Defending Mankiw

Via Will Wilkinson, I learn Ezra Klein heartily endorsed Matt Yglesias‘s complaint on “the habit of distinguished economists using prestige acquired within their field to pass off sloppy work in other fields.”  He gives only two examples; one is Greg Mankiw’s “pretty half-assed moral philosophy.” Mankiw had argued:

The moral and political philosophy used to justify such income redistribution is most often a form of Utilitarianism. For example, the work on optimal tax theory by Emmanuel Saez … is essentially Utilitarian in its approach. … If you are going to take that philosophy seriously, you have to take all of the implications seriously. And one of those implications is the optimality of taxing height. … A moral and political philosophy is not like a smorgasbord, where you get to pick and choose the offerings you like and leave the others behind without explanation.

Matt Yglesias was outraged:

I think there are a ton of mistakes being made here. … How dangerous it is that the public discourse is so dominated by low-quality freelance philosophy done by people with PhDs in economics. I’m fairly certain that if Mankiw were to walk over to Emerson Hall he could find some folks (possibly T.M. Scanlon who I know sometimes reads this blog) who could explain to him that there’s little grounds for the belief that a commitment to utilitarianism is the main justification for redistributive taxation.

Gee Matt, given such strong language, don’t you feel some obligation to offer supporting evidence?  Mankiw cited an example, and you even cite your classmate Neil Sinhababu supporting redistribution on utilitarian grounds. Where is the contrary evidence?   And even if Mankiw happens to be wrong here, he doesn’t seem crazy or sloppy wrong – an awful large fraction of ethical analyzes justifying redistribution are utilitarian, even if they aren’t strictly the most common.

Note that it isn’t obvious that a Rawlsian analysis won’t similarly support a height tax.  Also note that many professional philosophers blog, and none have yet voiced support for your condemnation of Mankiw’s unexcusably sloppy philosophy.

Yglesias continued:

I think the “smorgasboard” argument is a confused way of thinking about moral reasoning. … If forced to contemplate the alleged contradiction, there are a bunch of things we might want to consider. Maybe the analysis of the height issue has gotten something wrong, utility-wise. After all, though the paper is clever, it’s hardly a comprehensive review of all of the hedonic issues in play. Or maybe utilitarianism isn’t the best theoretical grounding for the conviction that murder is wrong. Or, maybe the height tax thing actually is a good idea, albeit an unrealistic one. But since this isn’t a “live” subject of political controversy, and since there seem to be a lot of other more clear-cut policy issues, we decide to spend our time and energy thinking about less outlandish policy suggestions.

So the reason Yglesias gives that Mankiw’s “alleged contradiction” is wrong is that, hey maybe Mankiw made a mistake, and anyway Yglesias is too busy to think about crazy proposals?  (Though not too busy to defame Mankiw based on them.)  Yglesias learned of Mankiw’s claim via Conor Clarke, who similarly said:

Everyone has moral intuitions they can’t justify in the same we can justify the pythagorean theorem, and I don’t see the point of fighting that strong impulse in the name of a hobgoblin-ish consistency. … I have a strong moral intuition — even though I know it’s one I can’t justify — that height is something I deserve. But proving that my moral intuitions are an inconsistent smorgasbord doesn’t mean I’m going to give them up!

To me, Yglesias and Clarke seem here to exemplify unprincipled courtiers, who talk sagely of important considerations, and can find sage reasons for any opinion, and so need never allow analysis to move them from the dictates of inertia or fashion.  In contrast, principled philosophers understand that raw moral intuitions are noisy, and so seek coherent moral frameworks which they expect will require them to reject some raw intuitions, and embrace some unfashionable conclusions.

What am I missing Matt?  Is this your whole case for saying Mankiw’s philosophy is “half-assed,” and half your case that sloppy economist-philosophy is destroying public discourse?  That Mankiw plausibly claims most philosophy analysis supporting redistribution is utilitarian, and that you don’t have time to consider Mankiw’s proposal?

In another post, Yglesias elaborates on economists’ bad philosophy:

Fairly abstract misguided ideas in ethics, political philosophy, and economics have come to have extraordinary cultural and political power … all to incredibly pernicious effect. … Most of these ideas are propounded, originally, by people whose degrees are in economics. …

One important set of ideas is the perverse notion that it’s wrong or inappropriate to subject people to moral criticism for making selfish decisions as long as the decisions don’t involve breaking the law. … Another example is … under guise of eschewing values, economics has adopted a philosophical value system which says that the well-being of rich people is more important than the well-being of poor people. … As a third example, … the idea that when empirical evidence seems to contradict basic economic theory … that we ought to accept the theory as true.

These seem bizarre complaints.  I’ve never heard any economist say theory should always trump data, nor that legal acts are beyond criticism.  We criticize, for example, folks who selfishly drive at rush hour, getting in other folks way.  And standard econ lectures emphasize that the efficiency standard has little to say against unexpected redistribution; it mainly recommends allowing trade after redistribution.

Added: An anonymous reader offers more cites of utilitarian justified redistribution:

Chapter 23 of Dave Schmidtz’s Elements of Justice.

Nagel, Thomas 1991. Equality and Partiality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 65.

Hare, R.M. 1982. “Ethical Theory of Utilitarianism,” in Sen and Williams, eds. Utilitarianism and Beyond. 23-38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 27.

Baker, Edwin. 1974. “Utility and Rights: Two Justifications for State Action Increasing Equality,” Yale Law Journal 84: 39-59, 45-47.

Lerner, Abba. 1970. The Economics of Control. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 28 & 32.

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  • Constant

    Two objections to Yglesias’s argument immediately spring to mind.

    1) Inconsistency. Yglesias both complains that Mankiw discusses philosophy without the proper credentials, and himself discusses philosophy (as far as I know, Yglesias is not himself a philosopher but an economist). Yglesias discusses philosophy when he claims that Mankiw’s philosophy is low quality.

    2) Projection. Yglesias doesn’t merely complain that Mankiw is doing philosophy without the proper credentials, but complains furthermore that Mankiw is using his own economics credentials to push his philosophical claims. But that is mind-reading: Yglesias can’t know that Mankiw intends to improperly use his own credentials, and he can’t know that Mankiw’s readers are being persuaded by Mankiw’s credentials.

    But somebody is improperly using credentials to push his own philosophical claims, and that person is Yglesias himself. He is not using his own credentials, true, but he is predicting that others with credentials would agree with him. That, however, is surely improper or at least questionable use of credentials.

  • Constant

    I double-checked. Looks like Yglesias’s background is philosophy after all. I thought he was an economist because of stuff like this. So my comment was wrong, but on the other hand it was more right than I realized.

  • http://bizop.ca michael webster

    As a lapsed member of the professional academic philosopher’s club, let me observe three points, solely in relation to Mankiw.

    1. Prior to Bentham, and his utililarianism, there were a) moral philosophies and b) the need to justify taxation for the establishment of public goods.

    So, it stands to reason that there are many moral arguments for redistribution other than Bentham’s theory. (If Bentham can even be used, which I have some doubts about.)

    2. But, given Mankiw’s fairly sparse blogging of arguments, in favour of merely stating conclusions, I would not judge his command of moral philosophy by his blog posts.

    3. Utilitarianism requires a level of interpersonal comparability of utility across individuals. Even in a two person case, the justification for taxing A to transfer net utility to B requires or assumes conditions that are unlikely to occur in real world with many agents.

  • confused

    This is weird.

    When I read Yglesias’ post re:Mankiw what I took away from it was that Matt was complaining about a certain form of argument in moral philosophy. Namely that arguing if

    (1) one believes utilitarian arguments in one circumstance, then
    (2) one must accept utilitarian conclusions in all circumstances

    is problematic.

    He basically seems to be saying that a lot of stuff in moral philosophy is hard enough that adopting a _single_ framework is going to lead to some intuitively distressing conclusions. Hence the idea of slavishly adhering to a single framework might be the wrong way to go. And so if you pursue moral philosophy deep enough, in some sense it really does become something of a smorgasboard.

    Now, I’m no moral philosopher, nor an economist. But that’s what I got from Matt’s post.

    What’s weird is that, if that’s what Matt was saying, then I don’t understand Robin’s response at all. I mean, Robin seems to have omitted the parts of Matt’s original post that seem (to me) the most relevant to Matt’s argument.

    I mean, when Matt writes

    “…I think the “smorgasboard” argument is a confused way of thinking about moral reasoning. A great many crucially important questions in normative ethics are easy. Is it okay to murder Greg Mankiw to steal the money in his pocket? No, it isn’t. But a lot of foundational questions in ethical theory are hard. And a lot of meta-ethical questions are hard. Normal people don’t even understand what all of these questions are. And those of us who’ve thought a little bit about them, but decided not to go into the professional philosophy game may be aware that there are issues in these areas about which we’re uncertain. There’s a certain hyper-literal sense in which these questions all form a hierarchy. First I must decide where I stand on meta-ethics. Am I a reductive moral realist? A quasi-realist? A practical reasons theorist? An old-school “moral facts are facts too, damnit” moral realist? Are there theological issues in play? Then I need to decide if I’m a utilitarian (and if so, what kind of utilitarian!) or maybe some other kind of consequentialist or maybe I have a more Kantian view. So then depending on those answers, I can say “killing Greg Mankiw to steal the money in his pocket is wrong because…” and then lay the whole thing out.

    I think what Mankiw is implying with the “smorgasboard” argument is that this is how people should actually engage in moral reasoning. So if I find myself uncertain about a broad question in ethical theory, this uncertainty must logically inflict my first-order moral judgments. Maybe killing Greg Mankiw really is okay? And if I’m not uncertain, if I say “the reason it’s wrong to kill Greg Mankiw and steal his money is that the murder would reduce net utility” then the murderer can counter with “well, if you believe in utilitarianism, you ought to believe in a height tax.” Then I say “well that sounds wrong!” And then, having debunked utilitarianism, Mankiw gets shot and everyone agrees that justice has been done.”

    …this really does seem to me to be an argument against Mankiw’s claim that

    “If you are going to take that philosophy seriously [utilitarianism], you have to take all of the implications seriously.”

    Good argument? Bad argument? I dunno. I’m not an expert. But I’m confused as to how Robin read that post and came away thinking that Matt’s entire argument amounted to saying that

    “…Mankiw plausibly claims most philosophy analysis supporting redistribution is utilitarian, and that you don’t have time to consider Mankiw’s proposal?”

    Huh?

  • stanfo

    I believe Mankiw at least started as an undergrad studying philosophy, if he didn’t graduate with the major.

  • Jayson Virissimo

    Weren’t the founders of utilitarianism (Bentham and Mill) primarily economists? Does it really make sense to exclude economists from talking about the implications of utilitarianism?

  • Unnamed

    I’m surprised to see such harsh language, Robin. This reads more like a standard political dispute than like a typical Overcoming Bias post.

    I recommend clicking through and reading Matt’s posts, because I think that his arguments are clearer than Robin makes them out to be (for instance, his complaints about economists’ bad philosophy seem less bizarre when accompanied by his examples). My reading of the height tax post is that Matt is saying:

    1. He’s agnostic about the merits of a height tax, and is content to remain that way because it’s a political nonstarter (and not that important an issue).

    2. He does not think that Mankiw has demonstrated that dedicated utilitarians must support a height tax, because Mankiw did not do a thorough utilitarian calculation.

    3. He does not think that the height tax poses a problem for redistributionists because few redistributionists are dedicated utilitarians (who take utilitarianism as their first principle and follow it wherever it goes). First, because utilitarianism isn’t the dominant basis for redistribution, and second because ethical reasoning doesn’t proceed deductively from first principles.

    This last part (on “smorgasbord” ethical reasoning) is Matt’s main focus, and it reminds me of Mill, who argued that ethical thinking should usually proceed from a set of secondary principles, even for a person who accepts that utilitarianism is the correct first principle.

    Robin mixes these points together, but seems most bothered by this last part (on the smorgasbord), even taking it as a character flaw: “To me, Ygleslias and Clarke exemplify unprincipled courtiers, who talk sagely of important considerations, and can find sage reasons for any opinion, and so need never allow analysis to move them from the dictates of inertia or fashion.” I read Matt’s blog regularly, and that doesn’t sound anything like him to me.

    (BTW, his name is “Yglesias”, not “Ygleslias” – it figures that there would be a prominent typo in a Matthew Yglesias post.)

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    confused and unnamed, do you think Yglasias’s disagreement with Mankiw rises to the standard of adequately supporting his claim that economists are using their econ prestige to have an incredibly pernicious effect via their half-assed sloppy philosophy?

    confused, see the About page for comment policy.

    unnamed, thanks for catching the spello; fixed now.

  • jb

    Yglesias is not interested in truth. Yglesias is interested in seeing progressive policies enacted. Economists are often obstacles to enacting this vision. QED, the economists are having a pernicious effect.

    He doesn’t have to prove it, because it’s just political gamesmanship – a hook to get people to pay more attention to him, and less attention to the people who disagree with him.

  • gwern

    > “I’ve never heard any economist say theory should always trump data, nor that legal acts are beyond criticism.”

    Actually, the former sounds like a very Austrian position. I remember there was a discussion on Less Wrong on just this: apparently Austrian economics says that it cannot be disproven by mere facts.

    • Peter Twieg

      That’s because Austrians assert that certain parts of praxeology are beyond falsification – and that’s pretty much true, because the praxeological axioms don’t actually make any refutable positions about the real world, so they don’t generate data.

      Now, I’m sure there are some Austrians who will make stronger arguments that are… flawed, but I think this core Austrian position is justifiable, albeit not very useful since it often doesn’t lead to testable predictions. Many Austrians are critical of economics as a science and consequently not very data-driven.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    jb:

    He doesn’t have to prove it, because it’s just political gamesmanship – a hook to get people to pay more attention to him, and less attention to the people who disagree with him.

    An unsympathetic reader might suspect that you yourself fit this characterization. You certainly have made a sweeping claim without showing any inclination to “prove it”.

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  • confused

    (Sorry for the excessive length and quotes above! My bad.)

    Robin: I do not think Yglesias’ argument is successful at establishing the general trend you describe. However, I’m willing to stipulate that high profile academics often weigh in on topics outside their specialty, and so leveraging like he describes does occur. I’m skeptical that economists do this any more than academics from other disciplines. I’m also unconvinced that the results are uniformly deleterious.

    I do think that his post attempted to examine a single instance of a famous economist allegedly employing faulty moral philosophy. Evidence of some grand trend among economists? No. But at times in your post you were pushing back on the larger trend argument, and at times you seemed to be addressing this specific instance with Mankiw. The two issues seemed muddled in your post.

    As a side note, blogging engenders casual claims of large trends without evidence. It’s a short writing form. For instance, you failed to provide any evidence that “…none [of the blogging professional philosophers] have yet voiced support for your condemnation of Mankiw’s unexcusably sloppy philosophy.”

    I’m sure you could give several examples to support this if pressed. Maybe Yglesias has more examples up his sleeve? I, for one, would be curious to read about them…

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  • josh
    • matt

      Damn, that was an hour I wish I had back. No, good stuff, just a little too enthralling. My favorite bit:

      So – perhaps if you find a little, unexplained crease like this – how can you test whether you yourself are an intellectual crackhead? Obviously, if there was some trivial test, there would be no such thing as intellectual crack. Everyone would learn the test and remember it, and apply it to any doubtful intellectual material that seems to be headed in the direction of their nose. Perhaps it would be a liquid test, carried in a little eyedropper. “Wait!” you’d say. “I can’t snort this! The paper turned pink! It must be crack!”

      Priceless!

  • http://don-thelibertariandemocrat.blogspot.com/ Don the libertarian Democrat

    “The moral and political philosophy used to justify such income redistribution is most often a form of Utilitarianism.”

    “there’s little grounds for the belief that a commitment to utilitarianism is the main justification for redistributive taxation.”

    These are both put forward as statements of fact. I have no idea if either is true. Does anyone else? Philosophically speaking, following Austin, say, we might want to begin by asking what kind of utterances these are, and what justification is given for them.

  • Steven R. Bayne

    What are the alternatives to utilitarianism when it comes to assessing the success or failure of economic policy? We cannot, to use a Rawlsian turn of phrase, apply a “comprehensive” moral view as our basis, There is nothing corresponding to what in the “biz” is sometimes referred to as a “bentham,” a unit of pleasure, say. ‘Benthams’ lends itself to a dollar value representation and the impression of a quantifiable property with ethical content. This is, however, illusory. As has been pointed out by Anscombe and others, there is nothing that utilitarianism cannot justify; there are no “fixed points.”

    Rawlsian liberalism is a far weaker conception of the Social Contract than that of Hobbes. It flounders in the area of rights and obligation. Hobbbes assumes an “original position” consistent with the sort of competition Darwin and Adam Smith had in mind. Civilization, itself, is the product of free trade. Had the Etruscans etc been regulated we would all be eating from hand carved wooden bowls, a little rice here, a little left over stinky meat there. The Rawlsian position assumes an “original position” of contented discussion as to how to use other people’s money in the future; one cannot examine, carefully, Rawls’s book, Political Liberalism, without gasping at the unfettered prospects of control. Utilitarianism is inconsistent with a Rawlsian approach. The strength of the utilitarian approach, to oversimply (somewhat) is that it is consistent with accepting the primacy of a “comprehensive” moral view, whereas a Rawlsian approach is VERY friendly to the sort of “piecemeal social engineering” advocated by other “lefties” (Karl Popper), one which merely provides a gesture of feigned tolerance in the direction of those who believe a “good” financier is a “good” human being. Money is power, but it cannot be applied in the sort of quantification required in order to evaluate a policy. The present “rights” of the, so called, least advantaged can become imperceptibly transformed into a justification of state tyranny, especially in economic matters.

  • Aaron K

    Ph.D.: “Doctor of Philosophy”

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    gwern, Austrians do seem to say things like that, which is part of why they are marginalized within economics.

    confused, do you think Yglesias showed Mankiw’s particular paper to be “faulty moral philosophy” by philosophy standards, beyond showing that Yglesias had some basis for disagreeing? I searched for philosophers blogging on this and found nothing.

  • confused

    Robin: I’m certainly not qualified to evaluate Mankiw’s argument according to “philosophy standards”, as my entire philosophy background amounts to a handful of undergraduate classes nearly a decade ago.

    (Caution: the following is an attempt at humor…)

    My general recollections of philosophy are that if Yglesias establishes “some basis for disagreeing” that does in fact amount to a rigorous critique of Mankiw’s paper by “philosophy standards”. Ha!

    Seriously, though, my layman’s take is that I’m sympathetic to Yglesias’ criticism in the following sense: admitting the plausibility of utilitarian arguments in one circumstance does not necessarily force one to admit every single conclusion of utilitarianism worked out to its fullest.

    Now, Mankiw’s smorgasboard criticism has some merit, I think. Picking and choosing our arguments in order to reach our desired conclusions has some obvious problems. But at the same time, I thought Yglesias made a good argument that the “If you believe arguments from X in situation Y, then you must also believe arguments from X in situation Z” is a problematic (perhaps even faulty!) way to proceed, at least in moral philosophy.

    Where does that leave me? Not a clue. Like I said, I’m no expert.

  • Constant

    The analogy between money wealth and bodily endowments has been discussed before by Arnold Kling, Megan McArdle, and others, in a slightly different but related context:

    Kling: I like to use the example of height. Should we try to improve social equality by doing things to tall kids to stunt their growth? Hear, hear. Comes the revolution, Tyler Cowen and I will make all-state in basketball.

    McArdle: Beauty, like wealth, is relative–it benefits its possessor only insofar as they are lovelier than the women, or handsomer than the men, around them. Presumably, if we disfigured all the good looking actors in Hollywood, and the models in New York, and . . . well, heck, let’s slash the faces of everyone who’s better looking than I am.

    Sparked, as it happens, by a post by Mankiw. Anyway, the point is the same (or parallel): to describe what it would be to consistently apply egalitarian (or utilitarian, or whatever) principles, applied to bodily inequality.

    • gwern

      > “Sparked, as it happens, by a post by Mankiw. Anyway, the point is the same (or parallel): to describe what it would be to consistently apply egalitarian (or utilitarian, or whatever) principles, applied to bodily inequality.”

      I’d disagree. This is no more a consistent application of utilitarian principles than the old chestnut of a surgeon slicing up a patient to provide organs for 6 others. This solution is like advocating nuking the world to avoid suffering.

      Why on earth would a utilitarian advocate slashing faces just to make some relative changes in beautifulness? Quite aside from all the negative utilities such slashing would entail, the height proposal is quite sensible here. Tax the beautiful or whatever, and then society avoids not only the disutilities of the slashing, but it gains the utilities of beautiful people. If a financial exaction does not seem ‘fair’ somehow, then perhaps their taxes can go to plastic surgery & exercise etc. for the ugliest people. In this way, everyone wins. In the slashing straw man, no one wins. That’s not utilitarian at all.

  • Constant

    But at the same time, I thought Yglesias made a good argument that the “If you believe arguments from X in situation Y, then you must also believe arguments from X in situation Z” is a problematic (perhaps even faulty!) way to proceed, at least in moral philosophy.

    The problem is this: “because that’s what my intuition tells me” is functionally no different from “because I say so”, which is functionally no different from “I don’t have to explain myself to you”. And this is fine – people don’t have to explain themselves to each other – unless the person refusing to explain is recommending that the state implement this policy, in which case it amounts to, “do as I say or I will smack you, and no, I am not going to give you my reasons.”

  • confused

    Constant: Yes, I know this is a problem. That’s what I was trying to acknowledge when I wrote “Now, Mankiw’s smorgasboard criticism has some merit, I think. Picking and choosing our arguments in order to reach our desired conclusions has some obvious problems.”

    At the same time, I think Yglesias made a decent case that Mankiw’s (implied) approach that if we admit utilitarian arguments in part, we must rigidly adhere to them in all circumstances has its problems too.

    And I admit that I don’t have any particular resolution to this tension.

    I think maybe the reason I’m partial to that position is (oddly) the fact that my background is more in math, and so I’m somewhat ok with the idea that an argument may have merit but it’s conclusion remains wrong. (See, I told you that was going to be odd.)

  • optimistic

    Confused:


    Seriously, though, my layman’s take is that I’m sympathetic to Yglesias’ criticism in the following sense: admitting the plausibility of utilitarian arguments in one circumstance does not necessarily force one to admit every single conclusion of utilitarianism worked out to its fullest.

    When you arbitrarily pick one item out of a hat (and claim that your choice of that item was non-arbitrary) you must justify your choice relative to the other (equivalent) items that you did not choose.

    For example, why not redistribute college grades, subsidize short stature, offer a tax break for beautiful people who voluntarily undergo acid scarring treatments, etc.

    This justification must be made precisely because we are talking about something moral. If you are king and what you say goes, then you may tax whatever you like without any notion of being obligated to explain yourself.

  • Ian Maitland

    A notable defense of redistribution of wealth on explicitly utilitarian grounds is Princeton moral philosopher Peter Singer’s. To oversimplifiy only slightly, Singer argues that since the marginal utility of a dollar is greater for a poor person than a rich one, wealth should be equally distributed.
    If he is a serious philosopher, and not just a practitioner of low quality freelance economics done by people with Ph.D.s in philosophy, Yglesias might address Mankiw’s argument — or offer a better one in favor of redistributive taxes.
    As for Conor Clarke, if we all simply hew to our moral intuitions, then who needs philosophers?

  • http://federalism.typepad.com Mike

    I don’t want to go off topic…. But are you defending Mankiw generally, or just in this specific case? If the former, I’d be interested to hear what you’d have to say about Mankiw’s criticism of Sotomayor’s personal finances:
    http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2009/05/most-unfair-attack-on-sonia-sotomayor-contest-entry-greg-mankiw.html

    I think Mankiw was being intellectually dishonest. He has refused to mitigate his position, even in light of evidence showing that Sotomayor has a substantial net worth.

  • confused

    optimistic:

    When you arbitrarily pick one item out of a hat (and claim that your choice of that item was non-arbitrary) you must justify your choice relative to the other (equivalent) items that you did not choose.

    I keep thinking that I’ve acknowledged just this issue, but apparently I’m not writing very clearly, since people keep explaining it to me. Probably my fault.

    For the record: I am in no way defending or advocating a totally arbitrary system of moral thought, whereby someone (hopefully someone who doesn’t hate me) decides what is moral by fiat. That would be bad.

    All I’m saying is that the opposite extreme, which Mankiw’s post sorta, kinda implied, also has some problems. (Or at least that Yglesias’ post seemed to me to argue that.) Namely that picking some moral framework (like utilitarianism) and blindly adhering to its logical conclusions without further consideration also has its problems, and isn’t terribly realistic. Which is why Yglesias seems to think that saying “If you think utilitarian arguments justify redistribution, then you must also accept utilitarian arguments for a height tax” isn’t a very persuasive argument.

    That’s what I thought Yglesias’ post was getting at; that serious moral philosophy exists somewhere in between and that it’s a lot of work. You argue for the framework you think is best, but ultimately it’s going to lead to some highly undesirable moral conclusions and then you have to go back and very carefully examine why your framework didn’t work right in that circumstance, or some such. Which is partly why it struck a chord with me, as that feels somewhat similar to a very Lakatosian view of doing mathematics. :shrug:

  • optimistic

    I think it’s noteworthy that Yglasias does not say a height tax is absurd, merely that it’s a political non-starter. I don’t think the two are equivalent. I suppose that if one does think the two are equivalent that is a fairly big philosophical statement in itself.

  • diogenes

    confused: I basically agree with you, but I think this might help clarify a bit.

    Namely that picking some moral framework (like utilitarianism) and blindly adhering to its logical conclusions without further consideration also has its problems, and isn’t terribly realistic.

    I think Robin, and some others think this is the way to do moral philosophy. He recently posted his model of a simplified morality, along with arguments why this is better than semi-adhoc reasoning you’re suggesting.

    Personally, I find your arguments (confused), much more pragmatic.

  • svampen

    Economics used to be a branch of applied philosophy, see Adam Smith et al. Nowadays, it’s a branch of applied mathematics, with little philosophy left, except the PhD titles, as someone noted above.

    Economists rely on precepts of individual utility-maximization (indeed, an “as-if” version, which is a bit weaker). Does that imply utilitarianism at the aggregate level?

    Not really, economists have a way around that. In proving, appliedmathwise, the Pareto optimality of a competitive equlibrium, they are demonstrating that no further voluntary exchanges can improve overall welfare (at the individual level), given an initial distribution of income. But they are incapable of suggesting that one Pareto optimality, based on Distribution A, is better than another one, based on Distribution B. So how can they then propose that some income distributions improve welfare if they can’t say that A is better than B?

    Only by proving (which they never do, they only assert it, as the empirical evidence is too murky) that there are “Market Failures” associated with *any* market system, and therefore with *any* initial distribution of income. On that assumption, gains can always be made by rectifying market failures because there are always unrealized gains from trade that the govt can fix when the market can’t. Note that all of this is fraught with a series of untestable assumptions, but since when did that bother any economist?

    Is that a utilitarian argument for income redistributions? It does not rely on total utility, so it does not require cardinal utility, or any concept of aggregate utility. It only says that, under any incomplete market system, some individuals would be better off from some transactions that are unrealized in the current system, and if you can fix that you can make these individuals better off. It’s an argument about individual welfare, as perceived and experienced by individuals. It’s not about social welfare at all, except in the notion that if everyone is as well off as possible, given the miserable constraints we all have to live under, then we can’t do any better than this. It completely leaves open the question of whether wholesale redistributions of the original position would make us all better off. That philosophical question, which seems to be at the heart of the Rawlsian enterprise, is entirely beyond the modern economist with his however complex but nevertheless rather limited math-apparatus.

    Mankiw is of course both right and rather humorous in suggesting that true utilitarianism demands taxing height, or indeed anything else that gives utility in the utilitarian universe. If some people get more kicks from sex or babies or blond hair or religion than others, then utilitarian equality demands taxing and redistributing values on the basis of all those traits or activities, otherwise we will still be left with an unequal mess no better than what we started with.

    I don’t think this means that Mankiw would ever defend or propose such completely silly utilitarianism — no economist ever would. Indeed, on the basis of the market argument above, note that economists only talk about potential Pareto improvements from fixing incomplete or failing markets. So, if something is not traded (like height cannot be traded), it cannot be the object of Pareto improving interventions. Mankiw knows that. So his suggesting taxing height only means he’s pulling your leg. Obviously, he’s really stating what any trained welfare economist would agree to: utilitarianism has no grounds in economics. What economists do may, to outsiders, look like crude utilitarianism a la Bentham, but that has been abandoned decades ago, see above.

    That leaves open whether the notion of market failures as grounds for government interventions in income distribution has any empirical meaning at all. I don’t think so, myself. I don’t think it’s any better than crude utilitarianism, actually. So, even when the modern welfare economist is done, he’s really back to saying that he would be happier with a more equal income distribution. That’s not much of a philosophical foundation at all, but it’s all his limited applied math and incomplete empirical tools will allow him to say.

  • http://randomspaniard.blogspot.com bsanchez

    I thought the introductory quote was made in reference to Krugman – his latest outburst against Feldstein on CO2 emissions saying that US emissions will be a lot higher in 10 years time without any action is a little bit more freeriding on his reputation without checking what is actually happening.

    US emissions in 2008 down 2.8 per cent
    (http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/flash/flash.html?featureclicked=1&). Experience from the 1980s suggests these will keep falling and won’t recover their 2007 level until 2017.

  • Constant

    If you take Robin’s simple moral framework, and then treat Robin’s proposed simple moral framework as a hypothesis which can be tested and compared to competing hypotheses, then you get precisely what confused wants, which is, if called for, the hard work of going back to figure out why the framework didn’t work right. And in effect this is always what Robin is doing, i.e. offering statements up to the audience of his peers for examination, which statements thereby take the role of hypotheses.

    But if you refuse to offer up a proposed framework, or if you object to it being offered, then you prevent this healthy process from even getting started. You end up, instead, with pronouncements ex cathedra by individuals who refuse to divulge their reasons.

  • confused

    diogenes: Thanks, that does help explain some of the differences here. Although I can’t claim to fully grasp Robin’s model of simplified morality that you link to…I’ll have to think about it. (And even then I might not; I’m in way over my head here…)

    Constant: Indeed. If your description of Robin’s approach is correct, then I wonder if he and Yglesias are really that far apart (ignoring, of course, the whole “Economists are evilly passing themselves off as experts in zoology, philosophy, etc” bit, which I”m less interested in).

    Because couldn’t you read Mankiw’s argument (If you except some utilitarian arguments, you must accept all utilitarian arguments) as avoiding the process you describe? Namely, it precludes the process of going back and re-evaluating the framework. All you do is pick one, and then you’re stuck with it, warts and all.

    If neither Yglesias nor Robin think that this is a valid methodology for moral philosophy, don’t they both disagree with Mankiw on this point?

  • Constant

    Actually I take Mankiw’s post as itself an evaluation of the utilitarian framework, an evaluation which the framework fails. That is, I take Mankiw as in effect critiquing the utilitarian framework. Utilitarianism is revealed as a failed hypothesis. Of course, not being a mindreader I do not know Mankiw’s intent. Robin however appears to be biting the bullet, accepting the framework. But it could also be that Robin is holding out for a better framework before tossing the current one. If so I agree with this approach, because if you toss out the framework without replacing it with a better one, then you are back to intuition and ex cathedra pronouncements.

  • Consumatopia

    The thing to get there is that Mankiw’s smorgasbord argument implies that there’s no reasonable other belief you could hold that would reconcile support for redistributionist taxation with opposition to a height tax. Each of Yglesias’s “maybe”s represents a reasonable belief a utiltiarian could hold to make exactly this reconciliation.

    To counter Yglesias and defend Mankiw, you don’t merely have to cast doubt on these “maybe”s. For the “smorgasbord” accusation to hold, every single “maybe” would have to be a “certainly not”.

  • Unnamed

    Robin, I took Matt’s general argument to be that some political commentators get respect and prestige because they’re seen as experts, but this respect doesn’t get limited to their area of expertise; instead it spills over so their arguments that do not draw on their expertise get undue respect. That’s a problem. His main case is economists, who are high-status political commentators but often make unimpressive arguments when they venture outside of economics. Without any specific examples, I think that this is a pretty good argument, and not all that different from arguments I’ve seen at Overcoming Bias. It may not be as big a problem as Matt suggests (especially when we consider other ways in which our political discourse is bad at dealing with expertise), but it is good advice to watch out for “experts” who aren’t expert on the topic at hand. (Also note that this argument does not have to be a personal criticism of the experts who stray outside their area of expertise, although it could be.)

    Matt’s specific examples don’t add all that much to his general argument. They help to show the kind of thing that he was talking about, with economists making sloppy arguments outside their field, but unless you recognize the pattern from other political commentary that you’ve seen, I doubt you’d be convinced. And these examples are relatively minor and not very pernicious (especially Mankiw’s, which was just a blog post).

    With Mankiw, I thought that his paper in favor of the height tax seemed creative, interesting, and not particularly sloppy, but his blog post argument about redistribution was rather odd and sloppy. I don’t see why he even brought up redistribution – lots of economic/policy analyses use a utilitarian framework. Is he just singling out redistribution because he doesn’t like it?

    Second, it seems strange for him to venture into philosophy, treating the height tax as a challenge to utilitarianism. There has been plenty of philosophical debate over utilitarianism, including many arguments that utilitarianism leads to some implausible conclusion about a particular act or policy. I don’t see what the height tax adds to that genre. Maybe if he had some more specific point about the height tax (e.g. that the most plausible arguments against the height tax also seem to undermine redistribution) he’d have something, but instead he just seems to be arguing that the height tax is another unpalatable implication of utilitarianism.

    Finally, there’s a huge gap in Mankiw’s suggestion that without utilitarianism you can’t support redistribution. It’s not simple to move from very general moral theories to specific policy applications, and Mankiw passes right over that. It’s especially problematic in this case, because what’s distinctive about utilitarianism is not its claim that well-being matters, but rather its exclusion of everything else (along with its precise formula for how well-being matters). People who reject some utilitarian arguments can give a utilitarian defense of a policy without any inconsistency; they can say “we should do this because it’ll make people better off, and there’s no compelling reason not to.” You can defend redistribution, even on utilitarian grounds (e.g., “it’s helping poor people, who need the money most”), without accepting utilitarianism.

    I think that the height tax is an interesting idea, and there could be an informative discussion about it, but turning it into a standard argument about the troubling implications of utilitarianism and a partisan challenge to redistributionists is not the way to go.

  • confused

    Constant:

    Robin however appears to be biting the bullet, accepting the framework. But it could also be that Robin is holding out for a better framework before tossing the current one. If so I agree with this approach, because if you toss out the framework without replacing it with a better one, then you are back to intuition and ex cathedra pronouncements.

    Interesting. If I’m reading this right it seems that you’d like to retain belief in a framework that includes a conclusion that you reject, until a better framework comes along. In this case, wouldn’t that mean asserting

    0.) I believe utilitarianism
    1.) Utilitarianism implies the height tax is valid
    2.) I believe that the height tax is invalid?

    Specifically, until “something better” comes along, what can we say about the truth condition of the height tax? Did that make sense?

    Our choices aren’t really just to accept/reject the framework: we can (as we’ve both remarked) investigate carefully how the framework led us astray.

    This is why I found Mankiw’s argument somewhat unsatisfying. Suppose that I think the height tax is a silly conclusion, that should be avoided. If I’m concerned with improving the framework to account for this deficiency, I’d engage in a long and complicated examination of why exactly utilitarianism led to this unfortunate result and how we might repair the matter.

    If I’m interested in exploiting this fact to embarrass my political foes, I might simply highlight ways in which my opponents adopt utilitarian viewpoints (if only in part), argue as persuasively as I can that utilitarianism leads to absurd conclusions (height tax) and then imply that my opponents beliefs are disingenuous since they clearly don’t believe in the height tax.

    Another possibility is of course that Mankiw actually thinks the height tax would be a good thing, and he’s genuinely trying to persuade liberals like Yglesias to get behind it. As you said, I’m not a mind reader either.

    • Constant

      If I’m reading this right it seems that you’d like to retain belief in a framework that includes a conclusion that you reject, until a better framework comes along.

      I distinguish between holding on to a theory until a better one comes along and believing it. Holding onto a theory is like keeping the undefeated champion fighter in the arena until someone else finally defeats him. It is not the same thing as actually believing that the champion is not going to be eventually defeated. Robin may actually believe his fighter will remain undefeated for all time (analogous to “believes his theory is true”), but all I agree with is keeping the fighter in the arena.

      Clearly, Robin will not let his fighter be defeated by mere intuitions (analogous to “the favor of the audience”). If the audience boos at the fighter standing alone in the ring, then the fighter still stays in the ring. What is not clear to me is whether there is any way in which Robin would conceivably recognize that his fighter has been defeated. I suppose that, while Robin may not be persuaded by intuitions, he may be persuaded by a better theory. As for what constitutes a better theory, that may be down to intuitions. But bare intuitions by themselves, as we have seen, are not sufficient to change Robin’s mind.

      If I’m concerned with improving the framework to account for this deficiency, I’d engage in a long and complicated examination of why exactly utilitarianism led to this unfortunate result and how we might repair the matter.

      Yes but first things first. Step one is to recognize that there is a deficiency, and you’re not going to do this if you treat the framework like a smorgasbord. Until people get to step one there’s no point in graduating to step two. Mankiw wrote a paper that gets people to step one. In response to a query about the relevance of his paper, he wrote a brief blog post explaining that this was the point of the paper.

      If I’m interested in exploiting this fact to embarrass my political foes

      I doubt it was very easy to write that paper. Now you want him to hold off on that paper until he writes a book that proposes a superior alternative to utilitarianism?

      That’s like demanding that Michelson and Morley avoid publishing their results until they can come up with the special theory or relativity. (Not that I think this rises to that level of importance, it’s just what comes to mind as a point of comparison.)

  • confused

    I just wanted to clarify and acknowledge that Mankiw’s paper does attempt an examination of “what went wrong” (in Section 3), but his blog post does not, and in fact almost seems dismissive of that sort of exercise. So I’m conflicted as to what he’s thinking here.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Mankiw said on his blog that no economists are eager to tax height. I had to remind him that Robin and others came out in favor of it at OB.

    Alan Crowe has a good explanation of how one man’s reductio ad absurdum is another man’s proof of necessity. Robin & Greg agree with if A then B. Mankiw says not B, therefore not A. Robin instead affirms B.

    I think economists often criticize policy. This contradicts a claim that they believe whatever is (legal) is good.

  • Sam

    Assumption 1: Tall people end up being “better” than short people.

    If you really don’t want a height tax, then the best thing to do is to trash this assumption, then there would be no need for height taxation.

    For example, tall people could claim that the are being discriminated and hated by other people. Therefore, tall people would have some loss of utility gained by height discrimination that would counter the “beniefts” that being tall would grant.

    Tall people could also argue that they may have health problems as a result of being tall, and so a tax on them would be unjustified in that sense.

    The best way to knock down Mankiw’s argument is to spend tons of money creating scientific experiments and studies that end up proving that “tall” people also have major problems as a result of being tall, that tall people DON’T have a better life than short people. Even if these studiesfail to dispel the belief that tall people have a better life than short people, it would end up making it harder for policymakers to determine the necessary taxation amount needed to counter-balance the utilitarian advantage tall people have, since they have to take these studies into accounts.

    The end result would be, at worst, a nominal height tax.

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Reply to Clarke

  • MattMc

    There are some interesting points here.

    Yglesias’ weirdest claim, that economists dominate public discourse with low quality philosophy, seems completely absurd. There is obviously great overlap between the fields, and arguments should be debated on their merits. It’s simply an ad hominem, but applied to a class of individuals. (I don’t know enough Latin / rhetoric to describe it better than that.)

    The secondary claim, as to what is the “main” or “primary” justification for redistrubutive taxation seems like a pointless argument. There are certainly a variety of reasons that it actually exists. For Mankiw to claim it is the primary justification is a hard thing to prove or disprove. However, Yglesias does not really respond to this except to say there are other people that have come up with justifications for it, which doesn’t actually say anything about what those reasons are, whether they are right or wrong, etc.

    As far as whether to trust moral intuitions on all issues, I think is a case where I’ve learned a lot from reading the comments and Robin’s posts. The basic concept that we choose systems that seem to satisfy our moral intuitions seems true to me, which is why Mankiw’s arguments that we have to consider the reductio ad absurdum implications that those systems suggest seems good to me as well. In short, utlilitarianism seems to be troublesome justification for redestributive taxation.

  • someguy

    I really enjoy Matt’s blog but -

    I liked the second link Matt Yglesias link best.

    I remember when I first read it how it made my jaw drop.

    At the time Matt was very vigorously defending a solid and respected economic theory that really hasn’t been empirically proven.

    According to this guy there are no examples of the theory being successfully practiced.

    http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/12/fiscal-policy-a.html

    And I don’t recall anyone ever answering his challenge.

    I don’t think it is even worth bringing up fiscal stimulus as tax cuts vs spending.

  • Joel Michalski

    * yawn *

  • George

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the obvious way to resolve this dispute:

    1) Mankiw (who has a Ph.D. in Economics) will no longer write about philosophy, and

    2) Yglesias (who has a B.A. in Philosophy) will no longer write about economics.

    That would certainly make me happy. I’d be even happier if:

    3) Everybody with just a degree in Journalism will no longer write about anything but journalism.

    The improvement in public discourse would be immense.

  • Alex

    The reason it’s sloppy work is because it has a pretty faulty syllogism…

    A justification for redistributive taxation must be desirable as a principle and not just in the particular;

    This is one justification, which is consistent with the principle, is undesirable;

    Therefore, this justification of redistributive taxation is not desirable as a principle.

    It misses a lot of steps in a real argument questioning the principles behind redistributive taxation. Like, for example: In an ideal world, a height on taxation may be desirable as a utilitarian act, but it is undesirable for political reasons in the real world.

    This seems plausible — the reason height is chosen in the Mankiw paper is because income as a “tag” doesn’t measure effort, but height (because it is strongly correlated with good outcomes) presumably is. A utilitarian may merely reject the height tax for other reasons: for example, a height tax would be seem arbitrary, and a tax seen to be imposed arbitrarily would create resentment that could threaten the institution of redistribution as a whole. Even if a utilitarian rejects a height tax, a utilitarian would probably endorse a tax that purely equalized marginal utility using all information and factors that lead into productivity.

    Utilitarianism calls for us to think marginally; economists do this well. But people don’t think marginally. They ask, if we’re taxing height, why aren’t we taxing all inherent features that lead to productivity? Maybe we should, but unless we can do all of them, a height tax seems implausible and impractical. That doesn’t lead to the conclusion we ought to question utilitarianism.

    Believing in a principle as philosophy does not lead to the consequence that every policy consistent with the principle ought to be advocated for at every moment. This is what gets Yglesias angry, I think. There are some libertarian things our society could do that run deeply against our moral intuitions. That doesn’t necessarily refute libertarianism…