Compared To What? Ideology Edition

I'm a day behind the crowd (it's exam time here), but I wanted to bring up something left out of yesterday's econ Twitter and blogosphere conversation.

Maybe you didn't follow this, but in my world a recent paper by Zubin Jelveh, Bruce Kogut, and Suresh Naidu received buzz all yesterday. Everything started with a 538 article by the paper's authors with the headline "Economists Aren’t As Nonpartisan As We Think." (Let's ignore the obvious question, what did we think?)

The article involved a few ready for social media images, like the buzzwords from the left and right economists.

The take away from the article is that, contrary to some people's claims that economics is a science without ideology, ideology remains in economists' published work.

We could then predict the ideology of any economist not in our sample by feeding his or her body of work into our algorithm. The results weren’t perfect, but the algorithm showed promising ability in distinguishing between liberal and conservative economists. To understand how well it performed, imagine that you randomly pick two economists and predict their ideologies. Random guessing would get it right 50 percent of the time and a perfect model would be able to produce the right affiliation 100 percent of the time. Our algorithm got it right 74.1 percent of the time.

Kevin Drum quickly followed up by pointing out that the slope, while statistically significant, is impressively small. I mean, the slope is basically zero, right? Drum's concludes that it is amazing that economists, who deal with political topics, aren't even more ideological.

Cheers to us economists. We can mask our political ideology, at least for these authors. Well maybe. Noah Smith seems to agree that the slope is small, although he expresses reservations about the authors' ability to measure ideology. There are all interesting and important points about the 538 article, but they fundamentally miss one vital question.

Compared to What?

One of the first things I learned when studying economics was to always ask "compared to what?" Is the railroad expensive? Compared to what? Is crime low? Compared to what? Do people like my blog? No. Compared to what? The question almost becomes annoying. But it's vitally important and cannot be forgotten.

Imagine I believe that the authors have perfectly measured ideology. Also imagine that I will stop trusting economists if I find out they are ideological, so I better find an answer to this question.

I still can't decide whether economics is ideological until I ask.... Compared to what? Are we ideological compared to journalists? Lawyers? Sociologists? Politicians? Philosophers? Biologists? A benevolent and all-knowing person? If there is not a comparison, how can one decide?

This may seem trivial, but it goes to the heart of the public understanding of economists. Some people argue that economics is just a cover for political hacks. Economists argue against the minimum wage, because the Koch brothers pay them. Therefore, don't listened to economists.

This is usually followed by a sneer and possibly mocking an "idiot" economist that the person disagrees with.

Sure, you can do that. But if you really want to understand the world, you need something more. If you ignore economists because we are ideologues, I pray that you can find some wisdom this side of Eden that is less ideological. Maybe you can. The problem is that no one (that I saw) discussed this. Yesterday's conversations weren't about that. But until you do, while you're searching for understanding you must ask yourself: "compared to what?" If economists are less than every other comparison group, then for good or bad, we are the best option.

When someone writes a paper comparing groups, then I'll start to listen carefully.