Friday, May 30, 2014

It's all about the discontinuities

The other day I posted a suspicion of mine that Giles was very wrong about Piketty based on his treatment of discontinuous data series. I haven't been pouring poring over the excel sheets, so it was just a suspicion, but it was due to a problem that I think anyone who has worked with disparate data sources would immediately recognize.

Howard Reed has gone through the data sources and he agrees that "it's all about the discontinuities", "it" being the critique of Piketty. This is one of the best commentaries on this argument that I've seen yet. He does a great job walking you through the problems in Giles's work. What's more amazing is that Giles seems to recognize the difference between what he did and what Piketty did, but he does not recognize it's significance.

btw - some comments by Phil Magness on Facebook suggest he doesn't get this point either.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

More praise of "knaves, fools, and me" arguments

Brad DeLong reminds us of more of Pete's history of praising - not criticizing - "knaves, fools, and me" arguments. Far from it, in Pete said of the late Charles Rowley that he is principled and speaking truth to power (!!!!!) for writing:
"the Keynesian model never worked; and never will work. It has been resuscitated by opportunistic economists, not because they believe in its merits as an agent of macroeconomic rehabilitation, but because they recognize its political value as a weapon for moving economies from laissez-faire to state capitalism, or (hopefully) beyond that to fully-fledged socialism."
 Opportunistic economists rehabilitated Keynesianism in 2008 in pursuit of fully-fledged socialism?!

This sort of thing ought to be mocked or ignored, but it wasn't - at least not by Pete.

This is an example of an untethered rant, of course. It's not as careful even as Jesse Gastelle's argument about the original Keynesian revolution. But I still maintain we can argue about these sorts of "knave, fools, and me" claims. They are claims about intellectual history and normally we like to argue out intellectual history claims (this is just a very, very bad one that probably doesn't deserve the time of day).

But Pete, if you're going to praise stuff like this you really need to retract your statement about Krugman's post. We have two options here:

1. Grapple with "knaves, fools, and me" claims as potentially real possibilities to be addressed, or
2. Dismiss arguments framed that way generally impolite "conversation stoppers".

I opt for the former, but usually doubt the veracity of most claims of that form. You can't have it both ways.

Knaves, fools, and Pete

Peter Boettke has a post that's worth chewing over on conversation blocks in democracy, particularly as they apply to - for lack of a better word - more intellectual subject matter such as economics. Pete makes two basic points:
1. The view that one side is seeking bad ends and is wrong and one side is seeking good ends and is right (what he calls the "knaves, fools, and me" approach after Krugman's post of that title) "is a block to genuine discourse in a democratic society, not really a part of it --- as it asserts a privileged position for the self-anoited expert in that discourse", and

2. That we need to be more cognizant in policy discussions that "wishing it so doesn't make it so".
In broad strokes of course it's hard to disagree with either of these points - I doubt anyone does. But the devil is in the details, and I have a few thoughts on the details.

First, "wishing it so doesn't make it so" is obviously correct, but in practice I think this is poorly applied. Nine times out of ten, in my experience, it is invoked when no one has argued that wishing it so makes it so. Indeed they've usually either presented a case for the compatibility of the proposed policy with the stated goals or there's a very obvious literature on the compatibility that is implicit in the policy claim and no one has invoked "wishing it so" in the first place. In these nine out of ten cases invoking "wishing it so doesn't make it so" is more of a conversation stopper itself by someone that for whatever reason does not choose to engage the explanation presented. Disagreement on the argument is one thing of course. Pete makes pronouncements all the time that seem to me to have little more than wishful thinking undergirding them (and this is even more common with anarchists). But I know that's just my impression of the quality of his explanation, not the lack of an explanation of the compatibility of his policy with his goal, so invoking "wishing it so doesn't make it so" doesn't seem appropriate. I feel like a lot of people who do invoke it are in a similar situation but invoke it anyway, and it's hard to know what to do with those sorts of people. You can restate the argument but it's liable to meet with the same retort. Eventually you just to move onto other projects or conversation partners.

With politicians I think it's easier to invoke correctly than fellow economists. Then again I've never thought of a politician as someone you'd have an above-board policy conversation with because they are cultivating an image and a platform.

I think I differ far more markedly with Pete on the "knaves, fools, and me" issue. The real difficulty here is that as an empirical matter there are knaves and fools in the world. Overstating or poorly arguing for their existence is wrong and indeed a conversation stopper, but they do exist. This one is therefore more of an empirical question, and an empirical question on which there will be substantial disagreements, so I think it's harder to pinpoint it as inherently wrong.

What's especially frustrating here is that Pete throws out "knaves, fools, and me" arguments all the time. He's also served on dissertation committees where this was - if not the thesis - a big part of the thesis (such as Jesse Gastelle's - the link is to a shorter paper taken from the dissertation that is more focused on this point). Keynesianism, Pete will argue, succeeded not because it was a set of good ideas but because people wanted to see more interventionist government and Keynesianism offered them justification. It was driven by hostility to limited government and the hiring and promotion of economists that facilitate that mission. This is an exact replication of Krugman's argument in the knaves, fools, and me post. He argues that the various pro-austerity views in economics succeeded not because it was a set of good ideas but because people wanted to shrink government and "austerianism" offered them justification. It was driven by hostility to active government policy.

So I find it very hard to swallow the idea that Pete has a general problem with these sorts of arguments. He obviously doesn't because he makes them too! The difference, of course, is that Pete thinks he is right and Krugman is wrong.

I think both cases have very real problems and if I'm speaking of economists (not politicians, who I think tend to be more opportunistic in promoting economic theory), I tend not to use these preferred arguments of Pete and Krugman (note my paper on Hayek in Critical Review and on modern ABCT work - I did not use an argument like this). But if I had to weigh in on which had more of a whiff of truth to it I think it's clearly Krugman's argument. People may disagree and that's fine - we can argue about it, because it is an empirical question. You may easily find these arguments in my repertoire. I'm sure I make them when I think they are true. I just think that as a general matter I think science is a functional, self-correcting system so generally speaking I don't believe scientific ideas persist for long due to knavery or foolery, although of course sometimes it may happen - I don't deny the possibility.

One last point that is a little disconcerting to me. Krugman knows he makes "knaves, fools, and me" arguments, he knows other people know that, and he stands by it. Pete doesn't seem to know that or that other people see his posts as being broadly comparable to Krugman's. It's probably worth recognizing the parallels.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Nature abhors a discontinuity... usually... a little more on Piketty

It's only "a little more" because I am wrapping up an R&R and some contract work and my last comprehensive exam before I can actually read the damn thing. I'm therefore still withholding any strong conclusions but I'm happy to express skepticism that the Giles analysis will hold any major problems.

One point caught my eye in a recent post by Bob Murphy about the Giles analysis. I know I can count on him to tell me if I am getting any of this wrong, but at least I can tell him I invite the criticism.

Bob suggests that the ONS data discrepancy is a red herring. I find that a little odd because it's what most of the critics seem to think is the major point, so if it is a red herring then it's one people are concerned about because it's what the critics are interested in. Regardless, Bob contends that there are bigger issues with more frequent data, such as the Inland Revenue Service (IRS) data for the top 10%'s share of wealth that is circled in black, below. Piketty's series is in blue.

Giles vs Piketty on UK

Bob writes:
"You can see the huge gulf between that raw data set, and Piketty’s blue line above it. You can see the Inland Revenue Series (IRS) data here; note that the figures for wealth held by the top 10% at the end of the series in the year 2005 is 54%, not the nearly 70% value through which Piketty’s trend line moves in that year[...] So it should be crystal clear to anyone who actually wants to see if Giles has a point–and went through his work carefully–that Giles’ case doesn’t rest or fall on our opinion of the ONS data. Rather, Piketty’s blue line in the shot above is well above the IRS data for the middle-2000s. The only raw data source Piketty can use to get such a high figure for wealth held by the 10% (at 70.5%) in the year 2010 is to rely on the “HMRC Top 10%” data, but the HMRC report itself proclaims that it is not suitable for such purposes (according to Giles in his FT critique, but I could not personally track down this claim and independently verify it)."
I think we need to be very careful about claims like this, and this is precisely why I'd rather wait for more details on what went into the data processing. In this case what leaps out at me is the discontinuity in the "LATEST IRS Top 10%" data and the data that come before and after it, particularly since the early data points of this series overlap with other data series in the same year that are much higher. Generally things don't move discontinuously like that in nature, so when you see that in the data there is very likely to be either an abrupt policy change or (more likely in this case) something different about how the data is collected. Maybe some things are left out of the new series that were in the old series. If they are just different series maybe the sampling frame is a little different or the variables are a little different. Maybe definitions differ across two surveys or within one survey over time.

A good example in the work I'm doing for the NAE is a very simple series on employment levels for engineers and engineering technicians and technologists. I use the CPS for this because it's best for long term labor market information. Every once in a while the federal government slightly changes occupational definitions, so tracking this over decades means that I am looking at slightly different populations. Some of this is just accounting for natural changes in jobs over time (as you can imagine, an engineering technician's job today is very different from what it was forty years ago), and certain changes are bigger than others. One big change to occupational categories occurred in 2002, largely to account for the rise of computer and information technology occupations (ironically, it makes studying computer and information technology labor markets during this period a real pain). Some engineers and engineering technicians got pushed into other categories (in a lot of cases IT) at this time and what you have in the data is relatively sharp break. That's what you see in my figure below.

Now I could have just continued the data series and made the break look like it was an actual drop but that would be misleading. I knew much of the change was not a drop in employment at all - it was a change in the way the data was collected. I didn't do that. Instead I disconnected the pre- and post-2002 series and used a dashed line in the post- section to make sure it was distinct, and I discussed the issue in my text.

I could have done what Piketty did - reconstruct my own series from the various data sources I had (I am working with many other data sources by the 2000s besides the CPS), and using what I know about the changes in the occupational categories. Indeed the BLS provides documentation for what adjustment factors to apply, and in this case of course it could mean a difference of a couple hundred thousand workers.
Figure 5. Employment of engineers and engineering technicians and technologists, 1971-2013

Source: Author’s calculation from the 1971-2013 March CPS

For this project it was completely unnecessary to do all that. I am just giving a taste of levels and trends in these fields (particularly technicians, which are less commonly studied) to a group of (mostly) non-economists and moving on to other analyses. If I was doing work where the trend itself was very important to my discussion I would have reconstructed it instead of just separating the series. If I had done that then my reconstructed series would have been well above the actual data reported in the CPS (or well below, if I traced the new definitions backwards), just like Piketty.

The thing is, it would have been a perfectly legitimate thing for me to do. And I have a suspicion Piketty's adjustments here were perfectly legitimate. They seem to jive with the results everyone else is getting and it strikes me as more probable that Giles, a journalist, is slightly confused about what kind of data processing went into the book than that Piketty, an economist, is making this stuff up.

But I just don't know. I really can't repeat enough that I really don't know what was done and why and I can't form a firm opinion - beyond general suspicions - until I do.

The income tax and minimum wage stuff is shockingly sloppy, but I don't see the nefariousness in it that some people do. People that want a global wealth tax are sufficiently to the left that they are likely not trying to score points by making George H.W. Bush look bad and Bill Clinton look good. Those two seem pretty close from an American's perspective, much less from a French leftist's perspective. I think it's more likely that ideological biases passively contributed to the sloppiness (sort of a "well that sounds right" sort of thing) than that he was trying score ideological points by manipulating it.

It's like Tom Woods and the old 1920-21 depression errors I wrote about a while ago with the timing of Wilson and Harding's fiscal policy and the various monetary policy decisions. I don't think Woods made the mistakes because he was trying to boost Harding's reputation. I think he was being sloppy, took a look at it, figured it sounded right - it fit his narrative - and called it a day.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Does anyone know how Social Security is counted in these wealth measures?

Some thoughts on the Piketty data thing

This is just transcribed from what I said on facebook, but I thought some readers might be interested in it here that aren't friends with me on facebook:

I'm a little concerned at where this data debate is going, and it makes me worry that people got the wrong impression of how these things ought to go from the Reinhart and Rogoff template. The R&R problems were pretty explicit excel errors. They did not demolish the case (actually Dube's econometric work did more on that front), but if I understand it right (I have not read the CJE article from the critics) the unambiguous excel errors did make the 90 percent threshold go away. And then, the important thing is, they published it and it was clear where the errors were.

The Piketty situation is quite different. True, there are a few excel errors too. But the meat of the criticism is NOT of that nature. As a result it's very hard to even verify that Giles is right and Piketty is wrong. People who are jumping to conclusions here don't seem to understand how work with raw data works. Raw data come with a lot of problems, and it's not just the 19th century data sources. There are blindspots and limitations to many data sources from before the 90s, and I assume the wealth data is no different. Moreover, wealth combines many disparately and poorly measured components that have to be brought together. Is Giles's estimate including all of those pieces or is it missing one of them because (unlike Piketty) he hasn't been neck-deep in wealth data for the last fifteen years. I don't know. And nobody commenting on this knows either so DON'T let them convince you that they do. But that's really the heart of the matter (unless something turns out to be wrong due only to the excel errors - the miscopied lines and the averaging - if something is very wrong just from that then we have a problem pretty comparable to R&R).

A lot of times adjustments and imputations are made that are not easy to discern unless you dig into it. And it's really nuanced stuff usually. In a paper we just resubmitted to the Review of Industrial Organization some of the variables a referee wanted us to add - the yield spread premium - had to be imputed. It was only available for certain home loans in the dataset, so we had to generate our own data that don't exist anywhere else in the world by modeling YSP based on the data that did have it and using that model to predict values for the cases that didn't. It wasn't perfect of course. But the more important point is that I think we just said we made an imputation for some cases and left it at that (we have all the program files so if anyone cares they can come to us - we used standard approaches that other people have used before). If you just took our raw data and naively ran the numbers you would get something different. But if you just took our raw data and ran the numbers you would be wrong. Even if there might be improvements on what we did you would still be much more wrong to use the raw data. This is a minor case - I'm sure wealth calculations across countries and time must have much bigger examples of legitimate but not immediately transparent adjustments and imputations.

We are definitely not merely in Reinhart and Rogoff territory with this.

To get to the bottom of this, we simply need more information and review. And someone probably needs to publish it like the R&R critics do. It's an important revelation. I don't think I'll get around to the book until I'm past my comp and into the summer, and at that point I fear there's going to be another set of 600 pages worth of reviews to read too.

And for people who think this might be ideological, it's worth saying something about my priors before Reinhart and Rogoff and Piketty came into the public discussion:
1. I did believe wealth inequality was rising along with income inequality
2. I did not believe r > g
3. I did not believe there should be an international wealth tax
4. Whatever flaws there were in capitalism I did not believe it would doom capitalism
5. I did think that high levels of government debt risked financial crisis
6. I did think the level of public debt that posed a danger depended on the institutions and strength of the economy, and therefore I
7. Didn't think much of a single 90 percent threshold
8. I did worry about the problems posed by entitlement programs for long-run debt projections

For better or worse these haven't moved all that much. I consider most of the Piketty-related points to be open questions to reconsider now that the book is out. So although it's a mixed bag I am at least as much a Reinhart/Rogoff partisan as I am a Piketty partisan.

Monday, May 19, 2014

For years many of us suspected that Austrian economists were just peddling bullshit... now we have proof!

HT the Adam Smith Institute and Lars Christensen, on facebook

The accompanying description:

"Ron Kitching’s photo of F.A. Hayek and Kitching’s bull Inflation (it kept on growing) is 37 years old.

Hayek was visiting Australia and staying at the Kitchings' farm on the Atherton Tablelands. Ron wanted the famous economist to climb a stepladder onto Inflation’s back to be photographed as “Hayek’s on Top Of Inflation.” Mrs Kitching objected. She wouldn’t allow him to risk the safety of their 76 year old visitor.

Nevertheless Hayek still wanted to meet the bull. Next day Ron took him down the paddock and took several pictures of him and the bull when another idea popped into Ron's head and he quietly mentioned it to him. He was delighted to have a bit of fun.

The caption? "Hayek’s Got Inflation By The Balls.""

When are we citizens and when are we economists?

In my previous post on Noah Smith, Brian Albrecht raises a question that I only mentioned briefly but considered writing a whole post on. He asks: 

"How do you differentiate between "the economist" and "the citizen?" It is something I struggle with when reading others writing and my own."

What do you think?

It's difficult because of course we want to slip in normative/citizen claims whenever we're writing about something that matters for society at large (and not just as a scientific curiosity about how the world works). Economists aren't unique in this regard. All medical science and any biology or chemistry contributing to medical breakthroughs is going to have these little normative addenda too.

I think it's a spectrum, but we do science (in other words, we are "economists") at the end of the spectrum where the normative claims are minimized or included as a sort of wrap-up of the significance of the work and where claims of fact are evaluated on positive rather than normative bases.

Anything touching on welfare economics gets the trickiest in this regard. There are standard ways of talking about how one outcome unambiguously dominates another outcome regardless of actual preferences that people hold. There are also standard definitions of efficiency that we can use because they are standard without necessarily attaching ethical significance to them (of course we've defined them so that they might be useful in subsequent ethical conversations).

When we are acting as citizens I think we have much freer reign mixing positive and normative claims. After all, we're economists so it's pretty much incumbent on us, acting as citizens, to bring the positive claims into the conversation. I would just say you have to be very clear about which you are doing when, and of course you have to be honest. If you are considered to be an expert on a subject, you can't cherry-pick the evidence you find most suitable. If you downplay certain views you have to be able to justify it.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

What I do as an economist

The other point made in Noah's post (mentioned in my previous post) is that a lot of economics today is no longer a "policy science". He talks about auction theory and random utility discrete choice models as examples of this shift. I also hear this from people, and I agree with Noah that it's not a very accurate depiction of what economists spend their time doing. We are not always thinking about policy implications and applications of our work.

It's truer of economists in my area (Washington) than other areas for obvious reasons, but even here I think it's a misnomer. Only some of my work currently has any relation to policy, for example.

Right now, in writing this post, I'm putting off some contract work I'm doing for the National Academy of Engineering on the engineering technologist workforce. None of this work discusses policy, it's just a workforce study. Policymakers certainly pay attention to the NAE's output, but the NAE itself of course is not a governmental organization and there's no legislative or policy issue being considered for this project.

I'm also revising a paper to resubmit to the Journal of Family and Economic Issues that looks at time use behavior in the Great Recession. It has no policy content.

I just finished revising and resubmitting an article to the Review of Industrial Organization on title insurance. It discusses some regulation of the industry as background, but there's not a lot of policy content other than that.

I just finished writing for class and will continue to revise during the summer for my dissertation a paper on occupational sorting by STEM majors. There is no policy content to that work at all.

I'm also going to pick up my GME version of propensity score matching paper this summer to present again at the SEA meeting this fall. There is no policy content to that work at all - it's just a small contribution to the development of an econometric technique.

Nothing on my plate right now has anything to do with politics. Because I'm an economist. Political scientists and political philosophers are the ones that sit around and think about "the state" all day, not me. That's the division of labor. Economists touch on it of course, as we should. But that's not the constant preoccupation of modern economists.

I will circle back to more policy related work of course. I'll be doing more workforce development evaluations. But even this is still "engineering" of a sort, and not "providing a rationale for the power of the State" (remember - I don't know ahead of time if it's going to work and often what they're doing DOESN'T work) that the commenter I mentioned in the last post thought was so pervasive.

An Addendum to Noah Smith: On Libertarians

Noah has a nice post debunking popular assumptions that economists are ideological cheerleaders. Instead, Smith says, they are not necessarily conservative professionally (of course some are), empirically oriented, and more engineering-minded. This is an important point for him to make, I think.

But there's another group that I think gets modern economics wrong. It's a smaller group, but a vocal one and a growing one: libertarians.

If you ask a libertarian about modern economics they'll often - though not always - respond in the way that this commenter did at David Henderson's post on Noah. It's sort of the exact opposite of the people who consider economists to be free market priests mixing philosophy with economics and it's pervasive in the libertarian community among economists and non-economists alike (which in a way is the saddest part). Here's a selection:
"Since at least the time of the Kathedersozialisten, criticism of markets by "economists" has been what has served the social function of the Medieval clergy: as sources of "truth" to provide a rational for the power of the State. Along with intellectuals more generally."
I'm sure most readers have heard a version of that before. Hell, some readers I'm sure have asserted a version of that before. It's the trump card they play every time a real economic scientist ever wants to try to understand a friction or asymmetry in human social behavior - either (a.) you're anti-market! or (b.) you're trying to justify the state moving in! The reality is that almost no economists are anti-market. Libertarians who make this claim only come to that conclusion because they think they only way to be market oriented is to share their political views. Another reality is that most economists care a whole lot more about economic science than politics. That's why we're economists and not political scientists or political journalists.

Take the minimum wage. I've formed pretty solid views on the empirical work on the minimum wage and where I think the gaps are in the empirical work. My views on the politics of the minimum wage aren't nearly as solid. I've said in the past that I don't lose sleep over the minimum wage because of the empirical work, but at the same time I have trouble enthusiastically supporting an increase (particularly at the federal level) because it seems like such a blunt tool and it's possible it could hurt certain people when it seems to me we have better ways of helping everyone. You just don't see me jumping into that fight. You will see me jump into discussions about the economics of the minimum wage (as I did earlier this spring).

Often, when I come across libertarians that think most economics is a justification for the state, they'll assume my scientific views imply a political perspective. And it's not surprising that they do - few people think about government and politics as much as libertarians.

Sometimes I get pretty heated on politics and policy. The stimulus debate and the ultimate fiscal austerity were big enough problems that I enthusiastically jumped in. The government pay freeze and shut-down infuriated me because of its stupidity and the way it was hurting regular families in an even more direct way than austerity generally. When my wife works herself like crazy at a federal job where they don't get sufficient staff to support her work because of a hiring freeze, sufficient compensation because of a pay freeze, when she with her fellow public employees are trash-talked by libertarian and conservative pundits, and then on top of that we have concerns about job security because of a stupid shut-down that should have never happened, it makes me angry.

But to a large extent that's Daniel Kuehn the citizen, not Daniel Kuehn the economist. The most I jump into politics/policy as an economist is in evaluating federal programs, which I've done a fair amount of. I tell them if what they're doing works or doesn't work. This is policy relevant to be sure, but I am not spinning some kind of justification for the state much less criticizing the market. I also don't know what the answer to the question "does what you are doing work?" will be before I do the analysis, so none of my results can be construed as an attempt to justify the state.

Nevertheless, if you are a modern economist and you are not a libertarian this is the sort of crap you'll have to deal with on a regular basis if you spend any time talking to libertarians.

Friday, May 16, 2014

New article

Journal of Women, Politics & Policy
Volume 35, Issue 2, 2014
Special Issue: Gender-Targeted Workforce Development

 Can We Upgrade Low-Skill, Low-Wage Occupations? The Case of Apprenticeships in the Long-Term Care Occupations 

Robert I. Lerman, Lauren Eyster & Daniel Kuehn

Pages 110-132
Published online: 07 May 2014

Abstract The best prospect for improving job quality and compensation in low-wage jobs is by increasing worker productivity. This study investigates the prospects of registered apprenticeship training for raising productivity in the long-term care (LTC) industry, a high-demand, low-wage field that principally employs female caretakers. Case studies of five LTC registered apprenticeship programs and analysis of administrative data suggest that apprenticeship training improved productivity, client satisfaction, pay, and career advancement opportunities. It is less clear whether cost savings were sufficient to offset low Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates or remain sustainable without federal, state, or private support.

New job

I just wanted to note on here that in June I'll be returning to the Urban Institute, this time in their Income and Benefits Policy Center. I am very excited to be returning. It's difficult to overstate the challenge of balancing relevance, rigor, and objectivity when it comes to economic research and I simply don't know anywhere that does it better than Urban.

My initial assignments are going to reflect that - I'm working on a couple different training evaluations, one to review and ensure that rigorous evaluation methods are being used, and another to actually implement those methods in cooperation with one of the best in the field, Burt Barnow (GWU and Urban Institute). I should get a lot of good evaluation work and research on post-secondary education and workforce development under the supervision of the estimable Lauren Eyster.

Long run/big picture I also can't think of a better place than Urban to start building my own research agenda around the STEM workforce, mid-level skills, apprenticeship and other sorts of on-the-job training, school to work transitions, and occupational sorting. I'll be working there part-time while I finish my dissertation, and then full-time after it is done.

Blogging will continue to be infrequent - I've just got a lot of other stuff to focus on right now. But I'll post interesting things as they come up and as I have time. Of course I post only my own views here, not the views of the Urban Institute or anyone else for that matter.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Limited Defense of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Views on Philosophy

Evan brings my attention to Neil deGrasse Tyson downplaying philosophy and "big questions" (or more precisely, he brings my attention Damon Linker calling Tyson a "philistine" for it). I might not have phrased it the same way he does, but I think he has more of a point than Linker gives him credit for. I am not a philosopher, so feel free to correct any of this - but since nobody is really engaging Tyson's claims as serious claims I think it's worth me putting out a non-philosopher first draft of a defense for people to reflect on. I think that (1.) Tyson is not as unaware of what goes on in philosophy as people suggest, (2.) I think a lot of philosophy of science is bad (or at least a misnomer), and he is probably reacting to that, and (3.) I think a lot of people concerned with "big questions" have the wrong approach to science.

One last note before jumping into it - I'd rather not talk about the inaccuracies in the new Cosmos. Tyson is not a historian of science which strongly suggests to me that he was handed a script for a cartoon narration. I don't think it has much of anything to do with the claims he makes here.


OK, first Tyson doesn't have an especially inaccurate view of what goes on in philosophy (although it's abbreviated, impromptu, unscripted, and for all of those reasons a necessarily underdeveloped view). He remarks that a lot of what philosophers grapple with amounts to arguing about the meaning of words. This is, more or less, true. He may not get the nuances of it like a philosopher would, but he's simply noting the "linguistic turn" in philosophy which is quite real and not just some invention of Tyson's. Moreover, it is a position of respected philosophers (I think principally of Rorty here who is among the few proper philosophers I've spent some time reading) that it is precisely because of these developments that we need to be cautious about philosophers thinking too highly of themselves, that the significance of philosophical progress is overstated (or at least misunderstood), and that philosophy is it's own sort of literature asking questions in its own way, but not fundamental or foundational in the way that many claim. So I think if you take philosophy seriously (and I don't see a reason to assume Tyson doesn't), you ought to take these claims and critiques seriously because philosophers themselves are engaging them seriously (albeit in a much more sophisticated way than Tyson does here).

Second, my (again, under-educated) sense is that a lot of what goes by the name "philosophy of science" is actually epistemology and has little to do with actual science. I am thinking specifically of things like Popper saying that natural selection is not a scientific theory but (in his words) a "metaphysical research programme." At that point I am forced to simply say that that's nice as philosophical demarcation exercise, but at this point we've exited a discussion of science. This is not true of all philosophy of science by a long stretch (for all I know it's not even true of all of Popper - you'll have to ask someone that reads more Popper). Philosophers who spend more time thinking like philosophers as they inquire into the daily work of scientists - like Kuhn or Lakatos - generally avoid these excesses (since I'm trying to emphasize the extent to which I am not a philosopher, I'll note here that I have read Kuhn but not Lakatos, and very, very small bits of Popper). Why do I bring all this up? Because it can be frustrating for scientists to get told how to do things by "methodologists" or "philosophers of science" that are really just epistemologists who don't actually spend a lot of time thinking about the scientific enterprise.

Third, if you'll allow me to move forward with Kuhn, I see a tendency particularly in the social sciences, probably among young scientists of all types, and perhaps in the natural sciences to a certain extent too, an enormous yearning to do paradigm shifts rather than normal science. To say that someone is engaged in "normal science" is typically not a compliment. I think this is some of what Tyson might be getting at when he criticizes the focus on the "big questions". The vast majority of scientific effort is tedious, slow work on normal science. Paradigm shifts do not come around often and they are not something you often plan for either. Economics is rife with interest in what is essentially paradigm shift thinking and I think a lot of it is misguided. Mainstream economic science has its puzzles, but it is not in the sort of crisis that would foster a shift, and we certainly are not going to get a shift from legions of young economists going out in search of one. If a paradigm shift comes some day it's going to be a fairly singular event and while older ways of thinking about problems often resurface in paradigm shifts* the shift itself doesn't usually come from reading old books (which is what a lot of "big question"/"new thinking"/"dare to be different" types in economics seem to think). You don't do science by thinking about these big pie in the sky questions or ideas. If you really want to do science that generally means that you want to do normal science. 99% of the people who set out to be visionary paradigm shifters are deluding themselves. Tyson himself is a normal scientist. Most Nobel laureates are normal scientists and a lot of the ones that people would claim are paradigm shifters probably aren't. If you feel like doing normal science is beneath you you probably shouldn't work in science.

I don't know if I'd put the point the way Tyson did, but he was speaking off the cuff so I find it difficult to fault him too much for that. I do think underlying his comments are some very serious and reasonable points that people would do well to consider.

* - Kuhn does an excellent job illustrating this in talking about Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein on gravity where he points out that Einstein's perspective on the problem was quite Aristotelian in the sense that he went back to the Aristotelian view of gravity as having to do with inherent properties of objects - a view that Newton abandoned. I can't track it down, though - if anyone knows where that is in Structure of Scientific Revolutions I'd be very interested in you letting me know in the comments.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Course work is done! And other updates.

With a Micro II final on Monday and my paper presentation in Labor II on Tuesday, my course work is officially done! I have a labor comprehensive exam in the beginning of June, but the field exams aren't nearly as strenuous as the core theory exams.

So that leaves the dissertation to finish up. I hope to propose at the end of the summer. It has evolved somewhat over the last year. It is still three essays on connections to the labor market. The first essay on Georgia's job creation tax credit is going to be expanded to include some microdata work too. I've also discovered that Georgia phases in an investment tax credit using the same rules as the job creation credit, so I can't really separate them. That means the whole paper will have to be reframed as an evaluation of the impact of state tax credits on employment. The second essay is going to pull back from the details of the options model. The easy way to put it is that I'm doing an occupational choice model for STEM workers, but it's a little more involved than that. I'm am specifically looking at sorting behavior across occupations that are unrelated to college degree field, and how that sorting affects our estimates of the return to a STEM degree. This essay falls under my bigger Sloan Foundation grant umbrella. The final essay is going to be an evaluation of South Carolina's incentives for apprenticeship training using standard non-experimental methods (likely difference in differences, matching, and I'd like to try my hand at a synthetic control method. We'll see what fits best).

Lots of things to do besides the dissertation, though. I'm continuing to work on the Sloan project and drafting my second report for the National Academy of Engineering on the engineering technologist workforce. I am also revising and resubmitting an article on home production and time use at the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. These three and studying for the comprehensive exam are going to fill my month of May.

In the fall I have a panel on generalized maximum entropy methods accepted for the Southern Economic Association conference in Atlanta. I it is similar to but some differences from the EEA panel I chaired this spring. I also have a paper on a panel submitted to APPAM's conference in Albuquerque in November (the first cut at my second dissertation essay). I haven't heard back on that one yet.

Two big things are in the pipeline - a forthcoming article in the Journal of Women, Politics, and Policy on women and apprenticeships, and a resubmission to the Review of Industrial Organization on title insurance. I just received copy edits from the publisher for a book chapter on unemployment too. I also have a short report on student visas transitioning to the workforce that looks like it's going to come out through the Urban Institute, although it needs a little work right now, and another short report on the minimum wage that is currently with editors at the Economic Policy Institute.

I imagine blogging will still be sparse, but I hope to have one more post in the very near future. It will also be about labor markets, specifically the one that I am supplying my labor to.

Caroline studying for the Micro II final with me