Why Do Economists Disagree About Policy? The Roles of Beliefs About Parameters and Values


This paper reports the results of surveys of specialists in labor economics and public
economics at 40 leading research universities in the United States. Respondents provided
opinions of policy proposals; quantitative best estimates and 95% confidence intervals for
economic parameters; answers to values questions regarding income redistribution, efficiency
versus equity, and individual versus social responsibility; and their political party identification.
We find considerable disagreement among economists about policy proposals. Their
positions on policy are more closely related to their values than to their estimates of relevant
economic parameters or to their political party identification. Average best estimates of the
economic parameters agree well with the ranges summarized in surveys of relevant literature, but
the individual best estimates are usually widely dispersed. Moreover, economists, like experts in
many fields, appear more confident of their estimates than the substantial cross-respondent
variation in estimates would warrant. Finally, although the confidence intervals in general appear
to be too narrow, respondents whose best estimates are farther from the median tend to give
wider confidence intervals for those estimates.

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Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 35 (September 1998), pp. 1387-1425
Working Papers