I’m drawing here from the sample of economics blogging that we’ve re-blogged about at Modeled Behavior. What I’m learning about myself is I really like rebuttals, possibly to an epistemically unhealthy degree. I guess I should probably be bothered by this a little and worry that it gets in the way of truth seeking. In any case, these are my nominations, and I encourage readers to nominate their favorite posts of 2011 in the commenters.
First is a rebuttal of Steven Landsburg from Will Wilkinson that I wrote about here. It’s a victory for common sense over the familiar style of attempted uber-rationality that is too often abused by economists. Will’s original post is here:
“Economists like Mr Landsburg specialise in the study of instrumental rationality. To act rationally in this sense is to take the means most conducive to one’s ends. Sadly, means-ends rationality and epistemic rationality are often at odds. Fallacious arguments can be the best means to noble ends. If we were to concede, for the sake of argument, that Mr Wahls did fallaciously attempt to rebut a statistical argument with an anecdote, it may remain that he acted not “in the service of intellectual misdirection”, but instead acted with exemplary rationality and morality by speaking eloquently in the service of justice. The kind of humanising anecdote Mr Wahls offered does in fact tend to elicit sympathy and weaken ill-founded prejudice. Maybe the relatively tolerant attitude of people with gay friends and family flows from some kind of statistical slip-up, but that’s how we are. A rational rhetorician takes his audience’s inclinations, rational or not, into account.”
The next is Reihan Salam offering up some persuasive counterpoints against two popular examples of government spending that we tend to take as uncontroversially beneficial: the space program and the U.S. highway system. Reihan wrote:
A shockingly large number of people, including Obama, seem to believe that had the federal government not stepped up to the plate in the postwar era and invested vast sums in highways and putting a man on the moon, the United States would have wound up an economic backwater. But perhaps not building a huge network of highways would have kept American families in more compact, walkable neighborhoods. Instead of sprawling suburbs and SUVs, we’d have more high-rises and bike lanes. The Interstate Highways helped supersize America’s government, by centralizing authority in D.C., and our waistlines, by encouraging us to drive and to fatten up on fast food. It’s not obvious to me that we’re better off as a nation plagued by high taxes and heart disease.
As for Sputnik, it led to a huge increase in federal funding for scientific research and K-12 education. Had we allowed the Russians to beat us to the moon, American families and firms might have kept more of their own money. Our state universities might have devoted themselves to churning out job-ready graduates instead of chasing federal grants. While the Soviets built enormous cities on the moon and Mars, financed by forced labor, we’d have devoted ourselves to becoming a richer, freer, more creative country. I love Neil Armstrong as much as the next guy, but I’d take that trade in a heartbeat.
Next is yet another one from Reihan where he challenges another popular claim: that the U.S. should look to China to learn to how grow fast. What I liked about Reihan’s previous argument was the boldness and novel way he challenged an intuitive and widely held claim. Here the claim is much more obviously false, and I see Reihan’s argument as the most concise and definitive rebuttal, and the last one that ever needs to be written. My post on this is here, and his original is here:
To really learn from the Chinese, and to enjoy such staggering growth rates, we should go about things differently: let’s have a Maoist insurrection followed by a civil war that lasts for several years. Then let’s destroy most of the wealth in the country, and drive out millions of our most enterprising and educated citizens by launching systematic terror campaigns during which millions of others will die in violence or of starvation. Next, let’s have a modest economic opening in coastal regions: impoverished citizens will be allowed to launch small-scale township and village enterprises and components will be assembled in a handful of cities by our stunted descendants. Then let’s severely curb those township and village enterprises because they represent a potential political threat and invite large foreign multinationals and state-owned enterprises [let's not forget those!] to work our population to the bone at artificially suppressed wage rates, threatening those who complain with serious reprisals up to and including death. Let us also initiate a population control policy designed to improve our dependency ratio for a few decades. As large numbers of workers shift from low-value agricultural work to manufacturing, we will experience … rapid growth! Mind you, getting from here to there will involve destroying an enormous swathe of our present-day GDP.
Tom Vilsack: …Rural America is a unique and interesting place that I don’t think a lot of folks fully appreciate and understand. They don’t understand that that while it represents 16 percent of America’s population, 44 percent of the military comes from rural America. It’s the source of our food, fiber and feed, and 88 percent of our renewable water resources. One of every 12 jobs in the American economy is connected in some way to what happens in rural America. It’s one of the few parts of our economy that still has a trade surplus. And sometimes people don’t realize that 90 percent of the persistent poverty counties are located in rural America.
EK: Let me stop you there for a moment. Are 90 percent of the people in persistent poverty in rural America? Or just 90 percent of the counties?
TV: Well, I’m sure that more people live in cities who are below the poverty level. In terms of abject poverty and significant poverty, there’s a lot of it in rural America…