How to think about “think” tanks

Kady O'Malley Tweet on Think Tanks 1

It is sometimes said that think tanks are good for democracy; indeed the more of them, the better. If there are more ideas in the public arena battling it out for your approval, then it’s more likely that the best idea will win, and that we will all have better public policies. But intuitively many of us have trouble believing this, have trouble knowing who is being truthful, and don’t know who to trust.

This battle of ideas, studies, and statistics has the potential to make many of us cynical about the whole process, and less trusting of all research and numbers. If a knowledgeable journalist like the Canadian Kady O’Malley expresses a certain exasperation that think-tank studies always back up “the think-tank’s existing position,” what hope is there for the rest of us? A flourishing of think tanks just let’s politicians off the hook, always allowing them to pluck an idea that suits their purposes, and making it easier to justify what they wanted to do anyways.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that think tanks produce studies confirming their (sometimes hidden) biases. After all this is something we all do. We need to arm ourselves with this self-awareness. If we do, then we can also be more aware of the things in a think tank’s make-up that can help in judging its credibility, and also how public policy discussion should be structured to help promote a sincere exchange of facts and ideas.

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The Economics of the Great Gatsby Curve: a picture is worth a thousand words

A quick post to thank Scott Winship for his response to my feedback on his original article. His comments are now on the National Review web site.

But I am afraid they do not advance the discussion. I addressed all of the technical issues in my original paper (see the appendix). The internationally comparable estimates I offered account for these concerns.

But let me repeat the picture of the Great Gatsby Curve using the most recent information on the largest available set of countries.

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The Economics of the Great Gatsby Curve

In an article on the Brookings Institution website that was originally posted by the National Review, Scott Winship questions the idea that greater inequality at a point in time is associated with less generational mobility over time — what the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Alan Krueger, called the “Great Gatsby Curve” in a speech given on January 12th.

Winship’s article does a disservice to a well-established literature on generational mobility by suggesting that the basic information Krueger used is in some sense invalid. Krueger’s Great Gatsby Curve is in fact well-rooted in the labour economics literature, and debate would be better placed addressing the policy implications he draws than to suggest that President Obama’s top economist feels compelled to create his own facts.

So in the spirit of moving evidence-based public policy forward here is a quick review of the underpinning of the Great Gatsby Curve in both theory and practice.

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Inequality and Occupy Wall Street 5: decline of the American Dream

There is nothing wrong with inequality … until it starts limiting opportunity.

Well that might be a bit too strongly put, but it is certainly one thing to live in an unequal society where the chances of changing places with the rich, of seeing your children move on and upward, are high. Indeed, if this is the case we may even want a certain degree of inequality: people would have both the incentive and the possibility to better their situation.

But it is another thing altogether to live in an unequal society where there is little chance of moving on, where there are barriers preventing our talents and energies from being rewarded, where the accident of birth determines a child’s life chances.

This type of inequality should worry Occupiers and the 99% because it cuts sharply against what we commonly understand to be the American Dream.

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