Monday, September 3, 2012

Economic Research: What's in a Soundbite?

Last weekend, I attended the Law and Economics of Indian Country Economic Development Conference at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank.  It was an interesting mix of scholars (lawyers and economists), policymakers, and practitioners of policy regarding Native Americans, tribes, and American Indian reservations.  I was invited to the conference because I am an Indian Country Scholar (see here and here), but this was my first experience interacting at a conference with such a diverse crowd of people interested in the economics of Indian Country.

The audience was diverse across disciplines, but as the conference went on, I became aware of an interesting set of differences among the scholars of Indian Country.  To make a stark simplification, there are two camps of Indian scholars: 
  1. Those who want their research to inform Indian Country policy, and ultimately, improve the lives of Native Americans.
  2. Those who view American Indian reservations as an interesting and fruitful empirical setting from which to draw general conclusions.
Of course, this "two camps" view is a simplification because most Indian Country scholars in the room want both (1) and (2).  But, at the conference, it became clear that some Indian Country researchers prioritize (1) over (2) while others prioritize (2) over (1).  This conflict of priorities says quite a bit about  what it means to conduct research, especially research that has policy implications.

If you prioritize helping Native Americans over drawing general conclusions, you start to care about what you conclude.  That is, you do not want to come to a conclusion that will provide the foundation for hurting Native Americans through policy enacted because some politician takes an ill-advised soundbite from your work.  One Indian Country scholar actually suggested that we consider what conclusions policymakers will draw from our study when we first begin the project.  The implicit suggestion (not stated outright) was that any research that could hurt Indian Country through this channel is damaging, and should not be done.

This scholar was not implying factual inaccuracies or logical inconsistencies in the research to be done.  An implication was that perfectly well-founded research with inconvenient conclusions (or conclusions that could be politically skewed to be inconvenient) is not worth doing, and should be avoided.  This perspective is foreign to me because I view the goal of research as gaining a better understanding of the world.  This politicization of research is not an issue unique to Indian Country research, and it may help to take a more well-known example (popularized in Freakonomics) to show the general point.

Levitt and Donohue (2001) is an article about how abortion legalization in the 1970s caused crime reductions in the 1990s.  From their conclusion,
These estimates suggest that legalized abortion is a primary explanation for the large drops in murder, property crime, and violent crime that our nation has experienced over the last decade. Indeed, legalized abortion may account for as much as one-half of the overall crime reduction.
Now, a policymaker may take this quote as ammunition to implement pro-choice policies.  Indeed, the Levitt and Donohue article is controversial for this reason, but look at what the authors say two paragraphs later to conclude the paper:
While falling crime rates are no doubt a positive development, our drawing a link between falling crime and legalized abortion should not be misinterpreted as either an endorsement of abortion or a call for intervention by the state in the fertility decisions of women. Furthermore, equivalent reductions in crime could in principle be obtained through alternatives for abortion, such as more effective birth control, or providing better environments for those children at greatest risk for future crime.
The Levitt and Donohue study is a poster child for research that can be appropriated for a political purpose, but it has also been cited 466 times (according to Google Scholar).  Many of the cites are positive, but some are critical.  Regardless, the article that started a conversation.  If the research were abandoned at the outset for its potentially-damaging conclusions, this is a conversation that wouldn't have occurred.  

And, that's the way of economic research in controversial settings.  Certainly, there are different issues in Indian Country economics, but a productive way forward is to continue working on important questions.  If the answers to these questions are inconvenient on their face, it's important to think carefully before we map answers to policy, but it is equally important to continue doing the research.  Some conversations need to be had.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to share your ideas about this post in the open forum. Be mindful that comments in this blog are moderated. Please keep your comments respectful and on point.