I’ve never really disputed the perception that economists are socially awkward/eccentric/autistic/etc., myself included to some degree. Personally, I have a particular knack for completely ruining jokes by adding something of the form “actually, *insert random fact here that indicates that the joke is technically incorrect*.” I’m a joy to have at cocktail parties, really. (If you are unfamiliar with this sort of behavior, watch a few episodes of Bones and you will see what I’m talking about.)
As it turns out, economists fact-check not only jokes but also political speeches in this way. During his speech on Monday, John Boehner said, “I’ve always believed the bigger the government, the smaller the people.” He should have known better than to make such flowery metaphorical statements, since the literal interpretation of the statement got economists all in a tizzy.
Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic appears to have gotten the ball rolling with the following tweet:
I find this interesting if for no other reason than I now know that people are really tall in the Netherlands. (Insert joke here about having to be tall to make up for living below sea level.) If economists were normal people, the discussion would probably end there…but they aren’t, so Ezra Klein had his researcher make a graph of, roughly speaking, government size versus height. Guess what it shows?
Now, we don’t know a whole lot about causality here, but, in any case, it doesn’t appear as though bigger government makes for smaller people. If I were to go out on a limb, I would venture to (absurdly) guess that tall people listened to economists and decided that it’s efficient for them to pay higher taxes than shorter people:
Should the income tax system include a tax credit for short taxpayers and a tax surcharge for tall ones? This paper shows that the standard Utilitarian framework for tax policy analysis answers this question in the affirmative. Moreover, based on the empirical distribution of height and wages, the optimal height tax is substantial: a tall person earning $50,000 should pay about $4,500 more in taxes than a short person earning the same income. This result has two possible interpretations. One interpretation is that individual attributes correlated with wages, such as height, should be considered more widely for determining tax liabilities. Alternatively, if policies such as a tax on height are rejected, then the standard Utilitarian framework must in some way fail to capture our intuitive notions of distributive justice.
Have we taken this too far yet? Don’t even get me started on the link between penis size and economic growth.
In actual fact-checking news, Catherine Rampell over at the New York Times highlights Boehner’s shaky grasp on history. Apparently he referred to “a national debt that has gotten so out of hand it has sparked a crisis without precedent in my lifetime or yours.” That’s all well and good, except that it’s not true:
The wording is a little ambiguous, but it appears that the “crisis without precedent in my lifetime or yours” refers to the current stalemate over the debt ceiling and the resulting threat of default.
With all due respect to Mr. Boehner, there is a precedent for this, and it was in his lifetime.
Mr. Boehner was born in 1949. In 1979 there was a showdown over raising the debt ceiling, and the country came within hours (not days) of defaulting on its obligations. In fact it actually did temporarily default on some of its obligations, although that seems to have been because of technical difficulties because discussions ran so close to the wire.
Hell, that was even almost in *my* lifetime. The “was never intended to be a factual statement” line might fly for the flowery metaphor, but not so much for this one. How can we learn from history if people don’t even bother to see if a relevant history exists?