is economics partisan? is all of social science just wrong?
Last week, fivethirtyeight.com put up a piece titled, “Economists Aren’t As Nonpartisan As We Think.” Beyond the slightly odd title (do we think they’re nonpartisan? should we expect them to be?), it’s an interesting write-up of a new working paper by Zubin Jelveh, Bruce Kogut, and Suresh Naidu. It went up a week ago, but since it gives me a chance to write about three of my favorite things, I thought it was still worth a post.
Favorite thing 1: Economists
The research started by identifying the political positions of economists, using campaign contributions and signatures on political petitions. This suggested economists lean left, by about 60-40. Not surprising so far. Then Jelveh et al. used machine learning techniques to identify phrases in journal articles most closely associated with left or right positions. Some of these are not unexpected (“Keynesian economics” versus “laissez faire”), while others are less obvious (“supra note” is left, and “central bank” is right).
It turns out that political position is associated with subfield and institutional location:
For example, macroeconomists and financial economists are more right-leaning on average while labor economists tend to be left-leaning. Economists at business schools, no matter their specialty, lean conservative.
Again, not incredibly surprising, though interesting to see data documenting it.
The final major point is that political position — this time as estimated from article phrases, not actual political activities — is associated with research results — here measured by estimates of various elasticities and the fiscal multiplier, which in turn imply particular political positions. So, for example, if the labor supply elasticity is high, then raising income taxes will cause people to work less. Economists who used right-leaning phrases were more likely to produce estimates that implied right-leaning political positions, and vice versa.
So. That was all interesting to read about, but none of it was (despite the headline) incredibly shocking. But the article then leads into my next favorite topic.
Favorite thing 2: How social science is translated into policy recommendations.
Thus far, a perfectly reasonable piece of social science. The authors are careful, even in the 538 version, to avoid implying that folks are deliberately messing with results, arguing instead that economists probably self-select into research areas and methodological strategies that align with their political preferences. Fair enough. But, this being 538, they need a policy takeaway, and here’s where things get weird. What shall we do with the finding that social science is not, in fact, devoid of politics?
Policymakers may need to “re-center” economists’ findings by adjusting for ideology. Take the area of tax rates for high earners. The average optimal tax rate reported by economists in our data is 41 percent. Using our model, we can also estimate that these economists as a group are slightly left of center. We can then figure out what optimal top tax rate a hypothetical centrist economist would report: 33 percent.
Huh. So rather than keep trying to figure out what the economically optimal tax rate for high earners is — setting aside, for a moment, all the other stuff besides economics one might be concerned with re high earners and tax rates — one should just estimate the centrist position and go with that? Because “political middle” = “most likely to be right”? That strikes me as a little bizarre.
Favorite thing 3: How much of social science is probably full of mistakes.
Finally, when I first looked at the post and the chart highlighted in it, my initial reaction was, hmm, that doesn’t seem like much of a relationship at all. When I returned to it yesterday, the main chart had been updated. The original one was incorrect, “missing about 40 percent of its points and ma[king] the relationship it showed look weaker than it actually is.” Mother Jones, responding to the original chart, had a similar reaction as I did, titling its piece “Economists Are Almost Inhumanly Impartial.” You can compare the two charts below:
(Wrong chart, still up at Mother Jones)
(Correct, updated chart, from 538)
Now if anything, we should feel good that this error was caught and corrected. Anyone can make a mistake, particularly in a blog post, and if mistakes are fixed things are working like they should.
But it reminded me of another post I read this week, one that’s a little more discouraging. The Quarterly Journal of Political Science has been requiring for a decade that published papers include a “replication package” of data and code. It does a basic internal review of the replication package to make sure it produces the results in the paper. Here’s how that’s gone:
Of the 24 empirical papers subject to in-house replication review since September 2012,  only 4 packages required no modifications…Most troubling…13 (54 percent) had results in the paper that differed from those generated by the author’s own code. Some of these issues were relatively small — likely arising from rounding errors during transcription — but in other cases they involved incorrectly signed or mis-labeled regression coefficients, large errors in observation counts, and incorrect summary statistics. Frequently, these discrepancies required changes to full columns or tables of results.
Wow. That is really not good, though kudos to QJPS for trying. Still, coming back to the original article, it raises a different point: maybe the political leanings of social scientists are among the least of their (our) problems.