In Other News, Sun to Rise in East

In June 2010, Daniel Klein published a gratuitously silly piece in the Wall Street Journal’s gratuitously silly op-ed section, purporting to show that liberals are stupider than conservatives and libertarians, at least in terms of basic economics. This occasioned some amount of delight among conservatives and libertarians—vide Veronique de Rugy in the reliably obnoxious National Review Online (to be fair, not all conservative pundits fell for it). The “methodology” Klein relied on centered around a series of agree-or-disagree statements, things like “Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited” and “Minimum wage laws raise unemployment,” most of which I would call at best “arguable,” all of which are pretty clearly politically charged in that they challenged various liberal positions, and all of whose “correct” answers were on the conservative/liberal sides of various issues. So, surprise! liberals did worse on the “do I agree with the conservative/liberaltarian author” test than conservatives and liberaltarian.1

To his (relative) credit, Klein eventually realized the problem, and he did a similar exercise with questions slanted the other way (“gun-control laws fail to reduce people’s access to guns”). To what should be no one’s surprise, this time he found that conservatives were the stupid ones. Read about it in the current Atlantic. Klein now thinks what both surveys demonstrate is “myside bias.” Really!

I feel a little sorry for Zeljka Buturovic, Klein’s (possibly more academic) collaborator. According to Klein’s Atlantic article, her goal wasn’t to prove anything about economic literacy, but rather to “[explore] the possibility that ideological differences stem more from differences in people’s beliefs about how the world works than from differences in their basic values.” There might be something to that, although I don’t know how to sort out the causality there (and I haven’t read the journal articles). Since she wasn’t the one who wrote either the WSJ or Atlantic articles, I don’t want to tar her with the same brush. Sorry, Zeljka!

Oh, another annoying thing. The questions and “correct” answers are reported in the most confusing way imaginable. From the Atlantic, citing the questions with the canonically incorrect answers in quotes:

Here’s what we came up with, again with the incorrect response in parentheses: a dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person (disagree); making abortion illegal would increase the number of black-market abortions (disagree); legalizing drugs would give more wealth and power to street gangs and organized crime (agree); drug prohibition fails to reduce people’s access to drugs (agree); gun-control laws fail to reduce people’s access to guns (agree); by participating in the marketplace in the United States, immigrants reduce the economic well-being of American citizens (agree); …

So how many negatives to I have to wade through to figure out what an enlightened person thinks of gun control laws? I’m pretty sure Klein thinks they reduce access to guns (I think that too), but that’s more because that’s what you would ask if your goal is to prove conservatives are wrong than from trying to cancel out the “fail to” and the “incorrect response in parentheses.”


1. For what it’s worth, on the original set of questions I would probably have mostly given the “conservative” answers, but only if “it depends” wasn’t an option, and only if I had inferred the context that would be generally implied from the fact that someone was asking about that particular set of things and using that particular phrasing.


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