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
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...
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.
* yawn *
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!"
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 utilitarianism1.) 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.
> "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.
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.
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".
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.
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?
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.