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Could someone please lock this guy and Niall Ferguson in a room together?

Jeffrey Frankel, identified as a former member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, writes (link from here):

As a rule, one should judge people on their merits, not on the supposed attributes of the racial, socioeconomic, or geographic groups to which they belong. Yet statistical relationships sometimes are so strong that it is worth pondering their significance. . . .

The unspoken truth is that, compared to “blue-staters,” those who live in red states exhibit less responsibility, on average, in their personal behavior: they are less physically fit, less careful in their sexual behavior, more prone to inflict harm on themselves and others through smoking and drinking, and more likely to receive federal subsidies.

An unspoken truth, huh? Wow, that really sucks! Something should be done about it. Good thing that this Harvard professor and former member of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors is on the case:

Statistical analysis shows that states where more residents suffer from obesity, often because they get less physical exercise and eat more junk food, tend to vote Republican. To illustrate, a mere 1% decrease in a state’s obesity on average is estimated to raise the ratio of Democratic to Republican voters from 1.00 to 1.07, easily enough to swing an election.

Aaahhhh, this explains why Republicans support sugar subsidies. It’s for the votes! And Frankel’s not kidding. Every time I eat a jelly doughnut, I feel a little bit more Republican.

Frankel continues:

Blue-state residents, who tend to be more educated and have higher incomes than residents of red states, have refrained from suggesting that their red-states compatriots exhibit behavior that falls short of the conservative rhetoric of personal responsibility.

It’s a good thing he established right at the beginning his belief that “as a rule, one should judge people on their merits, not on the supposed attributes of the racial, socioeconomic, or geographic groups to which they belong.” Otherwise I might think he was judging people based on some combination of their political affiliation and their state of residence, and that wouldn’t be good at all!

I assume the Clinton administration didn’t just hire anybody to be on the Council of Economic Advisors. I took a look at this guy’s C.V. and he seems to be an expert on international trade. So maybe it makes sense that he doesn’t understand U.S. politics. After all, I’m an expert on U.S. politics and I don’t know anything about international trade!

The difference is, I know I don’t know anything about international trade. Based on this column, Frankel doesn’t seem to realize he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’d just loooove to see him and Niall Ferguson together in one place (somewhere at Harvard, I assume) throwing statistics at each other. We could record it and put it on C-Span.

P.S. Yeah, I know, I know, it would’ve been more politic of me to play this straight rather than to mock. OK, let me try again.

Jeffrey Frankel, a distinguished economist, public servant, and expert on international trade, made a common but, I hope, avoidable statistical error in a recent column. Frankel wrote:

Compared to “blue-staters,” those who live in red states exhibit less responsibility, on average, in their personal behavior: they are less physically fit, less careful in their sexual behavior, more prone to inflict harm on themselves and others through smoking and drinking, and more likely to receive federal subsidies . . . Blue-state residents, who tend to be more educated and have higher incomes than residents of red states . . .

This is all fine, but Frankel is making a common, and important, mistake, which one might call “personifying the states.” In fact, as we describe in detail in our book Red State Blue State, differences between state averages do not necessarily reflect individual differences. For example, blue state residents have higher incomes, on average, than red state residents; but Democratic (“blue”) voters are poorer, on average, than Republican (“red”) voters. Even Mitt Romney knows that!

Similarly, it is misleading to write, “Statistical analysis shows that states where more residents suffer from obesity, often because they get less physical exercise and eat more junk food, tend to vote Republican. To illustrate, a mere 1% decrease in a state’s obesity on average is estimated to raise the ratio of Democratic to Republican voters from 1.00 to 1.07″—an argument that conflates individuals and states and confuses correlation with causation.

Frankel’s mistake is an easy one to make; others who have confused state-level with aggregate patterns include respected commentators Nicholas Kristof, Michael Barone, and Tucker Carlson. Seeing this mistake made by a leading scholar and former member of the Council of Economic Advisors has motivated me to post on this topic once again.

You see—that wasn’t so hard to write! And it’s much better than the sarcastic version. Now Frankel will want to be my friend rather than hating my guts (although, to be fair, when commenters mocked my own ignorance recently, I actually appreciated the help, I didn’t hate their guts at all, so maybe Frankel will react the same way). I think I’ll post the polite version on the Monkey Cage, that’s the blog the pundits all read anyway.

6 Comments

  1. Manoel Galdino says:

    The only part of the polite version that I actually liked was this: “Even Mitt Romney knows that!”

    I prefer the mock version (specially liked “Aaahhhh, this explains why Republicans support sugar subsidies. It’s for the votes!”)
    Manoel

  2. Matthew Kahn says:

    Hi Andrew,

    You are right that many applied economists should take a second look at the ecological inference problem. At least in the case of household electricity consumption for 1 electric utility in California, Dora Costa and I document that liberals and conservatives do have differential consumption patterns with liberals consuming roughly 10% less than conservatives (holding constant a set of standard socio-economic and housing variables).

    Here is the link http://ideas.repec.org/p/nbr/nberwo/15978.html

    best, matt

    • zbicyclist says:

      I’m tired of people who make a point about the morality or correctness of an unrelated argument from the average of the people holding it. For example, does the fact that the rate of obesity among Republicans is higher have much of anything to do with the merits of Paul Ryan’s tax proposals?

      Another example: should we have rejected the arguments of Martin Luther King because the people who he was leading were, on average, poorer, less well educated, and more likely to have been in prison than the people who opposed him? [note: I did not look up actual statistics when I wrote the previous sentence. Please treat it as a thought experiment.]

  3. Fernando says:

    “Every time I eat a jelly doughnut, I feel a little bit more Republican.”

    Me too!!!

  4. Steve Sailer says:

    Republicans who live in Manhattan or Malibu tend to be Masters of the Universe types who might do triathlons or plan to climb Everest.

  5. Ryan says:

    I agree that the sections you posted above were a horrible example of poor causal thinking (“…sway an election” to me implies that changing obesity, somehow, will change voting patterns). But to be contrarian I think his point was about state consumption of federal money, particularly with regards to health dollars. And for that, state obesity levels – and other health statistics – are valid data to discuss.

    But yes, he does some sloppy personification. Really retrograde shaming.