Archive for May 7th, 2010

Confession of an Economist: Writing to Impress Rather than Inform

May 7, 2010

David R. Hakes of University of Northern Iowa has written a superb account on the topic.

Think back to your first years in graduate school. The most mathematically complex papers required a great deal of time and effort to read. The papers were written as if to a private club, and we felt proud when we successfully entered the club. Although I copied the style of these overly complex and often poorly written papers in my first few research attempts, I grew out of it quite quickly. I didn’t do so on my own. I was lucky to be surrounded by mature confident researchers at my first academic appointment. They taught me that if you are confident in your research you will write to include, not exclude. You will write to inform, not impress. It is with apologies to my research and writing mentors that I report the following events.

He explains how he first co-wrote a paper and simplified the paper to a few equations. The refrees were not impressed and said results are self-evident. He and his co-author then complicated the paper by bringing more equations and it was accepted! So much so, the author himself could not understand the paper now:

While making the same point as the original paper, the new paper would be more mathematically elegant, and it would become absolutely impenetrable to most readers. The resulting paper had fifteen equations, two propositions and proofs, dozens of additional mathematical expressions, and a mathematical appendix containing nineteen equations and even more mathematical expressions. I personally could no longer understand the paper and I could not possibly present the paper alone.

The paper was published in the first journal to which we submitted. It took two years to receive one referee report. The journal sent it out to a total of seven referees, but only one was able to write a report on it. Apparently he was sufficiently impressed. While the audience for the original version of the paper was broad, the audience for the published version of the paper has been reduced to a very narrow set of specialists and mathematicians. Even for mathematicians, the paper may no longer pass a cost-benefit test. That is, the time and effort necessary to read the paper may exceed the benefits received from reading it. I am now part of the conspiracy to intentionally make simple ideas obscure and complex.

He then extends the story further. He narrated this tale to a conference only to discover that editor of the journal which accepted his paper was in the conference panel!

Great light read.

Buy yeah, you come across so many papers of this kind. You just don’t understand the need for so many equations and the fancy work. As Avinash Dixit says:

A big difference that has taken place in the last 40 years is that when I started the typical working paper, double-spaced, was 20 to 25 pages. But now they are 60 to 70 pages, and as I get older and my eye sight deteriorates especially, I find this a terrible thing. I wish people would put their ideas in a punchier, simpler way.


When White House Changes Party, Do Economists Change Their Tune on Budget Deficits?

May 7, 2010

Brett Barkley of Econ Journal watch has written a cheeky paper.

Large budget deficits represent a burden on the future, and debt accumulation eventually poses great problems. Economists writing for the public can either highlight such truths, neglect the issue, or try to allay worries or excuse or justify large budget deficits (as anti-recession policy, for example). Economists affiliated or aligned with one of the parties may be suspected of changing their positions on budgets deficits to serve their favored party or win favor with its constituency. This paper investigates selected economists, to see whether their tune changes when the party holding the White House changes. Six economists are found to change their tune—Paul Krugman in a significant way, Alan Blinder in a moderate way, and Martin Feldstein, Murray Weidenbaum, Paul Samuelson, and Robert Solow in a minor way—while eleven are found to be fairly consistent.

:-) He adds Krugman features on top also because he writes so extensively.

He tracks statements of prominent US economists (Clark Medal Winners, Nobel Prize Winners and President’s Council of Economic Advisor Chair) to come to the analysis. All the statements of these econs are put in an excel file here.

Check Table 1 on Page 4 of the paper for a quick summary of political affiliations  and Tune change. How did he differentiate biased econ from unbiased one?

What does an unbiased economist look like? In sorting through their comments, I looked for two things in particular: honest criticism of both parties, especially if that meant criticism of one’s own side, and an equal amount of criticism across administrations with some room for exception for factors such as those mentioned above. An unbiased economist should not merely be a critic when the opposition is in office and then sit idly by while his preferred party is in power. When I found this to be the sole basis of the tune change, for example with Samuelson and Solow, I classified it as a minor sign of bias though it is arguably more than that. Alan Blinder describes this weakness when he notes “…the sheer hypocrisy of many Congressional Republicans who, having never uttered a peep about the huge deficits under George W. Bush, are suddenly models of budget probity” (Blinder 2009). This tendency to shift the level of their criticism depending  on the party in power was present in the other economists found to change their tune, as five out of the six were much more vocal when their opposition was in office. Unfortunately, those included Mr. Blinder himself.

It is worth noting that eleven economists did not change their positions. A few even came close to what we might think of as unbiased, that kind of publicly engaged economist who gives his insight no matter what the political consequences.

Joseph Stiglitz and William Niskanen, though not entirely bias-free, are the two best examples. They openly criticized their own party and deserve some degree of recognition for that.

In the spirit of avoiding excessive bias or partisanship, I find it necessary to make known my political leanings. I am a registered Republican who leans libertarian on many policy matters. The only vote I have ever cast was for Ron Paul in the 2008 Republican primaries. I did not vote in the general election in 2008 and have never made any financial contributions to a party or campaign.

Waiting for some quick reply from Krugman on this. Could be some fireworks ahead.

One should check out this journal It is quite good with different type of research. The focus is on what economists (mostly US based) have said on a particular issue. The journal papers are free to download and its archives are here. It comes three times in a year.

A paper which has become very famous is views of US economists on Euro (my post here). As per the paper, US based economists criticised Euro and said it will not work. Krugman (and others) have called the paper spectacularly mistimed. Even those who criticised Euro then must be surprised by the events now. The warnings of some economists did come true with respect to US and Europe, but sheer size of crisis must have surprised the most pessimistic as well.

BTW, the authors of the Euro paper have written a reply to the criticism


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