Thursday, July 01, 2010

In Defense of Elitism

I understand economist Kartik Athreya's frustration, in that it's hard to have a rational discussion when so many voices are profoundly stupid. I remember once teaching a class on International Finance (grad school students could be 'instructors' in their 4th plus year). I tried, a couple times, taking a subject and letting the class discussion grow endogenously: what do you think of the currency crisis (this being 1992), or the Fed? It didn't take long for the most voluble speakers to monopolize the debate, and unfortunately they were wrong on so many dimensions it always became a pointless discussion within a few minutes. Confused thinking leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without progress.

I'm an unabashed elitist. I chose my wife because I think she's better than other women, evaluate wines, books, investments, new hires, all on an ordinal scale from bad to great. This is often confused with racism or other repugnant thoughts because such discrimination tends to disproportionately affect socially disadvantaged groups, but that's incidental. Economists are generally very Liberal, but they also obsess over how smart various economists are, closet IQ idolaters. The key is moderation in all things. Most signals of quality are not linear, so you have to not focus too much on one dimension of someone or something.

The problem is, where to draw the line on who's qualified to voice an opinion. Now, the line must be related to some obective credential. Unfortunately, having a degree in economics is not very impressive, because so much economics is irrelevant or wrong (based on bad assumptions--the logic from assumption to conclusion is usually right). That is, say you really understand Debreu's Theory of Value, or Stokey and Lucas's Recursive Methods in Economics. That may get you tenure, but those books are only related to economics in theory, not practice. Further, as a PhD, you can't draw the line right beneath your credential, but rather have to choose something like an undergraduate degree--otherwise it seems too self serving.

It would be helpful to have some metric of analytical competence to keep the discussion, at the least, logical, but it's hard to think of one that would not exclude too many thoughtful, energetic people. Any exclusive club tends to corrupt itself, and develop insular, self-serving logic.

So, I sympathize with his point--there's too much crappy economics out there--but unfortunately, a PhD is too noisy a signal. I don't have a solution.


LB said...

An economist who has never traded is probably worthless.

I think risk taking experience is a good sieve

Brad Evans said...

To find people who can voice an opinion well, you could do a large population-based study to find out the characteristics that correlate best with "ability to voice an opinion well."

You could find 2 people who voice their opinions well, and have each of them find 2 people who voice opinions well.

You could teach people how to voice opinions, if it's teachable.

Yeti said...

@ Brad Evans: I'm afraid the characteristic which correlates with "ability to voice an opinion well.", will turn out to be "saying what your audience wants to hear, in a way they find entertaining".

Anonymous said...

To the moron ranting about Hitler. I believe the post refers to "elitist" only in the sense of making a personal judgment, not in terms of rights of any kind. Libertarians are total elitests in this sense as they think the "elite" (read, better at anything the world values) own their own production. Why I'm responding to a fool like you I do not know, as an elitest I wouldn't execute you, but I shouldn't bother with you either.

Contemplationist said...

Actually Eric the solution is staring @ you in the face - the market. Yes, sounds glib I know. I'm another one of those blowhard know-nothing libertarians.
But anyway, the MARKET for econoblogging seems robust, the cost of entry is trivial, and of course Sturgeon's law must be applied (90% of everything is crap), but you already know what to select for..the top 10%..they're easy to see...MarginalRev, EconLog, Naked Capitalism, Krugman if you're so inclined, Economists' View, Brad Delong (on some days, nonpartisan self), Money Illusion (Scott Sumner), Econobrowser (Menzie Chinn/James Hamilton), etc etc.

Really Eric, this is not hard. If you are elitist enough, and confident in your taste/intellect, and also sufficiently aware of your own biases, picking the cream from a competitive product market should be simple

Eric Falkenstein said...

Contemplationist: I wasn't implying it is hard for me, the worry is more about policy, which is shaped by public opinion.

I think the fundamental problem is what method of exclusion might increase the productivity of debate? Alas, econ PhDs haven't really moved on from the same big questions Hayek and Keynes were making in the 1930s, or Friedman and Samuelson were having in the 1960s. So, it's not like, if only the stupid people would defer to experts, we'd be closer to a better policy.

Dave said...

The blogosphere isn't that efficient of a market. There's a huge first-mover advantage for bloggers who started early last decade, for example, and the most widely-read websites (some of them, extensions of old media properties) have increasingly become gatekeepers. If the blogosphere were more efficient, this blog would be a lot more widely read.