FAQ for www.whichfamouseconomistareyoumostsimilarto.com

I made a new webpage, http://www.whichfamouseconomistareyoumostsimilarto.com

Here’s an FAQ for it.

Q. What is this and why did you make it?
A. There is a surprising amount of consensus among economists on many issues. Progressive consumption taxes and carbon taxes are good. Personal income taxes and corporate taxes are bad. Congestion pricing is good. The mortgage deduction is bad. Marijuana should be legalized. These positions are endorsed by almost every economist, both from the left and the right, but politicians in Washington tend to support the opposite.

The IGM Forum surveys an ideologically diverse group of top economists on these and other issues. I wish more people knew about their website. My new webpage, http://www.whichfamouseconomistareyoumostsimilarto.com, collects responses from the IGM forum and allows users to compare it to their own responses.

Q. Why is the economist closest to me on the graph different from the economist who actually is closest to me, according to the text below the graph?
A. Each economist can be thought of as a point in a massive 105 dimensional space, and unfortunately it’s only possible to display 2 dimensions. While you may appear close to an economist on those 2 dimensions, you may be far apart on the 103 other dimensions that you can’t see.

Q. I don’t have the expertise to answer some of these questions. Should I leave them blank or should I click “Neutral”?
A. You should leave them blank so that they do not enter the calculations. “Neutral” indicates that you have a real opinion somewhere between “Agree” and “Disagree”

Q. Every question I answer makes me move very far on the graph. This seems unreliable.
A. Do not take your graph position seriously until you have answered at least 20 questions. Your position will gradually converge as you answer more.

Q. Responses that “strongly deviate from expert consensus” are highlighted in yellow. What does that mean?
A. It means that your response deviated more that two standard deviations from the IGM panel average.

Q. I have answered only one question and it has put me in an extreme part of the graph. However my response does not get highlighted as a deviating response. Is something wrong?
A. To calculate your position in the graph, I use your past responses to make assumptions about your future responses. If you have only answered a few questions, those assumptions will be far from accurate.

Q. I just answered a question the exact same way as Economist X. But my position on the graph moved away from him/her. Why?
A. This is a natural consequence of projecting multiple dimensions onto two dimensions. To see why, take a cube-shaped object and trace your finger along the edges from one corner to the opposite corner. Viewed from some angles, your finger might sometimes appear to move away from the destination corner.

Q. I’m finding some other unexpected behavior not explained by the previous two questions.
A. There is some built-in bias resulting from mean-centering and a dummy question I added so that movement occurs after the first response. This bias will affect your position when only a few questions have been answered but it will become negligible when many questions have been answered.

Q. Why were some IGM panel economists excluded from your webpage?
A. Economists who answered less than 75% of the questions were excluded.

Q. Can you interpret what the first two principal components represent?
A. I left the axes uninterpreted because I don’t want to oversimplify things: The first two PCs only explain 20% of the variance, and they are biased by the choice of questions. But ok, I’ll bite: The horizontal axis appears to represent the left-right axis in partisan American politics, with strong weights on emotionally charged issues like school vouchers and the minimum wage. But — and I can’t stress this enough – the horizontal axis is not identical to our verbal understanding of the left-wing / right-wing continuum. Our verbal understanding of this concept corresponds to a complicated, bendy, twisty dimension within the 105 dimensional space, and it probably explains about 60% of the variance in responses. The horizontal dimension explains a meager 12% of the variance. This means that some responses that are actually left-wing will correspond to rightward movements and vice-versa. The vertical dimension is even harder to interpret. There are large weights on questions pertaining to bank regulation and monetary policy.

To give you a better sense of the dimensions, here are some questions for which answering “strongly agree” will push you far in one of the directions.

Top 5 leftward questions. 

(1) Question B: The distortionary costs of raising the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour and indexing it to inflation are sufficiently small compared with the benefits to low-skilled workers who can find employment that this would be a desirable policy.

(2) Question C: Taking into account all of the economic consequences — including effects on corporate managers’ incentives and on creditors’ expectations of how their claims will be treated in future bankruptcies — the benefits of bailing out GM and Chrysler will end up exceeding the costs.

(3) Question A: Taking into account all of the economic consequences — including the incentives of banks to ensure their own liquidity and solvency in the future — the benefits of bailing out U.S. banks in 2008 will end up exceeding the costs.

(4) Question A: The U.S government should make further efforts to shrink the size of the country’s largest banks — such as by capping the size of their liabilities or penalizing large banks more heavily through taxes or other means — because the existing regulations do not require the biggest banks to internalize enough of the “too-big-to-fail” risks that they pose.

Top 5 rightward questions

(1) Public school students would receive a higher quality education if they all had the option of taking the government money (local, state, federal) currently being spent on their own education and turning that money into vouchers that they could use towards covering the costs of any private school or public school of their choice (e.g. charter schools).

(2) Question B: Past experience of public spending and political economy suggests that if the government spent more on roads, railways, bridges and airports, many of the projects would have low or negative returns.

(3) Laws that limit the resale of tickets for entertainment and sports events make potential audience members for those events worse off on average.

(4) New technology for fracking natural gas, by lowering energy costs in the United States, will make US industrial firms more cost competitive and thus significantly stimulate the growth of US merchandise exports.

Top 5 upward questions

(1) Even if inflationary pressures rise substantially as a result of quantitative easing and low interest rates, the Federal Reserve has ample tools to rein inflation back in if it chooses to do so.

(2) Taking into account all of the economic consequences — including the incentives of banks to ensure their own liquidity and solvency in the future — the benefits of bailing out U.S. banks in 2008 will end up exceeding the costs.

(3) Even if the third round of quantitative easing that the Fed recently announced increases annual consumer price inflation over the next five years, the increase will be inconsequential.

(4) Despite relabeling concerns, taxing capital income at a permanently lower rate than labor income would result in higher average long-term prosperity, relative to an alternative that generated the same amount of tax revenue by permanently taxing capital and labor income at equal rates instead.

Top 5 downward questions

(1) Public school students would receive a higher quality education if they all had the option of taking the government money (local, state, federal) currently being spent on their own education and turning that money into vouchers that they could use towards covering the costs of any private school or public school of their choice (e.g. charter schools).

(2) Question A: The U.S government should make further efforts to shrink the size of the country’s largest banks — such as by capping the size of their liabilities or penalizing large banks more heavily through taxes or other means — because the existing regulations do not require the biggest banks to internalize enough of the “too-big-to-fail” risks that they pose.

(3) The former head of the Transportation Security Administration is correct in arguing that randomizing airport “security procedures encountered by passengers (additional upper-torso pat-downs, a thorough bag search, a swab test of carry-ons, etc.), while not subjecting everyone to the full gamut” would make it “much harder for terrorists to learn how to evade security procedures.”

(4) Question C: Unless there is a substantial default by some combination of Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain on their sovereign debt and commercial bank debt, plus credible reforms to prevent excessive borrowing in the future, the euro area is headed for a costly financial meltdown and a prolonged recession.

11 thoughts on “FAQ for www.whichfamouseconomistareyoumostsimilarto.com

  1. Great piece of work — except that, although not being an economist myself but still being way-more-than-average interested in economics and being an avid reader of the ecofin blogosphere, I had never ever heard of ANY of these economists before (with the exception of Goolsbee, but rather in his capacity as adviser to Obama). Now I’am all wiliing to grant that I’m probably pretty stupid, but still this seems to me to raise the question what audience you’re actually targeting with this beautiful ‘positionator’? If it’s just meant for Academia among itself, then wouldn’t most scholars likely already know whose side they are on? So what’s the point then? Or if not, OMG, what an absolutely horrible job Academia is doing on getting its theories and spokespeople out to the interested part of the general public.
    So I would humbly suggest you rework your whole axis to denote broadly known +schools+ of economic thought rather than scores of relatively disfunctional individual economists. And btw, when you do, don’t forget to include Steve Keen. He’s the coming man -in the footsteps of Minsky- regardless of what futilities Academia continues to discuss among itself.

    • @WalterW: As an academic economist, economists (*perhaps* with an exception of macroeconomists) do not classify each other in terms of schools. As far as I am concerned, there are good economists and there are bad economists, and those are the only two categories that I need. I don’t always agree with all of the economists that I consider “good”, but I respect their work.

      The best example I can think of currently of a non-orthodox economist who I would consider “good” is Deirdre McCloskey. The hallmark of a “good” economist is an understanding of the nuance of economics, and a willingness to recognize the bounds of their own knowledge. Unfortunately for you, Keen is not a good economist. In fact, I would place him almost at the bottom of the pile. He misrepresents and/or misunderstands basic economic principles, and blatantly overstates his knowledge and abilities. In short, he is a charlatan.

      A good explanation of Keen’s follies in microeconomics has been written by Chris Auld (http://chrisauld.com/2012/10/26/debunking-debunking-economics/). Essentially, Auld demonstrates that Keen misunderstands some basic mathematics and then he (Keen) tries to claim novelty for a decades old idea that had already been discredited.

  2. Pingback: Which economist do you agree with most? Take this quiz to find out!

  3. Hi Walter – You’re right that more informative axes would be better. Unfortunately, this takes a lot of in-depth econ knowhow that I just don’t have. And also a lot more math.

    I hadn’t really heard of most of the economists either. They are just the economists who agreed to answer the IGM survey, and I’m sure that the most famous economists were too busy to do so. But, even still, most responders are apparently leaders in the field.

    As for my audience, so far it seems to be huge econ nerds and academics who may have previously had a vague but not exact idea of where they were on the spectrum. Hopefully it is nice for them to see visually.

  4. Thanks for the quiz! I will look up the work of the economists I am closest too — maybe I can read them with less steam coming out of my ears than others with more public presence.

    I read the FAQ after taking the quiz and I had already answered “Uncertain” sometimes when I didn’t have an opinion, and sometimes because I didn’t understand the question or the situation well enough to know what I would have thought if I had more knowledge. So, I went back to the quiz and I couldn’t delete the choice of “Uncertain.” Would have helped to either put that information on the quiz page or add a choice for “I don’t have any idea what you are saying here.”

    • Hi Judy – You’re right. The original IGM poll used the term “uncertain”, but they also had separate options for “no opinion”. I left out “no opinion” because I didn’t want the clutter, but I’ve now done the next best thing and changed “uncertain” to “neutral”, which should help a bit.

  5. Hi Chris – very very cool! but I will have to read more about why economists are against the mortgage deduction – this is one of the few tax deductions (loopholes?) that the middle class are eligible for and no fancy accounting firm is required. love, Cindy

  6. Interesting idea, but I get the feeling that most, if not all, of these questions are waaay to complicated for the average Joe…Not many people on the street know what distortionary effects are, or about 90s economic policy in Japan.
    If this quiz was designed for academics and professional economists, you’ve done very well. Otherwise…

  7. I had trouble with the questions that did not include a time scale. In some cases, short term effects may be different than long term effects.

  8. @ECM if you browse through the responses by economists, you will see that even they did not pretend to have knowledge or a firm answer of every topic.

    @ChrisSaid Thank you very much, this survey/quiz directed my attention to a couple of economists sharing my approximate viewpoint that I had not heard much about, and also an interesting economist way over on the other end of the scale that I find interesting to read even if I don’t agree much.

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