Gelman’s Law

by Henry Farrell on April 26, 2018


A quick rule of thumb is that when someone seems to be acting like a jerk, an economist will defend the behavior as being the essence of morality, but when someone seems to be doing something nice, an economist will raise the bar and argue that he’s not being nice at all.

I’ve spotted two instances already on Twitter since seeing this post this morning. See how many you can find!



oldster 04.26.18 at 6:11 pm

But the economists’ behavior is entirely blameless–they’re only maximizing utility, after all.

Whereas that Gelman character–he may sound fair-minded, but I’m sure he’s up to no good.


Ian Maitland 04.26.18 at 6:41 pm

Another example of the penis envy that non-economists feel for economists?


Henry 04.26.18 at 6:50 pm

Another example of the penis envy that non-economists feel for economists?

That’s a remarkably astute observation – Gelman is notoriously intimidated by economists’ quantitative chops (indeed, it’s fair to say that I taught him everything he knows about statistics).


Eric Scharf 04.26.18 at 7:01 pm

Acting out of self-interest is defined as predictable. Accordingly, statisticians prefer selfish norms. See also, traffic engineering.


Mat 04.26.18 at 8:07 pm

Almost everything written on the Adam Smith Institute blog.


mw 04.26.18 at 9:12 pm

To be fair, those are the ‘man bites dog’ cases — ‘Seemingly Nice Person Really Is Nice’, on the other hand, doesn’t make for much a story (though it does almost sound like an Onion headline).


Chet Murthy 04.26.18 at 9:17 pm

I remember a while back (years) on that blog run by Barkley Rosser & Peter Dorman (maybe others?) they had a post describing a number of patterns of behaviour by management/owners that were clearly not profit-maximizing, leaving money on the table in order to smack labor around. These were offered as evidence of “rational utility-maximizing? Not so much.” Wish I could remember anything more than that, so I could search for it ….


TKD 04.27.18 at 4:00 am

Does it count if they are GMU/Mercatus affiliated or is that too easy?


John Quiggin 04.27.18 at 6:36 am

I’m reading a lot of subtweeting hinting at something particularly egregious today, but I haven’t been able to work out what. Can anyone give me a broader hint?


David Steinsaltz 04.27.18 at 8:49 am

This obsessive belief of many economists, expressed by #2, that the rest of the world is staring at their penises, tells you perhaps more about the state of that profession (not to mention its gender dynamics) than even Gelman’s remark, which nominally grapples only with the way economists describe their field to the general public. I’m not sure if Henry’s sarcasm in #3 can do it full justice.

I would suppose that the number of people envious of the ability to comprehend the entire universe as a vast linear regression is likely to be small.


JRLRC 04.27.18 at 2:57 pm

Maitland´s empirical (and groundbreaking!) hypothesis is a perfect example of the scientific nature and power of economists! They are intellectually superior, indeed…


JakeB 04.27.18 at 3:31 pm


There’s something about the mere fact of thinking the universe can be comprehended as a vast linear regression . . . like wearing a tuxedo to a barn dance and thinking that the salient fact is that you’re better dressed than everyone else there . . .


Donald A. Coffin 04.27.18 at 6:26 pm

What I said at Gelman’s place:

Speaking as an economist…
Seems to me that Achatz was doing what he thought was *right*–making it possible for people of modest means to be able to eat the kind of food he prepares–and that doing what is right can very properly be regarded as a part of his “utility function.” The problem with utility maximization as the basis for decision theory is that *any* behavior can be argued to maximize utility, given an appropriate utility function. So I don’t see his pricing strategy as in any way violating some deep theoretical property either of utility functions or of economics. I do think that the entire discussion quite correctly suggests that some of the decision theory used in economics has what one might call a shaky basis.


John Holbo 04.28.18 at 2:43 am

Already been annoyed by one case this morning.


bad Jim 04.28.18 at 7:45 am

A couple of times I’ve been suspicious of people who seemed too nice to be true. Since everyone else thought they were exactly what they seemed, I went along, with reservations, and in both cases they turned out just to be really nice people.


Ebenezer Scrooge 04.28.18 at 8:18 pm

Economists–especially those of a uniform spherical type–have an enormous problem with other-regarding preferences. Their very existence implies that their oh-so-elegant models are worthless. Imperfect information/rationality makes the models messy, but at least is consistent with using the models as a starting point. Other-regarding preferences and endogeneity–they’re Marxism! (And they are.)


Kurt Schuler 04.28.18 at 9:33 pm

Perhaps just examples of a phrase I have seen somewhere — can’t recall at the moment where it might have been — that says something about the crooked timber of humanity?


js. 04.29.18 at 5:40 am

We’re not even talking about a certain robin han-something or other are we?


ph 04.29.18 at 6:50 am

@10 Thank you! So good to know I’m not alone.


Collin Street 04.29.18 at 8:49 am

Economists–especially those of a uniform spherical type–have an enormous problem with other-regarding preferences.

The field — which sets out to essentially explain a whole swathe of apparently-messy social relationships through simple easy-to-follow rules — is notably attractive to… certain personality types. Which personality type also strongly correlates with dogmatism.

[see also libertarianism, which has the same damned problem. Social-conservatism — a place for everyone and everyone in their place — has some of the same attraction.]


bianca steele 04.29.18 at 4:13 pm

The first part of Gelman’s quip is just straightforward theodicy: If you complain about X, the answer is that X is part of the Divine Plan (or in secular terms, is for the best in this best of all possible worlds). Wheels within wheels, it’s obvious you don’t understand.

The second part follows, maybe, from the need not to raise expectations, after all that would lead to complaints.


Fledermaus 04.29.18 at 4:17 pm

The fact that a discipline created a fake Nobel prize to give itself legitimacy should tell you all you need to know about it.


bianca steele 04.29.18 at 4:49 pm

Also, this, from the end of Gelman’s post, is interesting, especially taken together with his mention of Freud:

By having the flexibility of which argument to use in any given setting, you can be unpredictable. Unpredictability is a source of power and can also make you more interesting.

because Freud does, I think lead to a quasi-“statistical” view of society, with a central “norm”-like personality that is expected and boring, and a bunch of more expressive personalities, whose energy levels exceeds the bounds culture tries to place on them, and who can’t be categorized or put in boxes, beyond “it’s wonderful,” or at least “interesting.”

But Jung would probably deny this, and say (1) assuming only a single norm is wrongheaded, but also (2) assuming the ways people can differ from what “norm” there is are *infinite* is also wrongheaded. Those people fall under a number of personality “archetypes”. Of course, Jung was also attracted to Nazism.


JRLRC 04.29.18 at 7:51 pm

Also, the notion that the use of quantitative tools necessarily and automatically produces scientific work and knowledge is a seudoscientific belief -and scientific ignorance. Quantitativism is not the other word for science -and viceversa.


John Quiggin 04.30.18 at 7:17 am

js @10 Clearly, that was it.

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