Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Arguing Economics (and MMT) on the Internet

Since my Forbes.com blog started up, I have spent an inordinate amount of time just responding to comments there and especially on Facebook (where the posts have been linked). I think some of this is completely necessary and productive, but it has already reached the point that several followers of the blog have specifically asked me to stop spending so much time doing that. They would rather read new posts than see me go “for another six rounds of back-and-forth” (according to my friend Jason).

Damn, that’s tough, because on the one hand I completely understand people’s reluctance to accept Post Keynesian economics (a term I prefer to MMT since it encompasses that and more). It requires a major shift away from the “common sense” view that not only feels right, but is reinforced daily by the media and politicians. It takes time and patience to help people make the necessary shift in thinking. However, there are also folks out there who are commenting just to take a break from making pipe bombs in their basement. They have no desire to engage in an honest exchange of ideas, but want to try to force their intellectual will on others. Nothing productive arises from such exchanges. You need to cut your losses and move on.

The problem is how do you do this without appearing either rude or simply unwilling to discuss? Personally, I have to answer someone at least once. I think that as an ambassador of Post Keynesian economics it’s part of the job, if not for the individual in question then for those observing. But–and this is the mistake I have made repeatedly and about which I need to develop more discipline–you have to keep the discussion on target and within a tight analytical framework. Not only does this quickly root out the nuts, it’s actually much more useful in general. Let me interject here that the point of this post is not to show “how to win,” per se. Hey, if we are wrong about something, then we should correct it. But, this isn’t something we are going to find out in a rambling discussion that boils down to repeatedly shouting, “I’m right and you are wrong!”

Here is how I like to frame a discussion, and I start almost every one of my classes by teaching this very thing. It’s a boiled down version of philosophical logic and it starts with the idea that every argument is a series of premises that leads to a conclusion:

P1: Bob is German.
P2. All Germans own at least one hamster.
Therefore: Bob owns at least one hamster.

Every economic model or theory is, in reality, no more than this. Of course, they are typically much more complex and the conclusion of one argument may then become a premise of the next one, and so on. But, this is still the basic structure. I think the most useful thing about conceptualizing it this way is that there are now only two possible errors: either the premises don’t really lead to that conclusion or there are premises that are unwarranted. An argument where the premises do lead to the conclusion is valid; a valid argument whose premises are warranted is cogent. Voila! You don’t agree with my argument? Fair enough. Are you saying that my premises don’t really support my conclusion, or that the premises are unwarranted? Stick to this, and you’ll a) end up with a much more productive discussion and b) drive off those who just want a place to shout out their opinion. Or, if they do hang around, it’s very obvious to the other participants that this individual is not worth engaging.

Take the above argument as an example. I don’t agree with it. Why not? I freely admit that it’s valid. The premises clearly support the conclusion, so the internal logic is fine. But, assuming we have established that Bob is, indeed, German (maybe we can have Donald Trump check on his nationality for us), I seriously doubt that every German owns a hamster. So, in this discussion I would put forward the contention that the argument is valid but not cogent. And now I can spend my time in a focused search for data on German hamster ownership. Say that I discover a 2009 study by the German Society for the Promotion of Hamster Welfare that shows that 12% of all Germans own at least one hamster. I state this, show my source, and on this basis suggest that the argument is not cogent because one of the premises is not warranted. We can now either toss out the argument entirely or amend it based on new information:

P1: Bob is German.
P2. 12% of Germans own at least one hamster.
Therefore: There is a 12% chance that Bob owns at least one hamster.

And it may be that there is a missing premise that affects the argument. Perhaps Bob is my next door neighbor and I know for a fact that he doesn’t own a hamster. Again, the original argument is valid but not cogent. Note that when we are done with the discusison, we are all actually more knowledgeable about the subject than when the conversation began. Furthermore, there is a tight focus without going off onto tangents about gerbils, Swedes, the problems of raising tropical fish, etc. We likely spent much less time on this, but made much more progress.

Unfortunately, this isn’t what usually happens. Instead, arguments jump off from different points simultaneously so that is it very difficult to enforce any structure. As a rule of thumb, I think the person who has laid out the initial argument should get the courtesy of having the subsequent discussion built around what they have said. You don’t agree that money creation is not inflationary? I already laid out my support for this–with what part of my argument do you disagree? Do the premises not lead to the conclusion or are there unwarranted or missing premises? Please be specific and I don’t want to hear a counter-argument yet–there is already one on the table. Of course, if you are critiquing someone else’s view, you should offer them the same courtesy. And no changing the subject until the central question is resolved!

As I suggested above, I actually haven’t been very careful about this and have allowed discussions to wander without any chance of resolution because they aren’t focused on the point. It becomes a process of trotting out a series of contending views, but without any effort to truly evaluate one. This is a waste of time as it obscures rather than illuminates. The advice I am offering you (and me) is to avoid this by gently but firmly insisting on disciplined discourse. Stick to validity and cogency. This is a double-edged sword, of course, so be prepared to admit that you may have made an error! But in the end it saves us all a lot of time and effort and is much more productive. And possibly the biggest plus is that trolls hate this because it requires them to think rather than shout. Plus, maybe I can get some more work done!

16 comments:

Larry Staton Jr. said...

"[B]e prepared to admit that you may have made an error!"

Yes! This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, attributed to Keynes:

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

John Harvey said...

Yeah, I thought about that one as I was writing it!

Well, trying to follow my own advice. Someone commented over at Forbes.com that increasing the debt and deficit as I suggested would, "cause World War III." They seriously said that. Rather than going into all the things they said that I thought were pretty nutty, I asked them to focus on one part of their argument that disagreed with mine, telling me what part of the latter troubled them: the internal logic or the premises?

We'll see if this saves me several hours of typing or not.

pgomez said...

Just my $.02: Respond to no one directly, other than perhaps to get people to clarify what specifically they have a problem with. Then, if you think it's worth discussing, address it in either an article or blog post.

But keep publishing and moving forward!

John Harvey said...

Yeah, that's what the friend I cited here said, and I know that makes sense but I have a tough time doing it. I'll see if I can harden myself to ignoring people! Well, not people, idiots!

John Harvey said...

Another of my friends suggested something time-saving:

"I like the suggestion...that instead of replying to each individual comment, to condense the comments/questions/answers to one post. It makes it easier for us readers too, to read all of the comments and questions, then find all of the answers in one place" (Becky).

Not a bad idea.

Tom Hickey said...

John, I've been around the blogosphere for some time, on the political blogs as well as economic ones. The political ones are a lot more intense and one learns quickly to distinguish the trolls and nut cases from the ernest inquirer and sincere objector. "Don't feed the trolls" and "ignore the nut cases." Waste of time.

But it is worthwhile engaging ernest inquiry and sincere objection. The way Bill Mitchell and Warren Mosler handle it is to refer to their previous work. One can also send them to other resources. I am hoping that the MMT wiki that is starting up will be a FAQ sheet for this. What I do is keep a file of answers to common questions and objections and just cut and paste.

Most questions have been asked and most objections already made, and they have been answered. It's just a matter of assembling the references.

Becky said...

I'm an efficiency expert. Ha!

Oh, but the comment was to address it in a new article or blog post (#3 from pgomez over there) not in the comment section, but either way works.

Mario said...

I totally agree with your logical approach to discussions and to finishing original threads of thought and argument and NOT jump around here there and everywhere while never completing one single thought anywhere.

I completely agree. We work along the same logical lines and that is great. I wish more people would do that...quite Socratic in fact...a man I truly love, respect, and admire.

Keep it up!! You can't please everybody. Post more or blog more...either way you're getting the info out there and it's great to read your stuff. Cheers and good luck with it! I am sure you'll find a happy balance somewhere in there. ;)

rvm said...

Tom Hickey:

"Most questions have been asked and most objections already made, and they have been answered. It's just a matter of assembling the references."


MMT fighters desperately need such reference book.

Anonymous said...

I wish more people had your solid head on their shoulders, John.

Senexx/AusMMT

John Harvey said...

Thanks all (and hi Becky!). I guess we all have to find the balance that is right for us. Me, I'm going to pretty much have to respond, but I'll try to be more brief and just point people to the right place--and force myself to not let people squirm out from underneath dealing with the logical construction of the argument!

Crake said...

Side comment and sorry if this causes a tangent but I like to point this out since almost everyone accept the premise that the internet expands knowledge gathering.

I am not completely bullish on the internet for knowledge/learning. Yes, it is an extremely valuable tool for research/learning but I think a majority of casual users, especially in developed nations, mainly use it to reinforce their world views. In that effort, I think it has closed-shut as many minds as it has opened.

Tom Hickey said...

Confirmation basis is not unique to the internet.

Mario said...

agreed Tom...and in my experience the internet has totally expanded my horizons and taught me many, many things I had never known before.

It's more the person than the system/technology in that regard.

Mark said...

I second the need for greater reference material, particularly academic.

From my perspective as a current economics undergrad:

I find that Post Keynesian economics is very inaccessible to students. There's a huge barrier to understand and appreciating Post Keynesian literature. It requires a significant amount of time going through the various books, navigating your way through the various 'differences' and debates. This is only made more difficult by the fact that in the last twenty years there's been (at least to me) somewhat of a resurgence, plus more debate (structuralists versus horizontalists; Davidson and King who should be included as a Post keynesian; responses to MMT). On top of all of this you have to make sure that you're understanding mainstream economics and getting good grades; and you can understand why a lot of students can be put off.

There needs to be a definitive work, or reference list that a student can go through. (the grad program from UMKC which was posted on Mosler's site is helpful. I will be going through that). What I have been doing is hopping from book to book; I read one book, write down some references and read other books, or I search for a Post Keynesian and note down their publication list.

regards blogging styles:

What I don't like about Bill's approach is that he doesn't spend enough time responding in the comments section. A lot of genuine answers go unanswered there.

Mosler's website is a nightmare to navigate and read. I can understand why some people find it confusing.

What I find when I discuss MMT on the internet, is that most responds will either be Austrian inclined, or mainstream (referring to textbooks, etc). The debate nearly always gets down to banking (are banks constrained by their reserve balance), or some other foundational assumption, and then no one will budge. Just look at Mosler's exchange over at mises.org.

Apologies for the rant. Just needed to let off some steam.

Mark said...

I second the need for greater reference material, particularly academic.

From my perspective as a current economics undergrad:

I find that Post Keynesian economics is very inaccessible to students. There's a huge barrier to understand and appreciating Post Keynesian literature. It requires a significant amount of time going through the various books, navigating your way through the various 'differences' and debates. This is only made more difficult by the fact that in the last twenty years there's been (at least to me) somewhat of a resurgence, plus more debate (structuralists versus horizontalists; Davidson and King who should be included as a Post keynesian; responses to MMT). On top of all of this you have to make sure that you're understanding mainstream economics and getting good grades; and you can understand why a lot of students can be put off.

There needs to be a definitive work, or reference list that a student can go through. (the grad program from UMKC which was posted on Mosler's site is helpful. I will be going through that). What I have been doing is hopping from book to book; I read one book, write down some references and read other books, or I search for a Post Keynesian and note down their publication list.

regards blogging styles:

What I don't like about Bill's approach is that he doesn't spend enough time responding in the comments section. A lot of genuine answers go unanswered there.

Mosler's website is a nightmare to navigate and read. I can understand why some people find it confusing.

What I find when I discuss MMT on the internet, is that most responds will either be Austrian inclined, or mainstream (referring to textbooks, etc). The debate nearly always gets down to banking (are banks constrained by their reserve balance), or some other foundational assumption, and then no one will budge. Just look at Mosler's exchange over at mises.org.


Apologies for the rant. Just needed to let off some steam. BTW you guys are doing a great job, in roads are definitely being made. MMT is particularly difficult to get, considering it is the opposite of conventional wisdom.