Liberals livid over economic enlightenment gauge

By Michal Elseth, The Washington Times
Jun. 11, 2010

It's one of those dispatches from the world of social science that leave some gloating and some fuming: A pair of researchers have concluded that when it comes to grasping basic economic concepts, liberals and Democrats are significantly less "enlightened" than conservatives and libertarians.

Researchers Daniel Klein and Zeljka Buturovic put forth their analysis in a recent article in Econ Journal Watch, an online scholarly journal, and in a subsequent column Mr. Klein wrote for the Wall Street Journal. Needless to say, it has elicited a less-than-favorable peer review from liberal economists.

Americans describing themselves as conservative, very conservative and libertarian "do reasonably well" when asked about basic economic questions involving supply, demand and the effects of regulation, concluded Mr. Klein, an economics professor at George Mason University, and Ms. Buturovic, an associate researcher with the polling firm Zogby International.

"But the left has trouble squaring economic thinking with their political psychology, morals and aesthetics," the two write.

Mr. Klein and Ms. Buturovic used a December 2008 poll conducted by Ms. Buturovic to gauge economic enlightenment, finding that a college education has less to do with an understanding of basic economic principles than the respondents' political leanings did. The two analyzed Ms. Buturovic's data to determine which factors had the most impact on what they called "economic enlightenment."

"We think that, for many respondents, economic understanding takes a vacation when economic enlightenment conflicts with establishment political sensibilities," the two concluded.

To which their critics have essentially replied: Hogwash.

Liberal economists and analysts said the questions gave the study a conservative bias. They did not dismiss the conclusions completely, but took issue with the way the data were gathered.

"The study is essentially worthless as acknowledged by the author," said Philip Dine, an analyst on labor economics and a columnist for The Washington Times. "That said, the conclusions are not necessarily false."

Conservatives, he said, are often well-informed economically. But he argued that economic literacy has less to do with party affiliation than "experience, intelligence and open-mindedness."

Polling analyst Nate Silver wrote on his political blog FiveThirtyEight that the Klein-Buturovic study was "so obviously flawed that it wasn't really worth commenting on."

He said the questions were slanted to reflect conservative beliefs, that the answers to some of the questions were ambiguous or debatable, and that the authors focused on only some of the questions answered by the respondents to reach their conclusions.

"So basically, what you're left with is a number of questions in which people respond out of their ideological reference points because the questions are ambiguous, substanceless or confusing. Klein is blaming the victims, as it were," Mr. Silver said.

"It is not serious research," he said, "and the fact that it was published both by the Wall Street Journal and by a journal which claims to be peer-reviewed is disturbing to me."

Mr. Klein and Ms. Buturovic said they focused on eight of the 21 questions in the survey to test economic literacy because they felt those questions provided the least ambiguous data for determining an understanding of economics.

Among the results: Self-described liberals were more likely to disagree with statements that restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable; that mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services; or that overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago.

Ms. Buturovic acknowledged that conservative respondents' political leanings were not the sole determining factor in their relative economic sophistication.

"Many variables that are associated with conservatism were also associated with greater enlightenment," he said. "Republicans scored better than Democrats, men better than women, married people better than those who are single. Those who never shop at Wal-Mart and those who consider themselves residents of the 'planet Earth' (as opposed to America or their city or town) had particularly low scores."

Ms. Buturovic said she does not intend to blame a lack of economic enlightenment on political ideology.

"I think the reason is that [people] have these primitive intuitions about how economy works, and they have for some reason either failed to acquire relevant cultural knowledge or are unable to apply it in the policy context. It took many centuries for basic economic concepts and principles to be discovered so, in a sense, it is not that surprising that some people are having trouble grasping them."

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