My Views on the Dilbert Survey of Economists - Scott Adams' Blog

My Views on the Dilbert Survey of Economists

Lehman Brothers comic

If you missed the results of the Dilbert Survey of Economists, read that post first. It is directly below this one.

For me, the real goal of the survey of economists was to give voters an appetite for useful and unbiased information, so you demand it in the future. I consider all of the criticisms of this survey to be steps in the right direction. That’s where the conversation should be, and not so much about lipstick and pigs. If your reaction to the survey was “That’s not enough information,” I call that progress. Demand more.

How Biased Is the Survey?

The most striking result of the survey is that there are far more Democratic economists than Republicans, and both sides strongly support their candidate. Does that tell us anything useful at all?

Economists crossed party lines on the questions of International Trade, Environmental Policy, Immigration, Reducing Waste in Government, and Reducing the Deficit. I didn’t include a question about a gas tax holiday, because the idea has already expired, but economists crossed party lines on that issue too. That suggests a degree of objectivity on an issue level. The crossover issues, plus the rankings, are important no matter who gets elected. That will tell you if your president has the right priorities.

Everything we know about human nature tells us that people are usually rational when the choices are relatively simple and the data is known. For example, your choice of a grocery store is probably a rational decision based on things you easily understand, such as distance, price, and selection. But tribe loyalty tends to take over when the data is less clear, such as choosing a religion.

The way this applies to the survey of economists is that you should expect them to cross party lines when the data is clear and understood, and to lean toward party loyalties when things get fuzzy. That’s how humans are wired. We like our team.

At the top of the list of economic priorities, according to economists, are education and health care, arguably the two fuzziest topics. Unless the candidates have told you how much their plans would cost, and where the money will come from, it is a stretch to say they have plans at all. Given the lack of clarity on these two issues, and the number of variables involved, I would expect economists to be relatively more biased on those issues than on simpler issues. How much more biased? The data doesn’t tell us.

A number of you also pointed out that most of the economists in the survey are academics, so it is no shocker that they put education at the top of the list. While education does pass the sniff test as being one of the most important economic issues, it is not clear that an extra dollar for schools is as useful to the economy as an extra dollar for health care or alternative energy. While we can all agree that improving education is a worthy objective, its position in the number one spot on this survey has to be viewed with a pinch of skepticism.

The big question this survey raises is why so many economists are Democrats in the first place. Democrats tell me that highly educated and rational folks, such as economists, gravitate toward the best argument. Case closed.

Republicans tell me that liberals, mostly Democrats, drift toward academic jobs where they can best suck on the public teet. It’s easier to be a tenured professor than it is to run a company, so the thing that economists have in common is laziness as opposed to intelligence. And perhaps, think the Republicans, the so-called Independents in this survey are mostly liberals too, essentially Democrats who aren’t joiners. And besides, if economics was a real science, most economists would be rich.

I have no data to support any theory of why so many economists are Democrats. But once someone picks a party, it’s a sticky choice. It would be naïve to assume it doesn’t influence opinions where the data is unclear.

Did We Learn Anything?

I learned a lot from the survey results. I was surprised by the rankings of issues, and I didn’t know where the economists would cross party lines. That information is important for keeping the next president honest no matter who it is.

I was happily surprised at how many economists are Independents. And I was surprised that Democrats and Republicans stuck to their party lines so closely. I expected McCain to be the winner on most economic issues. I was wrong.

If you looked at the survey results and concluded that you can ignore economists when it comes to picking the next president, I would not fault you for that interpretation. After all, a third of the experts say there would be no difference between the candidates on several important economic issues. That’s good to know because it gives you cover to allocate more weight to non-economic issues.

Personally, I think it is useful to know that economists didn’t cross party lines on the question of who would be the best president. I’ll keep that in mind the next time an economist expresses an opinion on this election.

The survey changed the focus of my own thinking to the top priorities. For example, assuming education is the top priority, and assuming it’s more of a pre-college problem, where is the best leverage point? We’re probably well beyond the point of diminishing returns for extra funding, except for the worst of the schools. We know that kids do best in school when their parents are managing the process right. If either candidate had a plan for educating parents on how to help their kids succeed in school, I think that would be compelling.

On health care, the second most important economic issue, I would be persuaded by a candidate who made the following argument: We’re going to try something that already worked someplace else. It will cost x billion per years, but we can save twice that amount if you voters start eating right, smoking less, and exercising more. It’s your patriotic duty to get off your butt.

If the survey made you think about any of the issues on a deeper level, I got my money’s worth.