In a comment on co-blogger Bryan Caplan’s recent post, economist Yoram Bauman writes:

If you’re looking for another post topic, you could try to mediate between me and Steve Landsburg. (I’ve given up on him for now 🙂

I thought I would take a shot and so I read Landsburg’s criticism of a New York Times column by Bauman, along with Bauman’s responses and Landsburg’s rejoinders. I quickly realized that to mediate well, I needed to read all the other comments on Landsburg’s cite, of which there were many. I have now done that.

There is nothing in mediation requiring that the mediator “split the difference.” The goal of mediation is to figure out who’s right. Landsburg is right. So what follows is my statement of the various arguments, adding my own thoughts from time to time.

Here’s the basic issue. Bauman and co-author Elaina Rose published a study in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (JEBO). In it, they showed that there was a systematic difference in the percent of students who contributed to two causes: a lower percent of economics majors than of other students contributed to the two causes. Bauman concludes that economists and econ majors are more selfish than others.

But surely, writes Landsburg, we must at least look at what the two organizations to which students could contribute were. One was “WashPIRG,” which, in Bauman’s own words, is “a left-leaning activist group.” The other was Affordable Tuition Now (ATN), a group that lobbied for “sensible tuition rates, quality financial aid and adequate funding.”

In his NYT piece, Bauman seemed to anticipate a criticism, writing:

You may question whether these groups actually serve the common good, but that’s mostly beside the point. Regardless of the groups’ actual social value, a purely self-interested individual would choose to free-ride rather than contribute; after all, a single $3 donation is not going to make a noticeable difference in tuition rates.

Bauman is right that a purely self-interested individual would choose to free-ride rather than contribute. But that doesn’t mean that someone who chooses not to contribute does so only to free-ride. If A, then B, does not imply, If B, then A. That’s the logical fallacy called “Affirming the consequent.” A person who chooses not to contribute might do so because he doesn’t believe in the cause. How could that possibly be “mostly beside the point?”

Indeed, that’s where Landsburg goes. He presents an alternate hypothesis: economics majors actually learn something about economics and that learning tends to inoculate them against causes in which wealth is not created but redistributed. Left-leaning causes are often that way and lobbying for “sensible,” that is, low, tuition rates is a clear-cut instance of lobbying for redistribution. (A little thinking will convince anyone that if tuition rates at a government-run university are to be kept low, taxpayers must pick up the tab. In fact, at a recent rally run by some students at California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB), students called explicitly for higher taxes so their tuitions wouldn’t rise.)

Here is part of Landsburg’s criticism:

[H]e [Bauman] actually (and this part I swear to God I am not making up!!!) draws the conclusion that students who have studied the merits of capitalism are among the least likely to support its detractors and then manages to conclude that this is because economics students are greedy [bold in original].

In his first comment on Landsburg’s site, Bauman defends his study, not by pointing to his study, but by pointing to other studies. Bauman writes:

Frey and Meier (2004) look at a nearly identical situation at the University of Zurich, where students are asked if they want to contribute to scholarship funds for needy students and for foreign students; almost 60% of students donate (!) and again economists donate less than the rest. Perhaps you want to argue that these scholarship funds are also not public goods, or perhaps you want to argue that “all taxation is theft” and therefore that there is a fundamental flaw in all public goods experiments?

Landsburg replies:

Yoram: Not contributing to scholarship funds for needy students is arguably evidence of selfishness. Not contributing to a program that wants to take money from people named A, B and C in order to give money to people named X, Y and Z is not by any conceivable standard evidence of selfishness.

But Bauman, in his first comment, also admits Landsburg’s point by quoting the last part of his JEBO study:

Indeed, it is possible in this case – as in, say, a requested donation for an organization dedicated to replacing competitive markets with economy-wide price controls – that economics training would reduce donation rates not because students become more SELFISH but because they become more EDUCATED. Regardless of the cause, however, it is clear that economics training changes the giving behavior of non-majors.

Bauman then adds:

That’s from the last sentence of our published journal article; perhaps you should read it 🙂

So my job of mediation is pretty much done on the issue itself. I’ll sum up:

Bauman wrote an article making a strong claim.
Landsburg showed that the claim did not follow from the evidence.
Bauman admitted that the claim did not follow from the evidence and pointed out that his and Elaina Rose’s original study had pointed that out.

There are other tangential issues: some of Landsburg’s defenders are somewhat sarcastic and Bauman expresses upset at that even though he was sarcastic himself (recall Bauman’s “perhaps you should read it”). But let’s not forget the big issue: is Bauman’s and Rose’s evidence sufficient evidence that economics majors are more selfish than other majors or are there alternate–and quite sensible–hypotheses to explain their behavior? Both Landsburg and Bauman are agreed: the evidence is not sufficient. And in the last part of his academic article, although not in his New York Times article, Bauman explains why. Moreover, his explanation is the same as Landsburg’s explanation.

I also recommend that readers read comments on Landsburg’s site by Ken B. They are quite good.

UPDATE: Yoram Bauman replies below. Note first that he says that my summary is reasonable, except for one part. In laying out that part, Yoram seems to imply that I had written that he had written that he had proven something. I didn’t. I did, as he points out, say that he made a strong claim. Yoram, in his response, equates the term “claim” to “conclusion.” I guess that’s fair. Yoram says he didn’t reach a strong conclusion. I think he did. I leave readers to judge for themselves.

UPDATE 2. Yoram Bauman replies below to my first update. He said, on Steve Landsburg’s blog,”Do these sorts of discussions really have to turn into scorched-earth battles filled with sarcasm and name-calling, and if so why?” I thought that meant that he didn’t want the discussions to be “filled with sarcasm and name-calling.” But his comment below proves me wrong. I was not at all sarcastic; he is.