June 14, 2006

The Laws of Economics v. the Law of Economists

Not content with co-owning a popular blog, Marginal Revolution, and having a gig as a New York Times columnist, George Mason U. economist Tyler Cowen has been promoting massive Hispanic immigration through op-eds in Slate, the LA Times, and now the Washington Post, in a piece of sophistry on Hispanic assimilation entitled "Blending In, Moving Up." Cowen wants to Hispanicize America because he likes Latin American cuisine and painting, but readers of his blog know that, although editors seem accept him as an expert on immigration, until very recently he didn't actually know much of anything about the effects of immigration on the U.S., and that all of his research in recent weeks has been devoted to developing talking points for his preconceived bias.

Since the quality of Cowen's blog is quite high, except when he or Alex Tabarrok post about immigration, the quality of comments on Marginal Revolution is strong, especially on immigration, as this tremendous thread demonstrates, in which Cowen received (assuming he read it) in education in the economics of immigration.

Now, comments sections on blogs seldom if ever yield as much gold as this one did. Most bloggers use comments sections primarily to boost their visit counts by getting the argumentative to pop in a half dozen times per day. Personally, for various reasons (including I started this website before reliable comments sections were available and thus switching would be difficult), I prefer to reprint emails from readers. I especially like emails documenting where I've gone wrong, because A. I hate to be wrong, but B. I'd much rather admit it myself than have somebody else notice it.

Still, it's a more than a little ironic for Cowen to turn off comments specifically on his post about a topic, immigration on which the quality of comments has been so high.

Even more amusingly, Cowen followed up with this post (once again, with comments turned off).

Comments Policy

In response to a few inquiries, here is a reminder about our comments policy. Having "comments on" is neither a default nor a right for the reader. Usually the quality of the comments is excellent; I read them with learning and real joy. But some topics attract, or have attracted, poorly thought out or overly emotional comments. Some topics fall into very predictable debates. In other cases previous comments already have attracted significant and noteworthy discussion. Paul Krugman, free will, religion, Iraq, and yes immigration are a few examples of these tendencies. Once low-quality comments get started, they tend to feed upon themselves, sometimes for days at a time. We know that good comments attract readers to this blog, so we wish to maximize the average quality of comments. Sometimes this means no comments, but that is in the interests of good debate, stochastically speaking and properly construed over time.

Perhaps Cowen meant by "low-quality comments" those of his supporters who couldn't think of much besides accusing the better-informed immigration skeptics of "racism." But a simpler explanation would be that "low-quality comments" mean ones that use facts and logic to expose weaknesses in his arguments.

There are the Laws of Economics and then there is the Law of Economists. One of the Laws of Economics is that when somebody tells you, "I'm doing this for your own good," he's probably actually doing it for his own good. On the other hand, the Law of Economists is that the Laws of Economics don't apply to economists, who are holy and pure and above all such tawdriness.

A more cynical interpretation could be that Cowen doesn't want paying editors to have a convenient way to find out how dubious was the immigration op-ed that he sold them. But of course, he's an economist, so otherwise useful concepts like self-interest couldn't possibly apply to his behavior.

Meanwhile, Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, recently the Chairman of President George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, writes on his blog:

I recommend that you read A Normal Country: Russia After Communism by Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman from the Winter 2005 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Their bottom line:

although Russia’s transition has been painful in many ways, and its economic and political systems remain far from perfect, the country has made remarkable economic and social progress. Russia’s remaining defects are typical of countries at its level of economic development.

By the way, Shleifer is my colleague at Harvard and is one of the best economists I know.

I imagine that Andy Fastow, formerly of Enron, has similarly written something on the energy business.

Of course, Shleifer is an economist, so the mere fact that a federal court found him to have been a financial sleazedog during his activities advising the Russian government while under contract to Harvard, costing Harvard many millions, himself $2 million in a federal fine, and probably his best friend Larry Summers his job as president of Harvard is totally irrelevant under the Law of Economists. (David Warsh has been all over this under-publicized story.)

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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