Friday, February 10, 2012

... or Possibly Social Scientists?

On the other hand!

If you're thinking, yes, economists have a reflexive pro-market bias, then there is one question in the Booth polls to which the answer will be surprising: Are CEOs overpaid? Remarkably, a large majority says Yes.

As a friend points out, this result would almost certainly have been very different a few years ago. The financial crisis, OWS and the new political discourse of the 99%, or something else? I don't know, but progress is progress, and it should be acknowledged, and celebrated. We on the left are a little too invested in our grumpiness sometimes, I think. A lot of people, ok, were overly optimistic about the extent to which the orthodoxies in macro would be discredited by the crisis and Great Recession. But still, something has changed.

Case in point: This paper (ht: AD) by Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef, on wages in the financial industry. It's the same paper, but look how the abstract changes from pre- to post-Lehman. Before:
Over the past 60 years, the U.S. financial sector has grown from 2.3% to 7.7% of GDP. While the growth in the share of value added has been fairly linear, it hides a dramatic change in the composition of skills and occupations. In the early 1980s, the financial sector started paying higher wages and hiring more skilled individuals than the rest of economy. These trends reflect a shift away from low-skill jobs and towards market- oriented activities within the sector. Our evidence suggests that technological and financial innovations both played a role in this transformation. We also document an increase in relative wages, controlling for education, which partly reflects an increase in unemployment risk: Finance jobs used to be safer than other jobs in the private sector, but this is not longer the case.
And after:
We use detailed information about wages, education and occupations to shed light on the evolution of the U.S. financial sector over the past century. We uncover a set of new, interrelated stylized facts: financial jobs were relatively skill intensive, complex, and highly paid until the 1930s and after the 1980s, but not in the interim period. We investigate the determinants of this evolution and find that financial deregulation and corporate activities linked to IPOs and credit risk increase the demand for skills in financial jobs. Computers and information technology play a more limited role. Our analysis also shows that wages in finance were excessively high around 1930 and from the mid 1990s until 2006. For the recent period we estimate that rents accounted for 30% to 50% of the wage differential between the financial sector and the rest of the private sector.
Look at the bolded phrases that appear in one abstract but not the other. In 2007, we have a story of skills, technology and compensating differentials. A year and change later, the star players are deregulation and rents, with technology demoted to "a limited role." I don't say this as a criticism of Philippon and Reshef, who deserve only credit for being willing to publicly change their beliefs in the face of new evidence. But this can cut both ways. That the same data can be, and is, used to tell such different stories, is a sign that there is something else going on here than disinterested social science.


  1. Nice one. What's always impressed me most about economists is how they can build a model for any story. Now we see they can also build different stories for the same model.

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