Saturday, December 09, 2006

Wanna make a deal?

I know it's about a billion years ago in blog-time, but I'd like to revisit Robin Hanson's post about "4 Big Economic Errors." (Which Ezra dealt with here.) It seems to me there's actually an interesting argument here, one that might net out a big plus for progressives.

Hanson argues that people don't respect what he claims is an overwhelming academic consensus regarding the minimum wage, the way they would respect the overwhelming consensus on physics matters, even if said consensus is bizarre.

Physicists can say that this week they think the universe has eleven dimensions, three of which are purple, and two of which are twisted clockwise, and reporters will quote them unskeptically, saying "Isn't that cool!" But if economists say, as they have for centuries, that a minimum wage raises unemployment, reporters treat them skeptically and feel they need to find a contrary quote to "balance" their story.... The reasons for this resistance are not entirely clear, but one plausible theory is that people want to believe certain things about the social world, regardless of whether those things are true.

Hanson specifically chose the example of a public policy issue - the minimum wage. The implication seems to be that public policy would be best decided by the overwhelming academic consensus, while taking account of people's actual preferences as little as possible. People may think they like the minimum wage, but that distorts the clarity of their thinking on this matter, which should be decided by cold calculus. Because Hanson calls these "errors", not biases, the further implication seems to be that people should be educated according to the consensus, even if (especially if?) it conflicts with their own preconceptions.

(Leave aside the fact that Hanson's "consensus" on the minimum wage is illusory.)

I don't know if Hanson is willing to endorse that principle, but it seems his argument here leads inevitably to it - we should educate people and make decisions based less on what people "want to believe", and more on what the consensus of experts finds to be true. I would whole-heartedly endorse that principle. Why? Well, largely because of the following list:

  • The medical community overwhelmingly claims that fetal stem cell research has immense promise in curing and treating diseases which currently ruin the lives of millions.
  • Climatologists have, for decades now, had the consensus that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are changing the Earth's climate, with dangerous and unpredictable results.
  • No serious research finds that abstinence education works to control teen sex.
  • Biologists and physicists overwhelmingly agree on the origin of the universe, and the evolution of life on Earth (including humans.)
  • The overwhelming evidence in March 2003 showed that Saddam Hussein posed no threat to the United States.
  • Lastly, the growing consensus among economists (among them, Nobel Prize winners) is that any rational calculus of economic growth must include environmental costs.

So here we have 6 major issues of public policy where the current policy flies in the face of expert opinion. Now, I'm not saying I want to trade the minimum wage for any of these things. But if we're forced to give up the minimum wage for the sake of economic consensus, the above list is my minimum asking price: Students need to be taught that Iraq was a disaster from beginning to end, life does not begin at conception, we evolved from apes, the Earth is 4.8 billion years old, and we are rapidly double-glazing the planet because of Mommy and Daddy's SUV. And when they get old enough, the state should provide free access to condoms and birth control pills.

Whatever Hanson thinks, I don't think many Republicans will be willing to make that bargain.

1 comment:

adam said...

Hah. Nice one.

Reminds me a bit of the attempt in Kentucky or somesuch place so make it mandatory for any book about evolution or containing evolutionary ideas to have stickers put on the cover which said that evolution was "only a theory" and is "unproven" - so someone made the perfectly reasonable suggestion that in the interest of fairness, the same should be put on the cover of all the Bibles, too.