Maybe the New York Times Should Require Algebra

One of the New York Times’ political bloggers has posted about a new study looking at how globalization, innovation, and social welfare are related. In particular, the study claims to find that global economic growth would slow down if the United States were to adopt a Scandinavian-style welfare state due to it’s role as the leading technological innovator. I don’t have much of an economics background, so I don’t feel qualified to say much directly about the paper. The NYT blog post points out that other economists disagree with this analysis. What struck me most, though, was that Thomas Edsall, the journalist who blogged about the article, said he couldn’t comment  on the article. I can understand that, as he also lacks an economics backgrounds. But I’m a bit peeved at his explanation for this, since his reponse is basically “ain’t nobody got time for that”. He says

 Here is Acemoglu, Robinson and Verdier’s first assumption:

and here is their subsequent thought:

Okay, you might think, he’s just making a joke that’s the paper is complicated to an outsider. While the paper (and virtually all technical literature) is confusing to people outside the targeted field, it seems important to point out Acemoglu et al actually say the theoretical framework they develop in the first paper is what brings them to their result. My understanding is that their work is less econometric and based on empirical statistics and more theoretical. I’m not bashing on theoretical economics, it has a place, but like all theories, it will need to be compared to available data. Assumptions are incredibly important in theoretical work. If the assumptions underlying a theory don’t hold for a certain system, then the theory will be less helpful in describing it, like why we can’t use Newton’s laws to describe systems near the speed of light because his assumptions on fixed space and time break down.

For Edsall to just basically say “OMG math” and not bother to explain the assumptions seems like negligent journalism. Of course, he doesn’t need to explain it himself, but when you work for the fricking NEW YORK TIMES maybe you should query more than one economist about opposing thoughts on potentially controversial results. It’s not like the Grey Lady doesn’t still have a lot of clout in policy and academic circles. And I also feels like he grossly misrepresents the context of the assumption. There is actually a paragraph or so of description for each of these equations that defines the variables, and about three pages of explanation and some more mathematical development between the first equation and the second equation.

As someone who has read textbook chapters where there has been nearly more room devoted to mathematical formula than text and has seen pages where Greek letters and English words are in nearly equal abundance, I’m not freaked out by the appearance of a large equation. Having bothered to actually read the text accompanying the equations, I can already see some assumptions that might be relevant in applying this, like what seems to be little accounting for population growth or the United States’ intentional recruitment of high-skill immigrants. It assumes that technology used in the economy is owned by a monopolist, which also seems like a potential limitation to applying the framework.

The paper actually uses a decent amount of calculus. But an understanding of algebra would get you pretty far in the paper. And more exposure to math would perhaps prevent Edsall’s “deer in the headlights” freeze on seeing an equation.

2 thoughts on “Maybe the New York Times Should Require Algebra

  1. Honestly, I think it might also have something to do with his audience (for better or worse). Pretty much all the non-scientists/mathematicians I know skip the equations when they read technical literature. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s just that it honestly doesn’t make any freaking sense. I skipped it (ironically) while reading this post. What I wish the NY Times had done is not publish the equation altogether, and instead get the authors (or a grad student or a friend who speaks math) to give them a paragraph or two in English.

    • But theoretical economics is pretty math-based, so I just don’t get why he chose to cover this. It’d be like the sustainability bloggers trying to comment on on the Higgs boson data from the LHC. I understand that not everyone will understand the math in technical literature. I’m confused by some of the equations here myself, both due to lack of economics knowledge and kind of a difference in how the math is presented compared to chemistry/materials papers. I think Edsall found something too far out of his beat to report effectively, and that’s what frustrates me more. He grabbed an interesting headline but can’t really analyze it, and I think he failed in his due diligence by only contacting one expert aside from one of the authors of the paper in question.

      It’s not his avoiding the equation that bothers me, so much as he seems to be treating the complexity of the math as an excuse to avoid deeper research, or at least that’s the implication of his joke. His post is the first mention of this paper I can find in mainstream media, so there wasn’t a major rush to publish this, especially since the paper in question comes from the end of last year. He didn’t really add anything to the debate or discussion and I feel like his post about this was premature until he could get more insight. Or let one of NYT’s business/finance/economy reporters or bloggers get a hold of it.

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