:
    You write that I “keep saying that ‘transferring money from taxpayers to students and/or colleges’ is a public good”. This is wrong

    I quite agree with Yoram: Steve has made the foolish error of taking Yoram’s words seriously. No wonder Yoram only wants to debate who is the bigger idiot; he has good evidence it is Steve.

  71. 71 71 Jeffrey

    >Let’s run an experiment to see whether econ students are more or less willing than others to contribute to 1) an organization that opposes the estate tax and 2) an organization that opposes tuition subsidies.

    This offer is extremely generous, IMO. It’s quite possible that learning about economics makes you greedy *and* learning about economics makes you opposed to ATN.

    If this is the case, Yorum’s article was idiotic, and yet he will still win the bet.

  72. 72 72 Ken B

    The link is above but I certainly think it worth repeating … EconLog adjudicates http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/12/bauman_versus_l.html

    and be sure to follw his good advice! :)

  73. 73 73 Jeffrey

    >From my reading, the donation will advance the cause of those who donate

    You’re assuming that students will care more about fellow students than they care about people who are not students. Not all students support taking money from other people and giving it to students. Economics students are especially likely to understand that “lower tuition” means “making other people pay for it.”

  74. 74 74 ThomasBayes


    Ken B: “EconLog adjudicates . . . be sure to follow his good advice!”

    David Henderson: “I also recommend that readers read comments on Landsburg’s site by Ken B. They are quite good.”

    Okay Ken B, you are David Henderson aren’t you? ;-)

    Steve Landsburg: Don’t agree to anything that allows Youram to do a stand-up routine at your university. Check out this video from about the 2:00 mark to about 2:30 to see why:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8TkDr3OoJU

  75. 75 75 ThomasBayes

    Yoram: Sorry for mistyping your name. I should have proofread. The reference to the video, by the way, is all in good fun.

  76. 76 76 Neil

    This dead horse has been thoroughly whipped, but if I may get one more remark in.

    An activity that benefits a group in a non-rivalous and non-excludable way is a public good if the costs of the activity are borne solely by the benefiting group. If the costs are borne by another group, the activity is a collective interest, not a public good. As Steve as pointed out, claims about the selfishness of economists typically involve experiments that are collective interests, not public goods. Bauman’s is an egregious example, but not the only one.

    There are, of course, true public goods and it surely is possible to properly design an experiment to examine the behavior of economists and non-economists with regard to free-riding on voluntary contributions to such. Until I see such an example, I will withhold judgment on economics training and selfishness.

  77. 77 77 Roger Schlafly

    Yoram, even if you are right about what students consider a public good, you are still making a big assumption that should have been explicitly stated in your paper and your op-ed article. It appears that you do not even realize that you are making an assumption that crucially affects your conclusions.

  78. 78 78 Ken B
  79. 79 79 Jason Braswell

    Another possible explanation is that the economics students are saving all the charity dollars to put towards the single charity that will do the most good, a tendency that seems to come with additional economics training.

    If this were the case, I could see it supporting the conclusion that econ training makes people *less* selfish and more concerned with doing good works than *appearing* to do good works.

  80. 80 80 JohnW

    Perhaps Yoram could post his comment that was deleted (on econlib) here. I’d like to see what he wrote that was deleted by the anonymous econlib editor (if they are going to censor something, they should at least have the courage to give their name).

  81. 81 81 Wonks Anonymous

    Eric Crampton found evidence that econ students were more charitable than average:
    http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.com/2011/12/is-this-also-joke.html

  82. 82 82 Steven B. Ridge

    Prof. Bauman’s op-ed basically says that it doesn’t matter that it’s a left-wing organization; let’s just assume it is indeed a public good. He totally brushes off the possibility that maybe people don’t like donating to an organization with views they don’t agree with. How would Prof. Bauman feel if I sent him a link to donate to (insert your right-wing organization here), and then say I can assume it means he is selfish? Really?

    Secondly, while I never studied economics formally, I can easily spot so many holes in Prof. Bauman’s conclusion. He didn’t even attempt to say whether he controlled for other factors. For example, students’ incomes: Maybe economics students on average come from poorer homes and have less money to donate? Or maybe they prefer to donate money to other causes? I think a far better indicator of students’ selfishness is what % of their total income they donate to charity in general. Saying “YOU must donate $3 to the charity of MY choice NOW or you are considered selfish, is, as Prof. Landsburg says, idiotic. And btw, he never said you are an idiot. He said that your article is “idiotic.” Very big difference. His attack was on your work, not personal.

    Finally, Prof. Landsburg just takes it as a given that econ majors will on average be bigger free-market supporters than the rest of the student body. Why do you say so? There’s an economist at George Mason (I wanna say it’s Bryan Caplan but I am not 100% sure) who determined that economists (which I know are not the same as college econ majors) are on average MORE LEFT-WING than the rest of society, INCLUDING on economics matters. I don’t know the political/economic leanings of econ majors at Washington, but I am not so sure that we should accept as a given the assumption they are bigger supporters of a free market than the rest of the student body; an assumption that, as I understand it, must be true for your arguments to work.

  83. 83 83 kebko

    JohnW:

    He tried to make an analogy of David Henderson telling his bridge partner that a bidding convention was wrong because it didn’t work all the time, as if that was the same thing that is happening in this argument. Then, he said something about having David Henderson’s math degree revoked, which I assume is what got him deleted. Deleting it seems like a poor choice to me.

  84. 84 84 iceman

    I do give YB credit for having engaged here, but trying to respond on substance has seemed like a bit of a moving target. (And what would a blog be without a little snideness thrown in?) I never did quite see why this was really about public goods, and it turns out it’s not; characterizing the charitable causes in question that way simply facilitates a verdict of selfish free-riding. Or suggesting national defense isn’t a “pure” public good means anything can be a ‘sorta’ public good. On the other hand, even if we’re just talking about free riding, as others have noted ATN is not a particularly strong test of selfishness (i.e. one person is simply willing to spend $3 less to pursue their own self-interest than another).

    @nobody.really (and Bob_Mac):

    “Whatever a student might think about the merits of forcing others to pay for her tuition, a student would seem to have an incentive to support such a policy. To expect otherwise, even of econ students, would be to expect them to reject a fundamental premise of economics.”

    I think a better answer is that you need to broaden your conception of incentives to include not just direct financial rewards, but everything that contributes to personal utility, including holding and adhering to whatever philosophical principles one chooses. I’m sure we can all think of things we would not do for $3 or more, out of principle.

  85. 85 85 Yoram Bauman

    After doing comedy in China and Singapore and not getting in trouble, I’ve now been censored! In the United States! On a libertarian website! (There’s nothing like libertarian hypocrisy… but I rush to admit that I’m excluding liberal hypocrisy because it happens so much more often. It’s the diamond-water paradox :)

    So I’m going to post my censored comment here. It was in a response to a purported attempt by David Henderson to “mediate” my dispute with Steve, a task he went about by declaring Steve to be correct! So here’s the comment that was censored:

    ************
    Wow, I’m stunned by your response, David. In the Update at the bottom of your original post, you write this: “Yoram seems to imply that I had written that he had written that he had proven something. I didn’t. I did, as he points out, say that he made a strong claim. Yoram, in his response, equates the term “claim” to “conclusion.” I guess that’s fair. Yoram says he didn’t reach a strong conclusion. I think he did. I leave readers to judge for themselves.”

    In the spirit of your original post, I’ll sum up:
    Henderson wrote an article making a strong claim.
    Bauman showed that the claim did not follow from the evidence.
    Henderson “leave[s] readers to judge for themselves.”

    David, if this is really how you see things then you’re not fit to mediate a bridge game with my grandmother. (Yoram: “Grammy, I think we should play Blackwood.” Grammy: “Yoram, sometimes Blackwood doesn’t work.” Henderson: “Bauman makes a strong claim, and Grammy shows the claim doesn’t follow from the evidence.” Yoram: “Hold on, that’s not what I claimed.” Henderson: “I leave readers to judge for themselves.”)

    I’m going to petition the University of Winnipeg to take away your mathematics degree. As a fellow math major I’m appalled.
    *************

    You’ve got to admit that that’s hilarious. And I’ve got to admit that I’m violating my own call for less sarcasm, so I want to acknowledge that. (I should have been more specific and called for less sarcasm that was thoughtless and humorless :) Incidentally, Econlib has given me any number of reasons for censoring my comment, but the one I like most is that I was “threatening” David Henderson. And of course the Econlib editor has denied that her living in Rochester NY and being named Landsburg has so little to do with anything that she doesn’t even need to mention it :)

    PS. Some of the commenters here (esp Ken B) attempted to speak up for me on Econlib, and for that I am grateful… so grateful that I will respond to Ken B’s previous comment in a moment. Stay tuned!

  86. 86 86 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram:

    It gets harder and harder to take you seriously when you keep posting one thing after another that ignores the substantive questions you’ve been asked and the substantive issues that have been raised.

    Since the day I’ve started blogging, I’ve been blessed with a cadre of commenters who actually seem interested in staying on topic and settling their differences through reasoned debate. It’s increasingly obvious you don’t fit in with this crowd.

    So I will try this exactly one more time before giving up on you:

    Suppose I organize a “White Students Union” with the purpose of assaulting black students, taking their money, and redistributing it to white students. Suppose some white students refuse to make voluntary contributions to this organization. Are you or are you not prepared to read their reluctance as evidence of “grinchiness”?

    (And no, before you attempt to deflect attention away from the substantive issue again, I did NOT just say that taxation is always and everywhere the moral equivalent of assault. If you refuse to see the *analogy* between this and your original study — people feeling squeamish about supporting organizations that work in their own narrowly defined interests at the expense of others they might also care about — then I’ll have to conclude you’re not even trying to engage in an honest discussion here.)

  87. 87 87 Ken B

    I’m not sure I have ‘stuck up’ for Yoram as he says — I have been quite relentlessly critical, and remain so. But I am glad he notes I am trying to be fair and take him seriously. Danke mein Herr.

  88. 88 88 Ken B

    @Thomas Bayes: No, but we Canucks stick together.

  89. 89 89 Yoram Bauman

    Sorry in advance for the length of this comment.

    I answer Steve’s question at the bottom, but first—as promised—let’s go back to
    Ken B.’s previous comment. In honor of Ken (and I mean that) I want to take a look in detail at that comment, piece by piece, and to prove that I’ve read everything I’ve added what I believe to be links to the various comments (but have otherwise not changed Ken’s post):

    ***
    I want to go back to this: “your blog readers are unwilling to engage on the [...]key theoretical issue is about what exactly counts as a public good”
    ***

    Great, I agree, let’s go back to it. In doing so, let’s remember that the “key theoretical issue is about what exactly counts as a public good”. I will begin by noting that this is not a rhetorical question; the posts on this page raise good points and I confess that I’m not confident that I know the answer.

    ***
    Patrick R Sullivan posted the definition.
    ***

    Patrick refers to the “the classic definition of a public good; non rivalrous consumption and non excludability. Also a specific example; radio broadcasts.”

    Okay, great. So radio broadcasts are an example of a public good. So let’s say I investigate who gives money to NPR and find out that it’s not economists. Does Patrick conclude that this supports the conclusion that economists are Grinches? I doubt it. So we are led to the conclusion that Patrick fails to address the “key theoretical issue… about what exactly counts as a public good”. His definition is no good. (Plus, if radio is a public good then why are there so many radio stations in existence?? Isn’t underprovision a key element of public goods?)

    ***
    Ken B posted contrasting examples going to the heart of the disagreement.
    ***

    These are good examples, and my intuition is that the second one is definitely not a public good, but that the first one is. Of course, I cannot say for sure because offering up examples does not address the “key theoretical issue… about what exactly counts as a public good”.

    ***
    Iceman posted about transfers and if they can be public goods.
    ***

    Iceman raises some interesting points (“Before today I would’ve thought ‘public good for some’ was an oxymoron”) but he fails to address the “key theoretical issue… about what exactly counts as a public good”.

    ***
    Neil wrote “Yoram Bauman is confusing a collective interest with a public good.”
    ***

    Neil may be correct, but instead of addressing the “key theoretical issue… about what exactly counts as a public good”, Neil simply confuses matters even more (at least in my head) by introducing a second undefined term: “collective interest”.

    ***
    David Wallin disputed Yoram’s notion of a public good.
    ***

    David adds to the confusion by introducing a third undefined term: “neutral public good”.

    ***
    All of these comments precede Yoram’s assertion. I’d say the readers have addressed the issue quite directly. Yoram’s claim is absurd.
    ***

    Sorry, Ken, but you’re wrong. These readers have not directly addressed the “key theoretical issue… about what exactly counts as a public good”. They have made good points and offered good examples and raised good questions, but the only definition offered up was Patrick’s and it was no good.

    In the spirit of the season, I will now offer up my own tentative definition: Action X is a public good for group G in situation S if (1) a benevolent central planner for group G would take action X in situation S, (2) laissez faire by members of group G in situation S would not lead to action X, and (3) action X would increase welfare for an overwhelming majority of the people in group G in situation S.

    Part 1 of this definition incorporates Steve’s point that public goods should be welfare-enhancing. Of course, the definition of welfare-enhancing is itself unclear: Are we using Pareto or Kaldor-Hicks or what? I’m not sure I have a good answer to this question, and that’s one rationale for part 3 of the definition (discussed below).

    Part 2 of the definition incorporates the ideas of free-riding and underprovision, which are clearly central to public goods.

    Part 3 of the definition is also vague (what does “overwhelming majority” mean?), but it gets at the idea that a “public good” should benefit a broad segment of the “public”… without necessarily benefiting everybody.

    So now let’s look at Steve’s example of white students pooling their funds to assault black students and take their money. If group G is all students, I would say that this IS NOT a public good for group G because it violates parts 1 and 3 of the definition. If group G is all white students, I would say that this IS a public for group G. Now we can ask why some (hopefully all!) white students refuse to donate money to this effort. One possibility is that they are selfishly free-riding, and one possibility is that they are selflessly concerned about black students. This is (as I noted long ago) an empirical question. In the deep South in 1950 I would lean toward the former explanation, and in just about everywhere in 2011 I would lean toward the latter explanation. Similarly, the question about why students don’t donate to a group fighting to lower tuition rates is an empirical question. In this case I strongly lean toward the selfish explanation, and Steve leans toward the selfless explanation, to such an extent that he says that “there is no other way to read it”. I have offered to debate Steve on this point, but he refuses.

    PS. You are all of course free to poke holes in my definition and my argument, and in fact I hope you will. But I think you should also do more to poke holes in each other’s arguments. Did none of you think that there were problems with “radio broadcasts” as an example of a public good? When Steve writesthat “national defense can easily be welfare-enhancing, *even if you account for the Iranians in your calculus*”, did none of you notice that Wonks Anonymous had previously linked to Bryan Caplan offering up what he claimed was a proof that national defense is not welfare-enhancing and is not a public good? Did none of you think to question Steve’s point that public education is NOT welfare-enhancing “unless you concoct some self-serving and implausible story about positive externalities”. (I’m no expert in this area, but… Wow! Steve must still be mad that they tried to teach his daughter to recycle :)

    The point I’m trying to make here is that right-wing libertarians often show a disappointing tendency to act like the borg. (In case nobody has done so already, I propose that the group of you here on this blog be called the “landsborg” :) This is of course perfectly natural for just about any group (perhaps because it is a public good for most groups in most situations!), but it is worth resisting. I don’t claim to be perfect in this area myself, but I can at least provide some evidence that I take a critical look at everything I come across, not just the stuff I disagree with.

  90. 90 90 Yoram Bauman

    PS. Please ignore the parenthetical comment (“(perhaps because it is a public good for most groups in most situations!”) at the end of my post. I was too clever by half, and that comment is wrong. Now you can focus on telling me why the rest of it is wrong too :)

  91. 91 91 Ryan P

    Yoram,
    Ok, I’ll bite. Whether you’re using Kaldor-Hicks or Pareto as your “welfare-enhancing” definition, transfers fail the criterion — you’re harming one person by Pareto and by Kaldor-Hicks you haven’t increased wealth. Yep, you need to give an argument for a positive externality argument and evidence. Yes, you can handwave by saying you’re transferring from people not in group G to people in Group G, but that’s, well, handwaving. More to, well, your point, if you’re going with that as the goal (how can we take from others outside of our group to get more from people in our group), then the classic argument for any government at all is precisely that you get too much of such grabs absent government. Sure, you can argue with that point, but I guess I’ll just have to call you a right libertarian anarchocapitalist. Or the Borg, depending on your choice. ;)

    Re education, I’d point out that the primary argument in the literature seems to be how much of education is human capital and how much is signaling. So far as I know, no one seriously argues human capital is a positive externality and signaling is generally considered a negative externality. It’s possible to argue there’s a positive externality that trumps this, but, again, that’s something that’s in dispute and so it doesn’t really get us anywhere to assert that it’s not in dispute and that people’s actions on that score must not reflect that possibility. But I suppose in some sense you’re not making that assertion … but then, I’m confused. What are we arguing about again?

  92. 92 92 Neil

    Yoram wrote:

    “Neil may be correct, but instead of addressing the “key theoretical issue… about what exactly counts as a public good”, Neil simply confuses matters even more (at least in my head) by introducing a second undefined term: “collective interest”.”

    I wrote earlier:

    “An activity that benefits a group in a non-rivalous and non-excludable way is a public good if the costs of the activity are borne solely by the benefiting group. If the costs are borne by another group, the activity is a collective interest, not a public good. As Steve as pointed out, claims about the selfishness of economists typically involve experiments that are collective interests, not public goods. Bauman’s is an egregious example, but not the only one.”

    A public good is a collective interest, but not all collective interests are public goods. A public good actually creates value, whereas a collective interest may simply transfer value, and even destroy value in the process. I gave you explicit examples of such collective interests that are not public goods, and so have others. You choose not to read and understand.

  93. 93 93 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram:

    I think I can summarize your answer to my question thus: You expect white students to care about black students, but you don’t expect students to care about non-students. I’m having a lot of trouble imagining where these expectations come from. It does seem that you are starting from the presumption that students are an awfully Grinchy bunch, even before you look at data.

    But then of course *your own expectations* lead to a quite different interpretation of your data. You’ve started with the tacit assumption that students are Grinchlike in their attitudes toward non-students. Your data support the interpretation that the taking of economics courses makes them *less* Grinchlike.

    And this, I think, would be a much more natural interpretation than your own, because a lot of what we teach in economics has to do with seeing all the consequences of your actions, and evaluating their desirability on the basis of all those consequences. I’ve argued elsewhere that when we teach cost-benefit analysis, what we’re really doing is teaching compassion — that is, we’re teaching our students to stop and consider *all* the people who are affected by a given action or policy before deciding whether to support it.

    Given that, I’d expect economics students to be the least Grinchlike students on campus, and I view your results as a confirmation of that expectation. Do you object to this?

  94. 94 94 Ken B

    Crikey. I doubt any of us has the time to immediately absorb Yoram’s recent flood, as it is the day before Christmas. My quick take is that Yoram *disagrees* with the comments by various folks that I noted. He does not rebut my claim that he ignored them earlier, or that they existed earlier. Whether these folks were right or wrong is a different question from whether they addressed what Yoram identifies as the key theoretical point. [I disagree with Yoram on this. The key point is, is there another reasonable and resonably likely way to intepret the students' behaviour. But I was trying to address what seemed to be one of his ideas.]

    I’ll read it all more carefully later.

  95. 95 95 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram: Or to put my last comment more succinctly — Your results are equally consistent with the propositions that

    a) economics courses make students *more* Grinchlike toward fellow students

    or

    b) economics courses make students *less* Grinchlike toward non-students.

    And the only basis you have for preferring one of these interpretations to the other is your own prior expectation. Correct?

  96. 96 96 David Wallin

    from:
    UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON FACULTY COUNCIL ON STUDENT AFFAIRS
    The Faculty Council on Student Affairs met at 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 13, 2005

    Affordable Tuition Now
    Parks said, “Students want to bridge any concerns people have about Affordable Tuition Now (ATN).” (One of the students formerly in charge of ATN has admitted to $5,000 theft from its funds. That student is no longer involved with ATN. Some $40,000 in all may be lost in ATN’s funds.) Parks said this issue will be a major topic at the next ASUW meeting. He said there has been coverage of this misappropriation on all the local networks. There are completely different people running ATN now, and the organization is “a good one”, said Parks.
    Parks said Affordable Tuition Now organizes Student Lobby Day – the day on which UW students go to the state legislature to raise issues important to the ASUW – and pays for hundreds of students to attend the event in Olympia. Parks said the ASUW wants to reassure students and to let them know that they should still support ATN. He said an internal audit hopefully will be created within the organization. Kravas asked if other models, outside of the ASUW, have been looked at. Parks replied: “ATN was the reaction to the Washington Student Lobby (WSL), which we didn’t like that well.”

  97. 97 97 David Wallin

    Having just downloaded the article, I note the data comes from Summer 1999 to Spring 2002. It is not clear if the theft ocurred before or after Spring 2002, or if any news of it hit prior to then.

  98. 98 98 Steven B. Ridge

    Prof. Landsburg:

    I know you have a lot on your plate, but I’d appreciate if you can address one point (which I originally posted at 12/22 @ 3:52 PM), but I’ll summarize very briefly here so you don’t have to go back there. Here goes:

    As I understand it, your arguments throughout this post (at least in regard to the WashPIRG donations) hinge on the presumption that economics majors at Washington are more right-wing than the rest of the student body.
    a) is my understanding correct; and
    b) if so, why are you so certain that this is true?
    Do you generally take it as a given that econ people (eg. college econ majors, economists, etc.) are on average more right-wing than other folks?

  99. 99 99 Steve Landsburg

    Steven B. Ridge: I don’t know exactly what you mean by “right wing”, so let me reword slightly: I find it entirely plausible that economics students are more aware than other students of the benefits of capitalism, for the same reason that I find it entirely plausible that physics students are more aware than other students of the second law of thermodynamics.

  100. 100 100 Steven B. Ridge

    well, WashPIRG is described as a left-wing organization; therefore, I used contrasting language. Your arguments vis-a-vis WashPIRG are assuming that econ students would be less likely to ideologically support such a group.

  101. 101 101 Steven B. Ridge

    George Mason U. economist Bryan Caplan, in his book “The Myth of the Rational Voter,” writes that ‘surveys show that while economists are to the right of their university colleagues in other disciplines, “compared to the general public, the typical economist is left of centre.” ‘ (to quote Caplan’s colleague Don Boudreaux in a letter printed at the Financial Times http://cafehayek.com/2009/11/economists-views.html )

    I don’t know if the view of typical economist necessarily is reflective of the views of Econ majors at Washington, but if it is, perhaps that would negate your arguments RE: the donations to WashPIRG?

  102. 102 102 Neil

    Regardless of political persuasion, people with economics training are less likely to believe in a “free lunch.” Therefore, when confronted with a question about increasing government spending on higher education, they are more likely to consider the fact that such spending must come at the expense of other government programs or higher taxes. For this reason alone, people with economics training are more likely to consider the impacts on other anonymous parties.

  103. 103 103 Steve Landsburg

    Neil: Exactly.

  104. 104 104 Steven B. Ridge

    Prof. Landsburg & Neil: As I said in my comments, I was focusing on WashPIRG, the group Prof. Bauman describes as a left-wing activist group; I was not focusing on ATN, the group that lobbies for lower tuition rates. Prof. Landsburg’s initial post said that “students who have studied the merits of capitalism are among the least likely to support its detractors.” It seems to me that Prof. Landsburg, throughout these comments — again, I am only focusing on WashPIRG, not ATN — is going on the assumption that Econ majors are not less to support left-wing groups. Now, if you accept Caplan’s conclusions, that “compared to the general public, the typical economist is left of centre,” — and as Boudreaux notes, this included most economic issues as well; then if you assume that Econ majors @ Washington have similar views to economists generally (no sure assumption, of course!) — then perhaps Prof. Landsburg’s conclusions RE: the donations to WasgPIRG don’t follow. His arguments were that Econ majors are less likely to support capitalism’s detractors, ie. the left wing group. But if it is indeed true that they are actually MORE likely to have Leftist views, then perhaps your reasoning doesn’t follow.

    (btw, I certainly take your side in this debate and think Prof. Bauman’s article is ridiculous. I can think of a million and one reasons why, some of which I posted on my original post (12/22, 3:52 PM). I am just wondering if perhaps your REASONING for explaining why Econ majors’ refusal to donate to WashPIRG does not make them greedy, perhaps doesn’t work if Caplan’s conclusions are correct in regard to Econ majors @ Wshington as well.

    Of course, considering how many factors are involved and how you can’t know so many individuals’ reasons for doing things, that just emphasizes how ridiculous Bauman’s article was. I am just wondering here if your response can be squared with Caplan’s conclusions

  105. 105 105 Yoram Bauman

    Good morning everybody!

    1) Neil is correct about my not reading his previous post and I apologize about that. (It’s hard to read everything.)

    2) I think my tentative definition is pretty lousy, e.g., it doesn’t distinguish between free-riding problems and asymmetric-information problems. So let’s ignore it for now (except to note that it does bring up interesting issues, like whether a public good needs to benefit everybody or just most people, whether individuals need to have a dominant strategy in public-goods situations, and whether market failure is necessary to have a public-goods situation) and focus on the more tangible issue of free-riding.

    3) Regarding Steve’s question, my answers are:

    * Yes, the ATN results are consistent with either econ students being more Grich-like toward fellow students or less Grinch-like toward non-students.

    * As for whether my own prior expectation is my only basis for favoring the explanation that econ students are more Grinch-like, it depends on what you mean exactly. As I noted in my first comment, there is a large prior literature on this topic, and as I noted in my NYT article, “academic research suggests that there’s a good deal of truth to the stereotype.” (Why do I feel like we’re going around in circles?) So… that influences my prior expectations. Having said that, let me also say that even without a prior literature I would be strongly inclined toward the former explanation. I view individuals as making decisions based on “spheres of influence”, with consideration of the inner spheres (the first sphere being yourself, the second sphere being your loved ones and close friends, etc.) dominating the decision-making process and consideration of the outer spheres (distant friends, fellow humans, etc.) playing an increasingly minor role. (How many people think about the farmer’s welfare when they go to buy carrots?) In my view “fellow students” is a much closer sphere than “general taxpayers”. As I noted above, this is ultimately an empirical question, but I think previous evidence and common sense are both on my side.

    Let me close with an analogy: Rubinstein 2006 argues that econ students are more likely to put profit-maximization above the welfare of workers (because workers would have to be fired to increase profits). Bauman comes in and says that this supports the argument that economists are grinches. Landsburg comes in and says that this is idiotic, because econ students are probably thinking that those extra profits will be donated to the election campaign of Ron Paul, who will increase welfare for all workers. Bauman responds that this seems unlikely but ultimately is an empirical question that he’d be happy to bet money on. Landsburg refuses to take the bet. Henderson jumps in and “mediates” by proclaiming that Landsburg is correct. Bauman responds that Henderson would be unfit to mediate “a bridge game with my grandmother”. Bauman gets banned from Econlib for the rest of the year. Hilarity ensues.

  106. 106 106 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram:

    Landsburg comes in and says that this is idiotic, because econ students are probably thinking that those extra profits will be donated to the election campaign of Ron Paul, who will increase welfare for all workers.

    No, and here is where you keep being almost indescribably dense.

    What actually happens is that Landsburg comes in and says this is idiotic, not because the econ students have some preconceived notion of where the profits go, but because they know the profits will go *somewhere* and that that’s a good thing.

    This is, after all, one of the MAIN THINGS we try to teach our econ students — not to lose sight of aggregate budget constraints, etc.

    Given the specific content of economics courses, it is natural to expect that econ students, more than other students, will recognize that SOMEBODY must benefit from those profits and hence to regard them as desiriable. Going back to your original example, it is natural to expect that econ students, more than other students, will recognize that SOMEBODY must bear the cost of their tuition, and that transferring that cost is not the same thing as ameliorating it.

    A large part of the point of economics courses is to train students to expand that “sphere of influence” you’re referring to. Why do you start by assuming we’re unsuccessful?

    PS: Regarding the workers and the profits, do you realize that you’ve completely contradicted yourself? Workers and stockholders are BOTH non-students and hence BOTH outside the students’ “sphere of influence”. IN other words, your “sphere of influence” story predicts that students SHOULD care about the stockholders as much as the workers. So I can see only two ways to interpret this result: Either the non-econ-students are grinches who don’t care about the stockholders, or non-econ-students are blind to the effects on the shareholders. I lean toward the latter. But I don’t see ANY scenario under which this is evidence of econ-student grinchiness.

  107. 107 107 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram:

    And by the way, here’s the other thing to which you seem determined to remain oblivious:

    Caring about only those people who fall within some narrowly defined “sphere of influence” is pretty close to what most of us think of as grinchiness.

  108. 108 108 Ken B

    It is perhaps late in the thread-that-will-not-die to toss in a new issue, but I disgagree with Yoram that the key issue is what counts as a public good. I think the key issue is if Yoram’s conclusion follows from his evidence. It does not, and you can see lots of reasons why not above. And I think it would not even if he had found a pure public good instead of WashPIRG. The reason is tha a great deal of political speech is signalling, and this is particularly true of PUBLIC and LOW-COST speech. Such as raising your hand in class or ostentatiously signing away $3. (Honk if you agree.) Lowering the doantion to $1 might increase “donations” but as much due to the lower cost of signalling (the unkind might say posturing) as a decreased incentive ot free-ride.

  109. 109 109 Ken B

    “Bauman comes in and says that this supports the argument that economists are grinches. Landsburg comes in and says that this is idiotic, because econ students are probably thinking that those extra profits will be donated to the election campaign of Ron Paul, who will increase welfare for all workers. ”
    I understand Yoram is a quondam stand up comedian but I don’t think he does himself — or this discussion — any favours with his flip and airy refusals to address the point. We saw this even in his first response to SL, when he offered to debate who is the bigger idiot — amusing but deflecting from the real point at issue.

    Yoram’s op-ed in the NYT, citing a study of his own, ignored a large caveat at the end of that study, inserted it would seem at the insistence of the reviewers, which not only undercut Yoram’s conclusion, but eviscerated it. Steve made the same point as the caveat, with a bit more flair, but perfect fairness and accuracy. Yoram’s conclusion is a howling non-sequitur, and Steve — and the referees — identified why.

    Landsburg is right, not just in his intial mockery, but in his subsequent posts, where he has played masterfully upon the symmetries of the situation (with I imagine, an evil glee) to elegantly expose not just the weakness of Yoram’s argument but also its tendentiousness.

    What to make of it all? We see an obviously intelligent and well-educated man not just commit a howler but then contort himself defending it. Since Yoram’s op-ed did not mention the caveat in his paper, while citing the paper, some have hinted at dark motives. I don’t think this necessary or justified. One poster suggested Yoram is evincing a prejudice, and one that he is ‘signalling’ his political commitments. I think it is both. This does not imply nefarious intent or deception. Signalling and group-think are both mediated by the emotional reactions of our group and those we admire and often operate subconciously. [This not fraud is the real reason why we need peer review.]

    Speaking of humour and groupthink, at one point Yoram actually appealed to authority — the authority of the editors of the NYT editorial page. I could not put it better than Owen Wister: “If you tried this in your native town not only would you be prosecuted, you would be hanged, and everybody would be happy, the clergyman would refuse to bury you.”

  110. 110 110 Henri Hein

    “Neil simply confuses matters even more (at least in my head) ”

    But you are guilty of introducing the confusion in the first place. When you use a term such as “public good” with a meaning different from its traditional one, the onus is on you to point that out and explain your rationale.

    “You’ve got to admit that that’s hilarious”

    I will admit no such thing. I did not find your characterization of Henderson hilarious, or even mildly funny.

  111. 111 111 Steve Landsburg

    Henri Hein:

    I will admit no such thing. I did not find your characterization of Henderson hilarious, or even mildly funny.

    Yes. I think it’s become clear that Yoram’s notion of “humor” consists of pointing at people who are more thoughtful than he is and saying “Ha! Ha! Ha!”. Luckily for him, there does seem to be a market for that.

  112. 112 112 David Wallin

    So, I read two of the works cited in Bauman & Rose to help provide a “substantial body of research” (their term—I disagree on that characterization from what they provide) of “Grinchy” Econ majors. In Frey & Meier 2004, the find Econ majors provide slightly less contribution to two funds than Law than Natural Sciences than Computer Science (in that order). The lowest contributors by far: Theology majors.
    In B&R, we find the following order: International Students, Asians, Blacks, Econs, and Women. All of these groups had a negative coefficient in the regression of their contribution to WashPIRG, ordered in decreasing absolute value (i.e., International Students donated less than Asians, etc.). Switch Blacks and Econs and get the order for (the now defunct) ATN. Fill in your own Grinchiness observations about the other groups.

  113. 113 113 Captain Profit

    “Caring about only those people who fall within some narrowly defined ‘sphere of influence’ is pretty close to what most of us think of as grinchiness.”

    Indeed, the ultimate example of such sphere being one’s self, it’s not only pretty close, it’s spot on.

  114. 114 114 Yoram Bauman

    As I’ve said before, we have before us an empirical question about which interpretation of the results is the correct one. Steve, you think your interpretation is good and mine is bizarre; I think the reverse is true. In addition, you seem to want to pick a fight with the entire literature, e.g., you think that folks who lay off workers in order to increase profits are simply showing grinch-less concern for the stockholders. (Excellent point! Why didn’t I think of that one, Smithers?? :)

    Just out of curiosity, what’s your interpretation of Wang et al. (forthcoming)? Here’s the abstract: The recent financial crisis, along with repeated corporate scandals, raise serious questions about whether a business school education contributes to what some have described as a culture of greed. The dominance of economic-related courses in MBA curricula led us to assess the effects of economics education on greed in three studies using multiple methods. Study 1 found that economics majors and students who had taken multiple economics courses kept more money in a money allocation task (the Dictator Game). Study 2 found that economics education was associated with more positive attitudes towards greed and towards one’s own greedy behavior. Study 3 found that a short statement on the societal benefits of self-interest led to more positive ratings of greed’s moral acceptability, even for non-economics students. These effects suggest that economics education may have serious, albeit unintended consequences on our students’ attitudes towards greed.

  115. 115 115 Ken B

    YB:”you [Steven E Landsburg] think that folks who lay off workers in order to increase profits are simply showing grinch-less concern for the stockholders.”

    You are missing the point. Steve is pointing out a symmetry which you seem determiend to ignore. You argue that refusing to help A at the expense of B is evidence of (insert conclusion here). Steve than notes that refusla to help B at the expense of A should also count.

    YB:”(Excellent point! Why didn’t I think of that one, Smithers?? :)”
    SL:”I think it’s become clear that Yoram’s notion of ‘humor’ consists of pointing at people who are more thoughtful than he is and saying ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’. “

  116. 116 116 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram:

    Steve, you think your interpretation is good and mine is bizarre; I think the reverse is true. I

    Right. Also, I (and my commenters) have made sense and been consistent while you haven’t.

    Your story is that students care more about people who are in their “sphere of influence”. Your story also is that students care more about workers than about shareholders. You have no story to tell about why workers, more than shareholders, are in students’ “sphere of influence”.

    Your story is that it’s “Grinchlike” for students to flinch from redistribution toward students, but not “grinchlike” for white students to flinch from redistribution toward white students. You’ve never offered a definition of “Grinchlike” that encompasses both these reactions, nor have you even tried.

    Even given your “spheres of influence”, you call it Grinchlike for students to elevate their own interests above those of their fellow students, but anti-Grinchlike for students to elevate the interest of their fellow students over the rest of society. So “Grinchlike”, in your usage sometimes means having a *broader* focus and other times means having a *narrower* focus, and you’ve given us absolutely no criterion (other than “ask Yoram”) for how to tell which cases fall under one rubric and which the other.

    You’ve ducked every one of these issues a dozen times, mostly with attempts at “humor” that are so lame I’m beginning to suspect that your comparative advantage might lie in economics after all.

    You’ve also tried repeatedly to change the subject. I have not read Want et al (forthcoming), and it is in any event quite off topic at the moment.

    Look. You said something stupid, it got pointed out, and instead of pausing to think for a moment, you doubled down. When pretty much everybody on the planet told you you were wrong — and EXPLAINED WHY — you concluded that you were in an “echo chamber” and ignored everything they said. You invented your own private definition for Grinchlike and kept CHANGING IT ON THE FLY (you are Grinchlike if you favor your narrowly defined group! No! You are Grinchlike if you favor a more broadly defined group! No! Back to the first one….) so that everything you said would be correct by definition even when you were contradicting yourself. You made arguments whose conclusions (“students favor workers”) bore no relationship to their assumptions (“students favor others like themselves”). Every time you got pinned down you changed the subject. This is the behavior of a classic crank. I’ve had it.

  117. 117 117 paul roscelli

    My favorite part of the NYT article was this gem, “they were asked if they wanted to donate $3 to support WashPIRG, a left-leaning activist group. Students were also asked if they wanted to donate $3 to Affordable Tuition Now (ATN), a group that lobbied for “sensible tuition rates, quality financial aid and adequate funding.”

    You may question whether these groups actually serve the common good, but that’s mostly beside the point.”

    NO, that IS THE POINT. If the students come to the conclusion that these entities do NOT support the common good, how would NOT giving to them be an indication of greed?

  118. 118 118 Steve Landsburg

    Paul Roscelli: Nice try, but I’ve finally realized that Yoram is determined not to understand anything that might teach him something.

  119. 119 119 David R. Henderson

    To Henri Hein and Steven Landsburg,
    Thank you both for your implicit support of me. I know that at this point in my blogging, I’m expected to have thick skin, and I thought I did, but Yoram Bauman’s nasty comment on me–which the webmaster, with my approval, removed–took my breath away. It’s not that I thought it was a serious threat. What was Bauman planning to do: tell the University of Winnipeg that they should strip me of my degree and my gold medals in science and math because I made a bad argument? The problem was not that it was a credible threat–see here for the threat: http://www.standupeconomist.com/blog/the-comment-that-econlib-deleted/–but that it was just plain nasty.
    It’s too bad. My co-blogger, Bryan Caplan, is at least as harsh a critic as I am and Bryan said enough positive things about Bauman’s latest economics cartoon book (see http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/12/cartoon_macro.html) that Bauman highlighted Bryan’s comments on his site. I had been planning to ask for a review copy, fully expecting that I would like the book also. Yoram could have had a two-fer. Not now. It’s not that I’m spiteful: I think I hold fewer grudges than anyone else I know. It’s just that if I criticize him on my blog, I need to let him respond, and I don’t any longer think he will respond in good faith. He’s toxic.

  120. 120 120 Steve Landsburg

    David:

    He’s toxic.

    He is also, I’ve come to realize, a full-bore crank. The repeated refusal to notice what anyone else is saying, the breathtaking indifference to his own inconsistencies, the shameless re-definitions-in-the-middle-of-arguments so that everything he’s saying, no matter how self-contradictory, can be “correct” all at once…..

    You meet these guys on the math newsgroups every now and then. They have seven-line proofs of Fermat’s Last Theorem, or they’ve found the fatal flaw in Cantor’s diagonal argument, or they can “prove” that the ring of algebraic integers doesn’t exist. People generously take the time to understand their arguments and point out the exact point where they’ve gone wrong, and are met with some combination of sarcasm and accusations of closed-mindedness. Never ever ever does the point sink in.

    Another major characteristic of these cranks is an unwillingness to think abstractly. They make an argument to “prove” something. You show them that the *exact same* argument proves some other thing, which they reject — while refusing to see why what you’ve shown them is relevant. And they get nasty when they’re cornered.

    For the record, here are the two things Yoram is currently being an ass about:

    1) He defines “grinchy” as either “broadening the circle of people you care about” or “narrowing the circle of people you care about”, as it fits his purpose. In particular, caring more about yourself than about your fellow students is grinchy, but caring more about your fellow students than about non-students is non-grinchy. Try asking him to resolve this contradiction. He will respond with sarcasm and nastiness, while steadfastly refusing to understand (or to admit that he understands) the question.

    2) He thinks that wanting to transfer resources from group A to group B (when you belong to neither group) is “grinchy” if A is workers and B is shareholders, and “non-grinchy” if A is shareholders and B is workers. Try asking him to resolve this contradiction. Try asking him what is the GENERAL criterion for grinchiness that he’s employing. The honest answer is that “Only Yoram gets to decide what’s grinchy, and he’s not bound by any standards of logic or consistency”, but he won’t give you that answer. Instead, he will sneer.

  121. 121 121 Steve Landsburg

    I know I should let this go already, but first let’s mention this. Yoram writes:

    you think that folks who lay off workers in order to increase profits are simply showing grinch-less concern for the stockholders.

    Given that the students are not affected either way by these layoffs, how ELSE could you explain their having any opinion at all other than to posit that they are concerned for the affected parties? Note that Yoram mocks this explanation, but has offered absolutely nothing to supplant it. Why, according to Yoram, DO students care about the allocation of resources across parties who are not students? I’d ask him, but of course he not only has no answer, he doesn’t even think he NEEDS an answer.

  122. 122 122 Ken B

    Like Steve says, we should all give this up but …
    YB:Just out of curiosity, what’s your interpretation of Wang et al. (forthcoming)?

    I’d say it’s irrelevant to what we debated here. The four colour theorem is true, but the purported proof from circa 1880 is still wrong. Even if Wang can prove his case Yoram’s argument is still wrong.

  123. 123 123 Steve Landsburg

    Ken B:

    Even if Wang can prove his case Yoram’s argument is still wrong.

    My experience with cranks in other venues tells me that Yoram will never, ever, ever, understand this.

    Just like he’ll keep complaining about the “echo chamber” around here without ever having the capacity to notice that unanimity of opinion is a great rarity on this blog, and hence might be indicative of something substantial.

  124. 124 124 Charlie

    Steve,

    Doesn’t it hurt your interpretation that there is no effect on econ majors that take intermediate micro? Econ_majors are less likely to donate and there intro class has an effect, but their second class has no effect.

    For instance you say:

    “And this, I think, would be a much more natural interpretation than your own, because a lot of what we teach in economics has to do with seeing all the consequences of your actions, and evaluating their desirability on the basis of all those consequences.”

    And:

    “This is, after all, one of the MAIN THINGS we try to teach our econ students — not to lose sight of aggregate budget constraints, etc”

    In the first consequence, intermediate goes much more deeply into “evaluating desirability based on consequences.” Intro tends to be basic concepts, supply and demand, how the market works, and gains from trade. Intermediate tends to get deeper into actually deciding what a market failure might be and how effect certain policies might be to alleviate it. Also, keeping track of “aggregate budget constraints” and other deep concepts tends to take place in the intermediate course.

    Also, if I’m reading these results correctly, Table 5 of the paper shows that econ majors that have taken intermediate micro tend to be significantly more likely to donate to ATN. So if as you suggest they are better at determining the real effects of lobbying, something about intermediate micro makes them ruthlessly choose to lobby for their own benefits at the expense of others. And while it’s not quite significant signs on promoting left wing activism are consistently positive for majors that have taken intermediate micro.

    I really am having a hard time fitting your story to those results. If your story was correct we should see econ majors donate less as they take more classes, not more. And if your mechanisms were right, we might even, we should effect intermediate micro to have the complete opposite effect.

  125. 125 125 Charlie

    *oops editing left my last sentence incoherent: Please allow me to amend to: “And if your mechanisms were right, we should expect intermediate micro to have the complete opposite effect.”

  126. 126 126 Steve Landsburg

    Charlie: Points well taken. Thanks for this. I’ll mull it over.

  127. 127 127 Steve Landsburg

    FYI: I’ve stopped approving Yoram’s comments, which continue to be abusive and to ignore all of the substantive issues on the table. I’ll go back to approving them if he ever submits anything on topic. Don’t hold your breath.

  128. 128 128 Yoram Bauman

    Steve writes that I believe that “caring more about yourself than about your fellow students is grinchy, but caring more about your fellow students than about non-students is non-grinchy.” This is false. I believe that both of these things are grinchy, but that the first one is empirically important and the second one is not.

    Steve also writes that I believe that to “transfer resources from group A to group B (when you belong to neither group) is “grinchy” if A is workers and B is shareholders, and “non-grinchy” if A is shareholders and B is workers.” This is—to use a phrase I’ve used before—mostly beside the point, because in our paper students belong to group B. But I will address the issue anyway and say that Steve’s impression of my belief in this case is true. This is (I suppose) because in my heart of heart I am more concerned about the workers who lose their jobs than about the stockholders who lose a bit of their profits. (Ultimately, in other words, it’s about diminishing marginal utility of income.) You may say that this is unscientific, and I completely agree. But it is not inconsistent with my other beliefs, and—despite what Steve thinks—I am confident that it is not inconsistent with the beliefs of approximately “everybody on the planet.”

  129. 129 129 Ken B

    Charlie has posted the first susbstantial and on-point post on the anti-Landsburg side. Maybe we should petition the university to transfer Yoram’s degree to Charlie …
    (This is a joke for those who followed this whole tortured thread.)

    At a first blush when Charlie makes this observation
    “Table 5 of the paper shows that econ majors that have taken intermediate micro tend to be significantly more likely to donate to ATN.” my reaction was “different cohorts of different sizes, can we call out those same students earlier responses for a baseline?”

  130. 130 130 David Wallin

    Charlie:” Doesn’t it hurt your interpreation that there is no effect on econ majors that take intermediate micro? Econ_majors are less likely to donate and there intro class has an effect, but their second class has no effect.”
    Table 5 has a coefficient of -0.03 for Econ majors, a -0.07 for the intermediate course, and 0.06 for the interaction for ATN donations. This suggests to me that the taking the intermediate course does indeed reduce contribution for non-Econ (-0.07). But, for Econ majors, the contribution is only reduced by -0.01 (-0.07 + 0.06) upon taking the intermediate course. The Econ majors are, of course, already less likely to contribute (not just the -0.03 above, but additional amounts from the intro course and subsequent interaction).
    So, the conclusion I draw is that taking the intermediate course reduces everyone’s contribution to ATN. It has a far larger reduction on non-Econ majors that Econ majors. That is not a surprise given the prevailing non-Youram explanation.

  131. 131 131 David Wallin

    As a follow up… Considering the data is Table 5, I get the following. The form is:
    No Econ courses | Intro only | Intro + Intermediate
    For non-Econ majors:
    0 (this is the baseline) | -0.03 | -0.10
    For Econ majors:
    -0.03 | -0.07 | -0.08
    I note that non-Econ majors who took intermediate are more Grinchy (to Youram) than Econ majors at any point. I suggest these are the evil, greedy, self-centered students I teach (not a UW)—business majors (the most evil subset are those who take a lot of Econ). I’m proud. {Just in case anyone might miss it, my tounge firmly in cheek as I make fun of my students}

  132. 132 132 Ken B

    @Steve: You are right about Yoram and cranks of course. ‘If your argument can prove X it can prove Y’ is a form of reductio ad absurdum, and that always seems to anger a lot of people. (We see that every time you post about Godel!) And it is an argument that requires one to imagine one’s premises are wrong — apparently difficult emotionally for some.

  133. 133 133 Keshav Srinivasan

    Steve, you’ve made the point a few times in this comment thread that getting people’s self-reported motivations for their actions is not a good way to understand their behavior. That’s really counterintuitive; at least in everyday life when we don’t undertake someone’s behavior we ask them about it.

    This may not be perfect, because as you said sometimes people aren’t aware of why they do what they do, but I think it’s at least useful as a glimpse at their thought processes. This may be especially important if the issue is whether or not someone has thought through a particular piece of reasoning, in this case that tuition subsidies are not a free lunch. It’s similar to your analysis of people’s reaction to paid celebrity endorsements, where I again think it’s worthwhile to ask people how the endorsement affected their buying decisions.

  134. 134 134 Charlie

    David,

    I was overstating by not adding the interaction term to the intermediate dummy. But I’m not sure that saves Steve’s explanation. The problem is that adding three variables that are significantly different than zero does not necessarily equal a variable significantly different than zero. When I look at table 4, which is separated by cohort, it looks like the effect of classes is non-existent on econ majors. That doesn’t seem to gel well at all with my interpretation of Steve’s argument, which is that econ students learn a lot from their economic classes about deep concepts that changes their opinions.

    Your second comment gets to another worry I have. The authors story and Steve’s story both attribute the effects to learning (or what the authors call indoctrination), but the only learning effects that are significant are for non-majors. These seem quite likely to be selection effects. Certainly the non-econ majors that take economics courses are much different than the average non-econ major. Consistent with this is that non-majors have larger effects (in table 4) from intermediate than from intro. Since intro is more often a required course or qualifies for a general credit, it’s not surprising that the subset of non-majors that would take intermediate has an even larger selection effect. [The errors are large so this difference while "big" likely isn't significant and I don't want to overstate.]

    P.S. – I’d be curious if you have good econometric reasons to add up coefficients in table 5 as opposed to looking at results separated by cohort in table 4. Again, I’m not sure I’m right, but it looks to me like table 5 provides some really interesting information, but also introduces a lot of noise in the individual estimators. That makes me not comfortable adding up the coefficients, especially in light of the results in table 4.

  135. 135 135 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram: I have posted your most recent comment (above) because it is at least sober and attempts to address the issues. But it also, I think, reveals yet again just how incoherent your position is.

    Previously, your theory of what students do and don’t view as a public good had to do with “spheres of influence”. Now, all of a sudden, it has to do with marginal utility of income.

    One might begin by noting that neither you nor I nor the students has the foggiest idea whether the average worker in this particular case is richer or poorer than the average shareholder, nor do we have the slightest idea how costly it is for these workers to lose these particular jobs. But put all of that aside. Here’s the more important point: If in fact students view the transfer of income from rich to poor as a public good, then they will of course tend to *oppose* ATN, which transfers income to college students, a group with relatively high lifetime expected incomes.

    So when you want to make one prediction, you rely on a “spheres of influence” theory; when you want to make another, you rely on a “marginal utility of income” theory. If the theory makes a prediction you don’t like, you call on another theory — not as a permanent replacement, just as a temporary stand-in till you’re back to needing the first theory again.

    What’s so frustrating here is that none of this seems to bother you. You don’t seem to have the slightest interest in being coherent or making sense. You don’t even seem to notice that there’s *such a thing* as being coherent or making sense.

    As best I can tell, your entire story consists of a set of prejudices about what students are likely to value, with each individual prejudice justified by some completely different ad hoc theory, and —- and this is the important part —- no way for anyone to tell what prediction you’re likely to make in any given case other than to ask you. Because you’ve articulated no general principles you’re willing to stick to.

  136. 136 136 Yoram Bauman

    Let’s go back to what Steve wrote before: “He [Yoram] defines “grinchy” as either “broadening the circle of people you care about” or “narrowing the circle of people you care about”, as it fits his purpose. In particular, caring more about yourself than about your fellow students is grinchy, but caring more about your fellow students than about non-students is non-grinchy. Try asking him to resolve this contradiction. He will respond with sarcasm and nastiness, while steadfastly refusing to understand (or to admit that he understands) the question.”

    Now let’s go back to what I wrote in response: “This is false. I believe that both of these things are grinchy, but that the first one is empirically important and the second one is not.”

    Now let’s go back to what Steve writes in reply: “I have posted your most recent comment (above) because it is at least sober and attempts to address the issues. But it also, I think, reveals yet again just how incoherent your position is.”

    That’s it. C’mon, Steve, how is this a response? Didn’t I “resolve [the] contradiction”? Yes, I did. So give me some credit. And then after you do that maybe I’ll address your other post, about the workers and the shareholders.

  137. 137 137 Steve Landsburg

    Yoram:

    Okay. You resolved the contradiction by acknowledging that a desire to transfer resources from non-students to students counts as grinchy. In other words, then, your study can easily be read as confirming that economics courses make students *less* grinchy. I’m glad we agree on this.

    But once again, a key point has soared right over your head. I wrote “But [your comment] also, I think, reveals how incoherent your position is”. You write: “Didn’t I resolve the contradiction?”. Actually, if you re-read my comment (or perhaps if you read it thoroughly for the first time) you will see that I was referring to the disconnect between your “spheres of influence” story and your “marginal utility of income” story. You haven’t attempted to resolve this.

    Also, you ignored the other really big one: If some students want to transfer income from workers to shareholders, and others want to transfer income from shareholders to workers, on what basis do you call one group grinchier than the other? Note that your “marginal utility of income” story doesn’t address this AT ALL. At best, it explains why YOU might prefer one direction of transfer. But the evidence you cite shows only that some students care more about the workers and others care more about the shareholders; it says ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about which students care more about other folks in general.

  138. 138 138 Charlie

    “If in fact students view the transfer of income from rich to poor as a public good, then they will of course tend to *oppose* ATN, which transfers income to college students, a group with relatively high lifetime expected incomes.”

    This claim is very problematic. While it is true that college students have relatively high expected lifetime incomes compared to the average American, the average tax payer is not the average American. It also makes some (unclear) assumption about what funds ATN, if successful, will take from the pie as a result of lobbying. Some government activities take from the poor and give to the rich, others do the opposite, some may require new taxes with a range of distributional outcomes.

    To make this statement after making this criticism of Bauman, “One might begin by noting that neither you nor I nor the students has the foggiest idea whether the average worker in this particular case is richer or poorer than the average shareholder, nor do we have the slightest idea how costly it is for these workers to lose these particular jobs.”

    We also do not know the distributional effect of successful ATN lobbying, will it come from old people? will it come from rich people? will it come from poor people? will it come from future generations? will it come from bondholders or money holders? will it come from defense contractors?

    If he has evidence for his claim, he should present it. If not, I find it extremely troubling that he would assert it so uncritically.

  139. 139 139 Steve Landsburg

    Charlie: Fair enough. I will modify my claim then to say that if the students seek to redistribute from rich to poor, then there’s no clear reason they should support a program like ATN, and at least (it still seems to me) a plausible case for shying away from it.

  140. 140 140 Charlie

    Steve,

    Cool.

    Looking forward to hearing your comments on how your counter-hypothesis fits with the observed result that there is no significant effect of learning on econ majors, and my counter-hypothesis that exposure effects of non-majors may be selection effects.

  141. 141 141 Yoram Bauman

    Steve once again attempts to change the subject. I have resolved his “contradiction”, but that’s not enough for him. I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve stays awake at night perplexed at how “caring more about yourself than about your fellow [Americans] is grinchy, but caring more about your fellow [Americans] than about [Iranians] is non-grinchy.”

    On the subject of workers and shareholders, I have a good idea: Why don’t you start a new thread and ask Rubinstein. Then you can duke it out with him. I’m exhausted, and I have to go watch the UW Huskies play Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. I expect many UW students to be rooting for the Huskies, but of course the ones who have been enlightened by their economics classes will recognize the zero-sum aspect of the game and remain neutral because of their non-grinchy concern for the students at Baylor.

  142. 142 142 Steve Landsburg

    And so we come full circle. On the subject of workers and shareholders, the entire issue revolved around the fact that Yoram’s “spheres of influence” story won’t work, because neither the workers nor the shareholders are particularly within the students’ “sphere of influence” and therefore students have no a priori reason to prefer one over the other. So how does Yoram address this point?

    On the subject of workers and shareholders … I have to go watch the UW Huskies play Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. I expect many UW students to be rooting for the Huskies, but of course the ones who have been enlightened by their economics classes will recognize the zero-sum aspect of the game and remain neutral because of their non-grinchy concern for the students at Baylor.

    I.e. he reverts to a story where UW students clearly *do* have a greater affinity for one side over the other, indicating that he has exactly zero interest in addressing the actual point.

    This sort of aggressive irrelevance is the hallmark of the Internet troll, and the hallmark of Yoram’s debating style. I briefly banned his comments so they wouldn’t interfere with everyone else’s attempt to have an interesting conversation (let me particularly commend Charlie, who’s given us all plenty to think about). Now that it’s triply clear he’ll never change, I’m banning him permanently.

    I’m never sure what to make of these trolls. It’s possible, of course, that Yoram really *is* as big a dunce as he’s pretending to be, but I suspect instead that he’s just enjoying the attention he gets by making a fool of himself. He won’t be doing it here anymore.

  143. 143 143 Sean

    What’s absolutely flummoxing is that Yoram appears to not be able to acknowledge how ad hoc his reasoning is. Everyone’s reasoning is ad hoc, of course, but it is crucial for economists and sociologists to note whether something, even in their heart-of-hearts, is a value judgement affecting their research.

    I always like to think of Peter Singer’s philosophy, pointing out how ad hoc human reasoning is. We think its okay to kill non-sentient animals, but its not okay to kill non-sentient people and babies. Abortion causes are also full of random lines drawn based on ad hoc reasoning. But that’s okay, we all do it. We’re human. Admit it.

    But Yoram can’t even spend more than half a sentence looking to his own (and everyone else’s) faulty reasoning. “You may say that this is unscientific, and I completely agree.” Great, he agrees that it is not logical. How does it being not logical effect his a priori judgement in setting up his study? Oh, we don’t get to that. Instead: “But it is not inconsistent with my other beliefs, and—despite what Steve thinks—I am confident that it is not inconsistent with the beliefs of approximately “everybody on the planet.””

    Great, so because he is confident everybody on the planet agrees with him, the people who don’t do exactly what he wants are morally inferior. Super. You’ll make a great publicly-known economist, Yoram. And you can probably launch a regular NYT column, too. Sounds familiar.

  144. 144 144 Charlie

    I’m in the minority, which is no surprise as I’m not a regular reader of this blog (no doubt reflecting different preferences). For me, the original post provided no value. Mankiw provided me the link two days earlier and his treatment is clearer, terser and his critique for general. His post heavy on content and light on rhetorical flourish suits my tastes much better than Steve’s post.

    That said, due to wondrous echoes through the blogosphere, I got to read this thread. If Yoram and Steve debated every day on a blog, I’d read it every day. I thought both authors scored points and the exchange on public goods was enlightening. I’m much less confident that concept is well-defined outside of an economic model.

    I’m glad that Steve thought that I made a contribution. If so, it is because I was able to only criticize hypotheses without having to offer one of my own. I don’t have an explanation for this study’s results that I’m confident in, partially because I agree with Yoram’s point that a new study must also be read in light of the entire literature. I’m much less confident than the other commenters that there will or must be one simple explanation. Even in this study, the lack of a treatment effect in the results could really be the result of two (or twenty) treatment effects based on differing student reactions working in opposite directions. In these studies, I find context to be very important and subtle changes in framing may have large effects. I think this study is an incremental contribution to what, to me at least, remains an unsettled question.

  145. 145 145 Ken B

    Charile’s last note is very thoughtful and I agree especially with this part: “subtle changes in framing may have large effects.” One reason I am skeptical of these kinds of studies (Google also Marc Hauser). But this “a new study must also be read in light of the entire literature” I am less happy with. It seems Yoram did just that, and thereby waved away all the shortcomings with his own study. This prescription seems like a ready-made excuse to ride a bandwagaon with shoddy work.

  146. 146 146 Henri Hein

    After reflecting on this issue a bit more, I have become fairly convinced that conflicting tradeoffs must be part of the explanation for the student preferences revealed in the solicitations. I offer the story of Bill Gates.

    While Gates ran Microsoft and amassed his fortune, he was chastised by many for not contributing more to charity (being a Grinch, if you will). Such contributions are quite common for that class of wealthy. For instance, witness Ted Turner leaving Stossel’s interview during Greed. Gates’ explanation at the time was that he would not contribute willy-nilly, that investing in charitable work should be done carefully, and that he would contribute once he had time to do proper research to put his money to the best use.

    After stepping down and retiring from Microsoft, Gates was good on his word. Thus we get the Gates foundation, one of the largest non-profit foundations on the planet.

    I see no reason to believe the students in question would not be as sophisticated as Bill Gates in thinking about this issue. Note that if tradeoffs is indeed the concern, the source of funding (whether directly contributed by the student or not) is irrelevant.

  147. 147 147 David Wallin

    BTW, Youram asked SL: “Just out of curiosity, what’s your interpretation of Wang et al. (forthcoming)?”
    I read a mid-2009 version of what appears to be an earlier draft (and with only the latter two studies). Wow! Participants who read a framing from Walter Williams defining greed in terms of a search for excellence felt better about “greed” than those whose frame was Paul Krugman defining greed as what causes the “Enrons” and the outright business frauds of the world.

  148. 148 148 Major_Freedom

    After all the rhetorical flourishes, sarcasm, and impertinence from Bauman, I pick out three passages that reveal his true motive (it isn’t truth finding, it’s bias confirmation) and why logic becomes a burden rather than a tool:

    “Rubinstein 2006 argues that econ students are more likely to put profit-maximization above the welfare of workers (because workers would have to be fired to increase profits). Bauman comes in and says that this supports the argument that economists are grinches.”

    This comment is strong evidence that Bauman is just your average run-of-the-mill Marxoid pseudo-intellectual who hates the morality of self-interest inherent in capitalism. Not the self-interest of workers mind you, because that self-interest is really history’s actors who selflessly fight on behalf of “the working class” (this is why Bauman’s “sphere of influence” keeps changing), who defend against the primary, and evil, self-interest of capitalists. If there is any doubt at this point, here is another passage he wrote:

    “This is (I suppose) because in my heart of heart I am more concerned about the workers who lose their jobs than about the stockholders who lose a bit of their profits.”

    Bauman doesn’t define “Grinchiness” clearly and consistently because his actual definition of Grinchiness is whatever promotes the interests of the bourgeois class, and his actual definition of non-Grinchiness is whatever promotes the interests of the working class.

    Economic science is something that Marx had to viciously attack, in his quest to advance his own metaphysics and epistemology. Economic science is what stood in his way. He failed at overturning economic law (naturally), but alas, too many people (who didn’t study economics) were flummoxed by the new creed, and the rest is history.

    Bauman also considers economic science a threat to his moral values. So he views economic students of today as likely candidates of future representatives of the evil, greedy, self-interested (bourgeoisie) class. THIS is really why the “economics study” interests him. I use quotes around “economic study” because it’s not an actual economics study. It’s just a tally of historical economic data concerning past student actions that do not elucidate any law of causality of “IF economically educated, THEN greedy/evil/bourgeoisie”, it just shows what some people did in the past, which requires an a priori theory to correctly interpret.

    Landsburg correctly points out that Bauman’s a priori theory is not the only one that is consistent with the data, and that MULTIPLE a priori theories can be made consistent with the economic data. Landsburg unfortunately fell into the positivist trap Bauman set up, which is understandable considering how illogical Bauman thinks, and instead of debating him on theory alone, he offered another empirical research program to show evidence of the theory “IF economically educated, then NOT greedy/evil/bourgeoisie.” Of course Bauman would have none of that.

    Bauman jumps with joy because he believes to have found proof that economics students are seeming to do exactly what Bauman expects, which is to act greedy, since, after all, economic science does stand in the way of the selfless working class revolution. Economics students to Bauman are, a priori, “grinches.” Since empirical study COULD be interpreted as such, Bauman wants to go home and believe he’s done well for the world because he believes he’s shown economic science to really be nothing but a class interest ideology that corrupts our youth and turns them into greedy, and thus pro-, capitalists.

    Putting aside Bauman’s political demagoguery, the last passage I will cite shows he won’t be capable of coming to a logical, consistent conclusion, and will only continue to be mired in Marxoid dogmatism”

    “As I’ve said before, we have before us an empirical question about which interpretation of the results is the correct one.”

    Here Bauman is tacitly presuming that logic is inapplicable to economics, and thus economics is not a science, but a value system, and thus his own a priori Marxoid theory is immune from logical criticism, and so he feels entitled to keep believing his own delusions about economics allegedly corrupting people until Landsburg’s a priori theory is conclusively refuted by further empirical research, that is, until capitalism reaches its nadir, its height of total greed everywhere, after which ALL economics students, indeed everybody, will be alienated, cut off, self-absorbed cogs in the wheel of capitalism. As a Marxiod, Bauman can only look to the future, where the revolution resides. That is why he yearns for further historical research. If students in Zurich are also “greedy”, GOODY! That means economic evil is spreading, and the transformational revolution is at hand. Logic need not apply.

    Bauman claims that economics education and its relation to grinchiness is an empirical question that can then settle which interpretation (Landsburg’s or Bauman’s) is the correct theory. FALSE. That is not how you will arrive at economic truth (theory). That is how you will collect historical data. Bauman has the order wrong. In economic science, theories are settled BEFORE interpretations of past data can take place. Past economic data doesn’t, indeed CAN’T, prove which theory is correct. Past data, if it can be considered in isolation, would be a series of random information that won’t make any sense to us. We must know economic principles before we can understand past economics data. Economic theories are proven correct using logic and arguing from first principles BEFORE they can be used to correctly interpret past economic data.

    Bauman’s problem is that his a priori theory is all messed up, as Landsburg has PATIENTLY pointed out time and time again in this thread. Landsburg is in effect demanding that Bauman be logical and consistent, but Bauman will have none of that because his epistemology prevents him from using logic as a tool. To him logic is just another barrier, like economic science, in his quest to show that economic science is a bourgeoisie corruption. That is why he will remain stubborn and insist that economics makes students “Grinches”, despite the fact that his theory ISN’T the only theory that is consistent with the data.

    The ONLY way that Landsburg and Bauman can settle this is by Bauman using logic and economic principles ALONE to show how his theory “IF economically educated, THEN grinch” is correct, whereas Landsburg’s criticisms are unwarranted.

    Bauman TRIED to use logic in this thread, but got demolished, because his goal is to attack economic science, and since logic is on the side of economic science, it is like Bauman is using paintbrushes to attack the art of painting.

    Bauman: One final word. The only reason why your crap article was published in the NYT, and not is because the NYT is owned and operated by a bunch of left-wing ideologues who hate capitalism. I mean just look at your title. You are an “environmental economist.” Your job is solely to discredit laissez-faire capitalism (see a pattern here?) by pretending that dirt and plants have alleged intrinsic values that humans in the course of industrialization allegedly systematically destroy. You say you want to “improve” economics education? Nonsense. You want to destroy it and replace it with state-approved class-based ideology, so that students will finally cease being subjected to the economic principles that refute you, which can then weaken people’s minds further so that the last vestiges of laissez-faire capitalism can finally be taken down for good.

  149. 149 149 Charlie

    “In economic science, theories are settled BEFORE interpretations of past data can take place. Past economic data doesn’t, indeed CAN’T, prove which theory is correct”

    Surely, data can tell us if a theory is incorrect, though. I offered a general critique of Steven’s theory that it was inconsistent with the empirical evidence provided. Not to say that is the last word, but surely the nature of the critique is valid. If theory are contradicted by data, then the theory must be rejected. That is how all science progresses.

  1. 1 Discuss my NY Times op-ed here | Stand-Up Economist
  2. 2 All linky, no thinky « Blunt Object
  3. 3 Some Links
  4. 4 That’s Gotta Hurt!, 2011 Edition
  5. 5 Turning the Crank: The Year in Review at Steven Landsburg | The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics
  6. 6 Quotation of the Day…
  7. 7 Are economists selfish? A lit review | Stand-Up Economist
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