Economics — Monarch of All Its Surveys

May 27, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1950s,, psychoanalysts ruled. Whatever the social issue, writers for high-brow journals could easily find at least a few psychoanalysts eager to assess the problem, its causes, and perhaps its solutions.. Seems hard to believe now. After all, aside from the occasional patient, they had little experience with juvenile delinquency or comic book readers or racial discrimination. Yet psychoanalysts could apply their theories and techniques to any area of human behavior. 

Today, the same can be said of economists.

The Niskanen Center, which is concerned mostly with public policy, recently posed three questions on crime to a panel of sixty-six academics they designate as experts. [UPDATE: Niskanen did not conduct this survey. They did publish it on their Website. See Greg Newburn's clarification in the comment below.] They were asked their level of agreement or disagreement.

1: Increasing police budgets will improve public safety.
2: Increasing social service budgets (e.g. housing, health, education) will improve public safety.
3: Increasing accountability for police misconduct will improve public safety

The report, “Policing and public safety: What do the experts think?” is here. The panel of experts is dominated by economists, Forty-eight of the sixty-six have a Ph..D. in economics. The other degrees come from departments like public policy, criminology or criminal justice, government, and sociology.

The experts include no ethnographers or anthropologists and no cops.

Several of the experts added comments to their Likert-scale agreement or disagreement. Many of the comments say, it depends. That is, it depends on what really goes on. It depends on how the policy is actually put into practice on the ground

Would increasing police budgets matter? 

 “I think increased funds going to the right places could help, but blanket increases are unlikely to do so.” (Jillian Carr, Ph.D, Economics, Texas A&M)
Increasing social service budgets? 

“My hunch (based on existing research) is that we dramatically underinvest in such programs from a public safety perspective. But not all programs are effective, so we still have a lot of work to do to figure out exactly which programs should get more funding and how to scale them.” (Jennifer Doleac , Ph.D, Economics, Stanford)
It reminded me of an article by Robert Martinson that was influential back when I was in the crim biz. The title was “What Works?” (1974). It was a sort of meta-analysis of prison rehabilitation programs. Many people misread the article as saying that the answer was Nothing. Nothing works. But what Martinson actually found was that some programs did work, and others did not. The trouble was that nothing in the structure or method of a program predicted its success or failure.

To understand why programs worked or not, you had to get inside the program. You had to look at how the people involved actually did their jobs. In short, you needed an ethnographer watching and listening, not an economist running the regressions.

The sixty-six Niskanen experts are all really smart people — the universities where they got degrees and are currently employed are all top tier — and they know a lot. But I would guess that few of them, especially the economists, have a thorough street-level knowledge of cops, communities, or criminals.

A wise comment by Jens Ludwig (Ph.D, Economics) says, indirectly, the same thing.
“There are good conceptual reasons for thinking that improved accountability (if we can figure out how to do that) could improve community trust in police, which would have all sorts of public safety benefits. We don't have a lot of rigorous studies documenting that at this point in time but we do have some suggestive case studies.”
I wonder how many of the people who did those case studies were considered experts whose opinions were worthy of the Niskanen Center.


Greg Newburn said...

Thanks for this comment! To clear up any confusion - and if our piece was unclear I apologize - the Criminal Justice Expert Panel is not a Niskanen Center project. Niskanen didn't choose the experts or write the questions. In fact, we have no input about the process at all! We ran a piece that summarized the results of the first survey because we think the project is very interesting and useful (and because we're big fans of Profs. Doleac and Harvey), but CJEP is a joint project of the Justice Tech Lab at NYU and the Public Safety Lab at TAMU. (I do wish I'd thought of it first though!)

Andrew Gelman said...

As I wrote a few years ago, economics now is like Freudian psychology in the 1950s: Back then, Freudian psychiatrists were on the top of the world. Not only were they well paid, well respected, and secure in their theoretical foundations, they were also at the center of many important conversations. Even those people who disagreed with them felt the need to explain why the Freudians were wrong. Freudian ideas were essential, leaders in that field were national authorities, and students of Freudian theory and methods could feel that they were initiates in a grand tradition, a priesthood if you will. Freudians felt that, unlike just about everybody else, they treated human beings scientifically and dispassionately. What’s more, Freudians prided themselves on their boldness, their willingness to go beyond taboos to get to the essential truths of human nature.

Jay Livingston said...

Andrew, I did not remember your post from nine years ago,but obviously I agree with it. You pointed out the contradictions of economics arrogance. I was merely calling attention to the arrogance itself and its possible shortcomings.