The Downside of (Quasi-)Academic Blogging

4 September 2008 at 8:57 am 12 comments

| Peter Klein |

It goes like this: Blogger A, a writer or grad student or some other non-specialist commentator, takes on Big Issue X with a few glib sentences dismissing decades, or even centuries, of research by specialists on some important topic. A recent example involved a blogger, who apparently is some kind of grad student, opining on the minimum wage. The blogger quotes Kevin Murphy’s statement that economic theory predicts that a wage floor above the market-clearing wage will, ceteris paribus, reduce the demand for labor. But no, says our blogger — labor and commodities are different economic goods, so that the law of demand does not apply to the former! Well, gosh, economists have been thinking about the demand for factors of production for, I don’t know, about two hundred years, and have had a pretty sophisticated understanding of marginal productivity since the late nineteenth century. My guess is that our blogger has read a textbook or two, and maybe even a few recent journal articles on the minimum-wage controversy, but thinks this discovery that factor markets are different from commodity markets is a brilliant new insight. (Note to blogger: factor-market demand curves are also downward sloping.) If I were this blogger’s academic adviser, I would suggest that she consult a labor economist, or perhaps skim Lazear’s Personnel Economics, before writing this sort of drivel.

As they used to say about the internet: The good thing about blogging is that anyone can share his opinion with the world. The bad thing about blogging is that anyone can share his opinion with the world.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Ephemera.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amit  |  4 September 2008 at 12:19 pm

    my first comment in this excellent blog :)

    I don’t see anything wrong with what you describe. People are entitled to have views, and for grad students (like myself) – I think this is even an important thing to have. and it is also important to express opinions and share opinions. blog is not a refereed journal, not everything published must be true (whatever “true” means). an opinion is a starting point for discussion, for sharing knowledge and for creating new knowledge.

    I myself blog (although, I do it in hebrew – so not many can read and understand it), and I made few bold comments on org theory (what I study now), music and mathematics (what I studied before). those comments were obvious (and well known, though not to me) and wrong (and wrong, respectively), but served as a good discussion starters. it helped me look at literature that otherwise I might not been aware of.

    I learn a lot from blogs (this one and many others). I never treat what I read as truth, or something I should agree with (even not in this blog), but mainly as food for thought. sometimes, this food is tasty and intersting, some times less so.

    so nothing wrong, in my opinion, with the blogger you mentioned.

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  4 September 2008 at 12:25 pm

    Amit, I agree completely. I didn’t mean to suggest that grad students or laypeople aren’t entitled to opinions and shouldn’t express them. Quite the opposite! And yes, blogs aren’t refereed journals — thank goodness, or this one certainly wouldn’t exist. :-)

    What I object to is the snide, dismissive tone used by certain bloggers when discussing issues they seemingly know little about. Even in the blogosphere the rules of civilized discourse should apply. Treat your intellectual opponents with respect. Think before you write. If you have an opinion, be prepared to back it up.

  • 3. Donald A. Coffin  |  4 September 2008 at 12:59 pm

    So, OK, I’ll bite. (I should point out that I am by training and interest a labor economist; I have read and am familiar with the literature. I’ve done some research in the area.) Here’s the conclusion to the discussion about the eployment effects of changes in the minimum wage in the best-selling labor economics textbook (Ronald Ehrenberg and Robert Smith, Modern Labor Economics, 9th ed., p. 114):

    “With some studies estimating no effect on employment, and with many of those that do [find a negative employment effedt] estimating an own-wage labor demand elasticity well below unity (the average in Table 4.1), we remain notably uncertain about how employment among low-wage workers responds to increases in the minimum wage. We will come back to this issue…and offer a possible reason for why mandated wage increases might have a smaller and more uncertain effect on labor demand than wage increases generated by market forces.”

    Certainly a ringing endorsement of the proposition that increases in the minimum wage always and everywhere lead to employment declines, eh?

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  4 September 2008 at 1:30 pm

    Yes, but who has said “increases in the minimum wage always and everywhere lead to employment declines”? Certainly not Kevin Murphy.

  • 5. Henry Farrell  |  4 September 2008 at 11:16 pm

    Peter – this is a remarkably mean-spirited and ungracious post for someone who usually doesn’t go in for this sort of thing. Where does Kathy say or even hint that she believes that this is a ‘brilliant new insight?’ Nowhere – except in your imagination. She is quite obviously summarizing a debate for non-specialists, and making the claim that the empirical evidence that moderate increases in the minimum wage hurt employment is quite dubious. This claim has the signal virtue of being correct, no matter how inconvenient it may be for modelers. The rest of your post seems to consist of a condescending argument from authority – e.g. ” apparently some kind of grad student … if I were this blogger’s academic advisor.” Personally, I find such arguments quite unconvincing; perhaps you differ.

    As you note yourself above, “Even in the blogosphere the rules of civilized discourse should apply. Treat your intellectual opponents with respect.” Your response would perhaps have been more compelling if you had applied these rules of thumb to your own blogpost. I know that you’re a smarter and more thoughtful person than this post might seem to suggest.

  • 6. John Quiggin  |  4 September 2008 at 11:28 pm

    And where, exactly, does the post say “labor and commodities are different economic goods, so that the law of demand does not apply to the former! ” ?

    The argument in the post is that labor markets are different from those in the simplest kind of model where the law of demand is usually presented, and so you should be careful in drawing inferences of this kind (and, no, ceteris paribus does not function as an all-purpose get out of jail free card here).

    If you’re going to complain about misquotation, you should be more careful yourself.

  • 7. Peter Klein  |  4 September 2008 at 11:58 pm

    Henry and John, I’m sorry my post rubbed you the wrong way. Perhaps I am unfair to Kathy. However, I think you two and I read the original post differently. I don’t at all see Kathy’s post as an even-handed, dispassionate summary of a specialized literature for the lay reader. Rather, I read it as a diatribe. Note, for example, the title of her post: “Economic Fundamentalism and the Minimum Wage.” The term “economic fundamentalism,” like its cousin “market fundamentalism,” is a smear, meant to imply that economists and others who don’t support minimum-wage laws are “fundamentalists,” akin to flat-earthers. And how about this: “[G]iven the anti-regulation ideological bias of the economics profession as a whole, it’s not hard to imagine that studies that do find that the minimum wage has a disemployment effect are considerably more likely to be published.” As an ideologically biased pro-market person myself, I can only chuckle at the notion that the economics profession as a whole is ideologically biased toward the free market.

    Perhaps I have been unfair to Kathy; maybe I was in a cranky mood when I read her post (when it appeared back in May). But if she had only summarized the literature, with some commentary thrown in, I probably wouldn’t have batted an eye. What stuck in my craw, however — and still does, upon a fresh reading — is passages like this: “[I]t’s a huge mistake to view the purchase of a unit of human labor as being exactly the same as the purchase of a widget. What economics has done is to take the models of the supply and demand of consumer goods and apply them to the supply and demand of labor. This, I believe, is fundamentally wrong-headed. Human labor and consumer goods are categorically different, and it’s a big mistake to treat them as if they were interchangeable. There are a slew of institutions, norms, and other features of labor markets that do not apply to product markets.” This isn’t just a straw man; it’s a man made of carbon nanotubes. What economist has ever argued that labor and widgets are identical? Certainly not Kevin Murphy, or Finis Welch, or any of the specialists on the other side of the Card-Krueger debate. And when Kathy writes, “This, I believe, is fundamentally wrong-headed,” it sure sounds to me like she claims to be making a profound, original insight. And, really, do you guys regard this as a temperate remark: “I also believe, based on his writings, that Kevin Murphy, like all too many economists, takes the models literally. He is so enamored of them that he sees them, I think, not as tools for understanding, but as God’s revealed truth, handed down to Moses on stone tablets. He’s an economic fundamentalist, if you will. . . . Fortunately, though, the old-fashioned theories about labor markets that Murphy and others hold are gradually being displaced.”

    Again, if I came across as smug and condescending in my post, I apologize. But I stand by my assessment of the substance and tone of the original post. It’s a polemic, it’s snide, dismissive, and totally inappropriate given the writer’s (presumed) age and experience.

  • 8. Bogdan Enache  |  5 September 2008 at 9:18 pm

    Still, she does a great job pointig out all those pro-minimum wage papers, I think she deserves some credit for that and I also think that it’s actually true that – some economists, at least – do take their models too literally.

  • 9. Rafe Champion  |  7 September 2008 at 4:07 pm

    A local commentator made a tart comment about reports of an “unexpected rise in US unemployment”. He noted that the minimum wage was recently increased, so what did people expect?

  • 10. Praja Rajyam  |  15 September 2008 at 4:45 am

    Peter,

    I think it is fine – we cannot control the people without knowledge making open statements – but, it is left to the reader to decide on who is writing on what – and the knowledge levels of the person who is writing.

    -Anand.

  • 11. Marcia  |  26 January 2009 at 9:26 pm

    What is apparent is that you focus your “quasi-academic” mind… or what little you have of it… on other people’s opinions. Most call that HATING. Your opinions, snobbty white guy, are just as inane and stupid. After reading some of your blogs, might I suggest some add’l schooling? You really think that you can sit around and act like the ultimate thinker with every answer to any problem that has ever existed. In reality, you are a mumbnut. You WISH you could graduate from MIT (my alma mater). A brain like yours will one day depend on a brain like mine to get you by as a Senior Citizen. So, be nice. There will come a day when your OLD ASS will be needing someone to push the wheelchair. Hopefully, for you, I won’t be anywhere near a cliff.

  • 12. Peter Klein  |  26 January 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Marcia, everybody knows all wheelchairs will be self-propelled by then. Maybe they’ll even levitate! I bet a clever MIT grad will invent one. There are plenty of us mumbnuts [stet] out there to buy them.

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