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April 2013

Bill Moyers neglects to mention a couple of things

Bill Moyers (with Michael Winship) is back with another of his decades-old attacks on the influence of money on Congress. Corporations, banks, the NRA, and the Kochs--well, fingering them is relatively new--are mentioned. But note two things:

1. People spend so much money trying to influence Congress only because Congress is so powerful. Corruption would fall dramatically if Congress did less. (As somebody--I can't find the cite--said, "Nobody spends a lot of money lobbying the local dogcatcher.") While it's a fool's errand to try to convince Liberals of this, their longstanding goal of a government big and powerful enough to do Great Things but uncorrupted by all that dirty money is, logically and empirically, a sheer fantasy. 

2. But perhaps even more important, leaving aside all the allegations about the influence of big, bad corporations, who actually spends the most money trying to influence U.S. politicians? Take a look. And spread the word.

"A Tour of the Federal Budget and Possible Changes in Budget Policy"

Slides from a talk at Harvard by Douglas Elmendorf, Director of the CBO. 

Some points especially worth noting:

"A Growing Share of Federal Spending is Transfers to People and State and Local Governments". 

"Soon, even more spending will be directed toward Social Security and Medicare. Such spending will grow in both nominal and relative terms".

"High and Rising Debt Relative to the Size of the Economy Is a Significant Concern for Several Reasons".

This should have happened earlier in the semester

It would have been an excellent example in two of my classes. I'm referring to the graduate student who tried to replicate the Rogoff and Reinhart paper and found they had made a substantial mistake. The student was working on an assignment for an econometrics course. Here's part of the assignment

The term paper assignment can be in one of two forms: a replication of one empirical econometric paper that interests you, or an original piece of econometric research. Given other demands over the course of the semester, we strongly recommend that you opt for the replication option, which should generally be less demanding than coming up with, estimating and writing an original research paper. At the same time, a replication can be a very illuminating experience . . .

Three comments:

1. Over the last dozen years I've taught undergraduate and graduate tools courses and have also asked the students to do a replication. In a single semester in which they have other courses and other things to do, I absolutely agree that originality should not be stressed. This is because, as should be obvious--but wasn't to my econometrics instructors--it's quite difficult to be original on a timetable. A replication is possibly "doable" and that's vital. 

2. Another advantage of a replication is that any researcher must answer a fundamental question: will anyone else be interested? Replicating a published paper should usually answer that question in the affirmative. 

3. It could be "a very illuminating experience". Indeed! I second that. My students have written authors of published papers for their data or simply to ask a couple of questions and have often been stonewalled. That's a harsh but useful introduction to the world of academic research.