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December 07, 2006

Where David Card Is

David Card, who with Alan Krueger, authored a very important study showing minimum wage increases don't cause the employment dislocation you'd expect, writes:

I think economists who objected to our work were upset by the thought that we were giving free rein to people who wanted to set wages everywhere at any possible level. And that wasn't at all the spirit of what we actually said. In fact, nowhere in the book or in other writing did I ever propose raising the minimum wage. I try to stay out of political arguments.[...]

I've subsequently stayed away from the minimum wage literature for a number of reasons. First, it cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole.

Well isn't that rough? He authored an important piece of economics research with distinct conclusions whose validity he defends, various conservative economists disliked the results, and so he abandoned the argument. Meanwhile, Greg Mankiw is doing everything but a whistle stop tour of the country in favor of a gas tax.

Milton Friedman understood that intellectuals had a public responsibility. They were not merely beholden to their data, but to popularizing it, and convincing the country of it. Meanwhile, at the precise moment the left -- and the country -- needs an eloquent, smart labor economist like David Card, he's made a conscious decision to keep his head down. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post wondering about the overrepresentation of rightwing economists in the public debate. I titled it, "Where art thou, David Card?" Now we know.

Update: I should probably mention that the interview is a really interesting discussion, with lots of important data on everything from education to inequality to the male-female wage gap. Folks should read it. Sure be nice if Card were willing to say the same things in more public forums, though.

December 7, 2006 | Permalink


Seems he found out who his true friends were. The value of a false friend is zero, or less.

Posted by: Guy Montag | Dec 7, 2006 12:26:52 PM

so he abandoned the argument

He says he was never in the political (prescriptive) argument, and implies a reason:

I think that people have a legitimate concern about researchers who are essentially conducting advocacy work. I try to stay away from advocacy of any kind, but that doesn't prevent people from being suspicious that I have an agenda of some kind.

He goes on to explain that he abandoned the descriptive argument over minimum wage effects in part because

I also thought it was a good idea to move on and let others pursue the work in this area. You don't want to get stuck in a position where you're essentially defending your old research.

Like many scientists, he probably feels he serves the public better by staying out of the prescriptive political fray, by just producing accurate descriptive work that can be regarded as unbiased.

I see your point, Ezra, but I see what I take to be his perspective too. Possibly we can use both kinds of scientists, those who give up any claims to lack of political bias and act as advocates, and those who try hard to avoid both the substance and appearance of such bias.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 7, 2006 12:32:29 PM

I find it a staggering opinion that advocating the results of a methodologically rigorous survey is now considered "politically biased." It would've been nice had David Card, author of the landmark study on the subject, penned an NY Times op-ed on the minimum wage during the recent debate. That would've been informative to the public.

Now, you can argue that his study was bad, and thus he shouldn't try and push it, but if that's not what you (and it's not what he) believes, I think he has a responsibility to get his hands a little dirty. Others, of course, can disagree.

Posted by: Ezra | Dec 7, 2006 12:35:38 PM

The problem is campus peer-review thought control. It's the most important element in the life of an academic. What Card needs to do is move away from the university, get off campus and start living life.

Posted by: Slothrop | Dec 7, 2006 12:55:19 PM

This problem highlights a difference in left/right motives. The Right already knows what it wants, and simply wants to implement it. To them, politics isn't about persuation, it's about winning and ruling. So anything goes in discrediting the opposition. The Left simply isn't interested in this game. They are trying to figure out want they want through study and reason. The only way you can get Left intellectuals to play is to have some referees who would declare the irrational tactics of the Right to be be out of bounds. But that's never going to happen. Until there is more outrage at the way the Right plays the game, Left intellectuals are not going to play as much as they are needed.

Posted by: trb456 | Dec 7, 2006 1:05:02 PM

There are a couple related issues here.

I find it a staggering opinion that advocating the results of a methodologically rigorous survey is now considered "politically biased."

I'm not sure who you intend to attribute this opinion to. What Card apparently believes is that getting involved in the political debate will make him appear to be biased and raise the danger of actual bias. I think that's true. Once we start advocating political views, our position changes from one of observer, and that can and often does accentuate bias, and people recognize this. This doesn't mean that all political advocates suffer from significant harmful bias, but the increased risk is there.

The other question is whether scientists should accept these increased risks and be advocates. It's easy for me to see the advantages of having a group of people who, like judges, can be regarded as professionally obligated to maintain both the substance and appearance of lack of bias in giving us information. Journalists generally try to do this as well. I don't see any obviously superior way to balance the conflicting ideals that apply. Some just announce their biases, some feel free to be advocates, and some put the highest value on trying to maintain the appearance and substance of lack of bias. Each way has its benefits and costs.

I can't fault Card for his choice, especially since his work is there for any advocate to draw on. A division of labor makes sense to me.

TRB, I hear this about how the Left is so good and true and the Right so bad and false all the time on liberal blogs, but I've yet to see much of a difference in practice. Conservative scholars get at least their full share of nonrational crap from their liberal colleagues, who don't play nice either.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 7, 2006 1:26:21 PM

"They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole. "

The people that thought this are frauds and should be shunned. If economics is a science about hard data and rigorous studies then a piece of work that challenges the status quo should be celebrated and analyzed. Instead, it's thrown out as being traitorous. The "economics" these people practice isn't a science, it's blatant right wing ideology garbage hiding behind a bunch of doctorates.

Posted by: jf | Dec 7, 2006 1:30:19 PM

Slothrop: Peer-review thought control is real enough for most academics, but Card has broken through that ceiling. He'll never have trouble getting invited to conferences or getting his stuff into journals. That's why so many people think he should apply some of this freedom to speaking out on current issues.

Posted by: Stuart Eugene Thiel | Dec 7, 2006 1:34:25 PM

I did not say "the Left is so good and true and the Right so bad and false". I said that the Left is more interested in figuring out want it wants, and the Right is more interested in implementing want it already knows it wants. If you deny this, you simply aren't paying attention. The Right dismisses science it does not like (not provide counter-science, but DISMISSES science as "junk"), "makes its own political realities" (from that imfamous anonymous Bush official), engages in far more attacks to discredit people rather than ideas, and on and on. If you can't agree to this baseline, we simply can't agree.

Your argument above is quite correct, but too many on the Right couldn't care less if they appear biased. And more people on the Left do care (thus the false "balance" of the left-leaning media but not on Fox). We are playing completely different games under completely different axioms about what's just and fair.

Posted by: trb456 | Dec 7, 2006 1:36:27 PM

In Arjo Klamer's "Conversations with Economists" there's an interview wiyj Leonard Rapping. During the Vietnam War Rapping, who had already made a significant contribution to economics and was tenured at a top school, came to oppose the war. The way he describes it, it became impossible for him to continue as an economist; he wasn't supposed to involve himself in politics on that side of the fence, no one would listen to him, and within his science he had no way at all of talking about the issues involved -- they was basically defined out of economics. He went into a 6-year depression, quit his job, got divorced, and only gradually recovered.

Rapping accuses no one of discrimination or abuse and his job was safe, but it was clear from what he said that economics had no place for him after he became anti-war, and that he was being shunned.

Posted by: John Emerson | Dec 7, 2006 2:12:37 PM

I should just add that with Rapping it wasn't a purism, "division of labor" thing at all -- it was an ideology thing. Economists who involved themselves in the right kind of politics did not have the problems Rapping did.

Card understood who he was dealing with, and his study was an economic heresy. "It lost me a lot of friends" tells you what kind of shunning Rapping was facing. So Card caved in and kept his mouth shut. He probably wishes that he never did his study.

Posted by: John Emerson | Dec 7, 2006 2:20:26 PM

I did not say "the Left is so good and true and the Right so bad and false". I said that the Left is more interested in figuring out want it wants, and the Right is more interested in implementing want it already knows it wants.

TRB, you also said that for the Right "anything goes" and that their tactics are irrational, and you contrast this to the Left. I take the things you attribute to the Right to imply what is bad and false in this context, and the contrast to imply what Left stands for to be good and true. Not sure why you take issue with my restatement.

I do deny your claims, and I do pay attention. Dismissing science one doesn't like isn't reserved to the Right; the same kind of thing can be seen in environmental science, for example, on the Left. The anonymous Bush official isn't a representative of the Right as a whole, and to what extent he accurately describes the Bush Administration is open to question. (Suskind's piece on this is a model of bias of the kind that comes from starting with an idea and then stringing together only what supports it--ironic, given his subject.) I don't see the evidence for the Right attacking people more than the Left either. Especially not on liberal blogs, where the personalities on the Right are savaged daily (fortunately not so much here as at other blogs, but here often enough). There is no "false balance" on Air America or Pacifica, nor is there sufficient real balance in most of the non-news programming from PBS (radio and television). I think this is all more mixed and complex than you make it out to be.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 7, 2006 2:25:14 PM

So Card caved in and kept his mouth shut. He probably wishes that he never did his study.

Both comments overlook what he actually said.

Again, conservatives have also faced such pressures. Academia remains dominated by liberals.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 7, 2006 2:33:15 PM

What I did: askd hard kweschin

What happened because I did what I did: kant go to xmas party wit mi perfesser frends at u chi.

What I should have done: cep my mouf shut.

What would have happened if I had done what I should have done:

dean of econ department giv me turkee

Posted by: David Card | Dec 7, 2006 2:33:53 PM

I'm fascinated by the light Card's comments shed on the internal policing of the economics discipline in the US. Card's experience implies that if you ask the wrong questions -- even if, and perhaps especially if you ask them rigorously and get sound answers -- you will be ostracized.

Every discipline has norms of inquiry. However my sense of economics is that those norms are driven to a significant extent by policy implications rather than scientific rigor or internal theoretical issues -- i.e. economics is driven by political ideology. Card's comments provide some support for that view.

Also unlike the norms of inquiry in many disciplines (e.g. physics, population biology, etc.) these political norms are covert -- most respectable economists will deny they exist and / or pretend that the judgements involved really spring from valid theoretical motivations. However they will refuse to honestly debate the claimed theoretical assumptions.

One of the few fairly explicit expressions of these norms was the recent attempt to define "real economists" as those who agree to a specific theoretical catechism (unfortunately the cafe Hayek site isn't accessible so I can't get the exact link).

Posted by: Jed Harris | Dec 7, 2006 2:44:48 PM

Well this is in fact the reason for tenure. And teh reason to deny tenure to people like Card.

Posted by: jerry | Dec 7, 2006 2:48:11 PM

Sorry, link problem was mine, not Cafe Hayek. "Real economist" post is here

Note that this was in response to a petition advocating the minimum wage but that rather than taking up the policy argument, their response was to define those who sign the petition as not "real economists" and to define some articles of faith that one has to agree to to be a "real economist". Welcome to faith based economics.

Posted by: Jed Harris | Dec 7, 2006 2:51:04 PM

I think everyone is missing what Card actually said in the interview. All he wanted to do was to study how labor markets actually work testing the textbook case of economic thory of how price floors would affect employment and published his results.

Faulting Card for then not pushing & hustling his study around & advocating assumes he was an interested party. The minimum wage is ultimately a political value & question, not an empirical one, and would be regardless of the conclusions of Card's study. I.E. even if the Minimum Wage had adverse effects on employment as predicted, who's to say the rise in unemployment matters more than the increased wages for workers who remain employed? If the MW didn't affect employment much, why would Card then be expected to adovcate for it? Maybe Card objects on moral grounds to Government deciding what Businesses have to pay their workers? We don't know.

The Card & Krueger study is the single most influential study on the Minimum Wage and has been the core of the Minimum Wage advocate's intellectual case for the last ten years. It's the main thorn in the side of would be MW detractors on the right citing price floor theory, and it is so precisely because Card & Krueger are extremely smart guys and not viewed as hacks pushing politically motivated policy. It's hard to argue that David Card's work would be MORE influential if he had instead embarked on a media crusade to hawk his work, or had narrowly focused on price ceilings his whole academic career.

Some people aren't "public intellectuals", some are just happy being scientists. Ezra seems to think that these men are only as valuable as the efforts they provide to put intellectual muscle behind his preferred political outcomes, which is a small, disrespectful view if not downright creepy. It's precisely because he doesen't do this that David Card is universally revered as one of the ten smartest individuals working in his field, and the reason he (and Alan Krueger) are ultimately more trusted than the guys who work at Cato or EPI.

Posted by: DRR | Dec 7, 2006 2:51:22 PM

Meanwhile, Greg Mankiw is doing everything but a whistle stop tour of the country in favor of a gas tax.

What does this have to do with anything?

Posted by: Anono | Dec 7, 2006 3:26:20 PM

The supposed purism about economists in politics does not apply to conservative economists.

When Card said "First, it cost me a lot of friends" it tells us all we need to know. Even though he didn't get involved in the politics, and even though he didn't produce bad science, he lost a lot of friends because his valid scientific results were politically displeasing to people in his profession. Think what would have happened if he'd followed Rapping's example (which he may well have known about -- Kluwer's book was published in 1983.)

DRR and SanPete are just in denial. they're grasping at straws. No one should listen to them. They accuse others, but they're the ones who aren't paying attention to what Card said.

Posted by: John Emerson | Dec 7, 2006 3:31:35 PM

That's beautiful that it's the left who doesn't pay attention to environmental science. That's a bold statement.

Posted by: eriks | Dec 7, 2006 3:55:41 PM

If William Harvey in 1628(!) had been a little more vocal about as an advocate for an end to blood-letting, it might have saved a lot of lives, George Washington included. It's not that scientists need to be political, it's that letting people suffer unjustly when you are uniquely qualified to contribute to the debate is rather shameful.

Yes, Card published his paper which was the most important step. But it would be even better if he fought to see what he discovered implemented, not just let the advocates of today's blood-letting equivalent prevail. Their arguments against the minimum wage are very rational, have broad support, but are very wrong and are making thousands suffer every day.

Posted by: Sam L. | Dec 7, 2006 4:01:11 PM

To summarize some of the above, the criticism isn't that Card is not sufficiently ideologically minded, it's that he backed off of his legitmately scientific empirical research in the face of attacks and ostracism by those who do carry ideological chips on their shoulders.

It's just a shame that Card would see so little value in "defending [his] own research," because that's exactly what is required for good science to triumph over bad.

Posted by: Dan | Dec 7, 2006 4:58:05 PM

"DRR and SanPete are just in denial. they're grasping at straws. No one should listen to them. They accuse others, but they're the ones who aren't paying attention to what Card said."

Excuse me?

What am I in denial of?

What am I grasping at?

What am I accusing others of?

What did David Card "really" say?

Posted by: DRR | Dec 7, 2006 5:03:26 PM

He really said that his valid scientific results were politically unacceptable to his fellow economists, and that they shunned him for this reason ("I lost a lot of friends"), and that for that reason, among others, he did not involve himself in the political discussion of the minimum wage question.

you accused other people of not understanding what Card said. But it's you who didn't understand. You foolishly claimed that Card stayed out of the political battle because of academic purism or some such reason, but that is false. It was clear from what he said that he was intimidated by the presumably unorganized, but overwhelming rejection of his valid work by the great majority of his ideologically conservative colleagues.

Posted by: John Emerson | Dec 7, 2006 5:15:24 PM

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