Monday, August 8, 2011

Oh yeah?!?

Over at For The Sake of Science, my liberal sparring partner Michael Hawkins discovered a Cambridge editorial attempting to refute a piece on buy local economics I wrote earlier this year for his publication Without Apology that I also submitted to Indie Skeptics.

I've never heard of the Cambridge Day before, and while I usually get a laugh by demoting a self-described online newspaper by calling it a "blog," writer Marc Levy seems to produce enough news content for it to be somewhat legitimate.

The logic behind his editorial, however, doesn't hold up. Levy attempts to sidestep most of my scientific claims, based on more than 200 years of mainstream academic economic insight on international trade, by dismissing me for labeling myself a conservative. He goes so far as to erroneously paint Hawkins with the same brush - a sloppy mistake, and far from the last.

I'm not going to write a long breakdown of every error. For example, my "a skeptical blog" subtitle is in reference to the scientific skepticism movement, not a deflection of gullibility accusations. Now that was a small error on his part, but it's completely isolated from the main point, and his main point is that he isn't an economist, and doesn't trust it as a science.

He starts off with a pithy few quotes from people like Will Rogers to show economists are not respected as proper scientists. Strangely, he did not use the best one - that if you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they still wouldn't reach an agreement. I've heard that yarn, and it's simple to deflect.

Economists, like all scientists, disagree on some things. Social sciences often have big disagreements from the different schools of thoughts. Psychology is a perfect example.

But scientists also have the occasional consensus. You will not find an economist who supports rent control, for example. But for that very reason, economic scientists do not debate rent control because a consensus exists. This issue has been put to bed plenty of times before, so I will move on.

Levy goes on to try to poke holes in the different analogies I made by treating them as full-size replicas. I use stories to illustrate economic points because a general audience finds them easier to digest than math-heavy abstract concepts, but Levy show more interest in making comparisons than attempting to learn anything.

Imagine if I said I have a rare condition that makes me shed my skin once a year, like a snake. Levy could have used this comparison to understand how my skin peels off in one complete piece, but instead tried to find subtle differences between myself and a snake. Snakes rub their heads against sharp rocks to start the peel, but say I peel off my skin using my hands. Levy would jump on that in order to reject the entire comparison. This accomplishes absolutely nothing.

When a reader misunderstands something I write, I try to take responsibly for not making my message clear enough. But several times with Levy as the reader, I can't bring myself to do it. In response to Bastiat's broken window parable, he quotes me as as saying:

The community is now a little bit poorer as the baker has one less suit then he otherwise would have.
And then responds:
It is? How is the community poorer because the baker paid a glazier instead of the tailor, especially when both planned to spend money at the cobbler’s shop?
As I just said, the baker has one less suit. Did he miss that? In the alternative model, he had to repurchase a window. Having one less suit means you are now poorer by one suit. I've never had to explain that to someone before, and it seems like he isn't even trying.

Levy also blurs the line between "buy local" and the fetish for small businesses. He assumes I am saying the solution is to only buy from large businesses. I said no such thing. In fact, my advice in the past has been to buy the best deal, however the consumer chooses to define it.

Large corporations embrace local purchasing preference in their own area. I've yet to hear a Maine localist speak against the huge LL Bean corporation based in Freeport. All of their velocity of money arguments work just as well for large companies as well as small - that's why I tend to avoid spending time on that issue.

I do not make the argument that buying locally is a bad thing to do. I do not see it as a sin, but I don't see it as a virtue either. Borders are just imaginary lines, no more relevant to economics as the color of a wallet is to the value of the money inside it.

Levy did manage to reproduce some of my best points, but I wish his responses had been more articulate or meaningful. He never addressed my central claim that he and his ilk are shrugging off hundreds of years of research and replacing it with "common sense" solutions - a mistake known as DIY economics.

It's interesting that he skipped over my take-down of the activist studies localists trumpet. They are a major component of why I insist their movement isn't merely wrong, but actual pseudoscience. This isn't Keynes vs. Hayek, it's Galileo vs. the Catholic Church.

The most puzzling part remains Levy's opening line - that my essay is "making the rounds." It's ironic that I've been writing so much about this issue for the past two years online, and it's the one article I write for Hawkins publication that gets the Internet's attention. That is, assuming my article is being circulated. My Google searches have not turned up some big list of links or comments, and my readership hasn't spiked since TAM 9. I'm curious to how Levy found it, and if it is getting more popular, does that mean the Koch brothers will finally start paying me?


  1. They aren't paying you yet? I've been getting my checks regularly. You should demand back pay.