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August 05, 2007



I think your analysis is spot on. I am definitely in the second best camp after being in the first best camp after receiving my Phd. However, having studied development economics and now having spent 7 years in professional consulting, the markets are full of imperfections that would cast doubt on first best economics. However, in a pinch, when pressed for time, it is amazing how fast we all resort to that first best world!

Yet, I am certainly in the second best camp.


I think as a representation of two poles on a continuum this is accurate. However, given the complexity of the problems economists often analyze it is clear that some sort of model/heuristic is required.

These economists generally choose a model or heuristic which complies with their view of the world. Using decision theory, which camp is most likely to be making the optimal recommendation? Which one has the greatest cost of being wrong in their particular area? This could be viewed as a Bayesian estimation problem viewed under a decision theory paradigm.

Neither camp will be right all the time. But thinking about the policy problem like this is a sensible approach.


Appears similar to the rules/principles vs. discretion distinction, with the first-besters in the former camp. Relatedly, one's view may also depend on the time frame over which you are analyzing policy and the confidence you have in economic methodology to generate specific, falsifiable predictions as to the impact of particular interventions.


It's instructing to see that most first-best economists mentioned here (Cowen, Mankiw, etc.) could be, in a nutshell, classified as right-wingers, while almost all of the second-best economists (Stiglitz, Krugman, Rodrik?) would be very comfortable if placed under the left side of the political umbrella.

Now the timeless question is this: is political standing a cause, a consequence, or both of these guys' economic thinking?


Hmm..not sure about whether they are all "right wingers". I don't think one would classify Delong as a "right winger" using the more popular definition of "right wing".

One thing to note, is that both Akerlof and Stiglitz may be seen as "second best" economists because they each spent time early in their careers in developing countries (i.e., India). However, one must keep in mind that both also spent a lot of time looking at Growth models in the 60s. See the book by David Warsh, "Knowledge and the Weath a Nations".


I have the impression that Mankiw is in the first-best camp when talking to undergraduates and non-economists (thus, in his blog). However, some parts of his research are on market rigidities (menu costs, sticky information and others), a feature of the second-best camp. Using this definition, most New Keynesians (MIT-Keynesians) actually fall in the second category, right?

Those "first-best" people always remind me of Doctor Pangloss. Someone ought to rewrite Voltaire's "Candide" to the economist setting.

Robin Hanson

I think both sides agree there are lots of big imperfections. The difference seems to be more in judgments about our net ability to identify which particular imperfections exist how much in which particular situations, to craft appropriate remedies, and to get political processes to adopt those remedies. Those who think our abilities end up being poor will think attempts at fine tuning are more likely to make things worse; those who think our abilities are good will lament lost opportunities to make improvements. So what evidence could we collect that would help us to differentiate between these, by better estimating our net abilities?

Dan Olner

This question about the interaction between politics and economic theory is interesting / complicated. Most economists would, I think, agree that there is such a thing as an objective answer to economic questions. Its only non-economist lefties who argue that economics is nothing more than a pseudo-scientific figleaf to cover the ideological nature of its roots.

But then, imagine this scenario: in Fictionland, there are a hundred different takes on any economic question. The people who run Fictionland are a mix of the rich and powerful: its a two-party system, but each consists of a not-so-different set of these rich / powerful social classes. What kind of economist is likely to be invited into the room when the economic policy decisions are being made? I'd argue its going to be the ones whose theory supports the continuation of the current group of people in power. After all, history is not littered with examples of people with power willingly giving it away.

So I'm saying the empirical validity of a theory is not the main factor in its becoming accepted into policy circles. Its an evolutionary interaction between power and theory: the theory that survives in the landscape of power wins out. Its empirical strength is a factor in its success, but not the only one, and perhaps not even the most important.

One US democratisation theorist says: 'a democratic polity informed by a genuine commitment to markets is in the long run the best political response to the problems posed by the rational expectations of economic actors... When the opposition supports the basics of a market economy, actors can rationally expect that the end of a particular administration will not spell the reversal of all their economic expectations.'

This makes me wonder: what's the best way of representing the diversity of economic opinion in a polity? The above kind of democratisation theory (and the actions of the World Bank / IMF in developing countries) pushes the notion that economics should be kept separate from democracy. I'd argue the reverse: its inevitable that different economic theories benefit different interest groups, and the only way we've come up with to manage this kind of conflict is democracy. Exactly what kind of democracy is most appropriate for deciding economic questions, God only knows. Countries that are currently liable to find themselves having to choose between the World Bank or no aid at all should have more choices, though - and that choice should be treated as a serious democratic decision for that country to make, not a technocratic choice of the best policy, to be made by the country's finance ministers and a bunch of faceless World Bank bods who've just flown in the night before.

There are so many problems with this approach, though, that I don't know where to start. But I think this one one reason why 'first-best' economists cling to orthodoxy. Once you've accepted there's diversity of economic opinion, its much harder to argue that economic decisions should be made in isolation from the democratic process. This is the exact opposite of the rationale for e.g. the WTO - which has been described by two of its proponents as a mast to which governments can tie themselves, to "escape the siren-like calls of various pressure groups." Bah.


It's the idea of "imperfection" that makes the two camps so difficult to distinguish. Oh, if only!

That, and power.


It's the idea of "imperfection" that makes the two camps so difficult to distinguish. Oh, if only!

That, and power.


It's the idea of "imperfection" that makes the two camps so difficult to distinguish. Oh, if only!

That, and power.

Bill C

Very insightful. Reminds me of what Keynes said in the intro to the General Theory: "...the postulates of the classical theory are applicable to a special case only and not to the general case, the situation which it assumes being a limiting point of the possible positions of equilibrium. Moreover, the characteristics of the special case assumed by the classical theory happen not to be those of the economic society in which we actually live, with the result that its teaching is misleading and disastrous if we attempt to apply it to the facts of experience." Sixty-one years later, we're still fighting the same battles!

Lee A. Arnold

Thank you for this post because I have always wondered how the first-besters' refutation of the theory of the second best is executed. I expected more -- it's a bit of an intellectual letdown. The refutation of a theoretical result by an imagined series of contingent corrections does not seem scientifically respectable, while the actual number of necessary corrections in a real economy would make it practically unachievable. Are the first-besters dancing with faith? Indeed it makes the first-besters into crusaders for perfection everywhere -- something that political conservatives (at least in the U.S.) usually find to be less than brilliant, although then the discourse is forgotten and subtly shifted to the crusade for freedom everywhere. But it is not entirely clear to me that free markets, love them as we do, always increase freedom. Consumer choice takes time to perform, and in difficult questions, such as choices among basic healthcare policies, it may take perhaps more knowledge than many people can have. Time consumed is other time denied, and so there are certain markets which may not increase freedom. Or may cost more, because expert information has been artificially made necessary, and then it must be purchased. These objections are too readily glossed over; or the argument is again shifted mid-sentence back to efficiency -- for which the first-besters must fall again upon their patchwork.


Excellent! (Interesting that Mankiw is currently dissecting economists in his blog!. But with a twist.)

But I really wonder if Jagdish Bhagwati is truly an "unadulterated" first-best economist.

On the question of trade, yes, he is. But on the issue of Globalization of finance he is not - in fact, I haven't been able to see any difference in the views of him versus those of "the undisputed king" of second-best economists: Joe Stiglitz; Like Stiglitz, Bhagwati has long been an advocate of capital controls in developing countries.

R Mutt

Another possibility. I think when it comes to politics, the first order economists think that politicans are biased in favour of bad economics, and that the basics need to be stressed to stop giving the politicians justifications.

For instance, politicians don't care about hidden economic costs: if it's hidden it doesn't cost votes. Politicians care more about concentrated effects than distributed effects: distributed effects tend to be too small to influence the average voter. Politicians don't really care about the long term: boosting growth by a percent will have a huge effect over decades, but doesn't help them win the next election.

I think the first-order economists see politicians as constantly looking for justifications for unnecessary market interventions, and they think that politicians will use the second-order effects as an excuse.

The question is: which group is more politically savvy?


Dani Rodrik made a good point in making a distinction along the lines of an economist's position towards the first fundamental welfare theorem.
However, there are two other dimensions which matter.

1. What is the economists view on human behaviour? Put it differently: What is the economist's a priori view on the embeddedness of economics into the society as a whole -- including norms, institutions, social networks. To give an example: Brian Caplan in The Myth of the Rational Voter analyzes the non-rationality of voters in a nice way but ending in the proposition to make the voter more rational. What are we as economists? God? Should'nt we respect other human beings and try to explain instead of changing the way people see the world?
2. Mankiw's view on the economist as a Scientist or Engineer. That is another important dimension which distinguishes the public policy crowd from the ivory tower.

By the way, what kind of economist was JM Keynes?


Two types of economist, those who see the first fundamental as the best way to classify economists, and those that don't.

I agree with Robin, the issue isn't estimates over the size of imperfections, it's assumptions about the knowledge requirements to "fix" them.


I don't think you quite do the first-best crowd properly. Instead of saying that the 'market' will work perfectly, a more accurate depiction would be:

first-best: Believe that people act within the context of a market more intelligently than they do within the government.

It's not that first-best economists don't think the government could intervene (or that it hasn't intervened in the past) in a way that is productive, but rather that the structure of government lends itself to bad decision-making, or at least worse decision-making than a functioning market.

There is dispute about how big of a role the gov't should take in preserving market functionslity, and I think 'second-best' economists have a lot of insight to offer here. Still, let us not forget that the principle division between the first- and second-best economists lies in faith in the government.


if u start
by figuring out who seems to benefit from a policy
then trying to crack open
the rationalization
as rationalization
most times
"cause and result "
becomes obvious
whether the science-izing
is performed
by a useful idiot pangloss
a ass-burger gradgrind
or ...greg mephisto mankiw
and his uncle marty

for the mistakes
in calculating
group interest
the eternal veil
of ignorance
and stupidity most assuredly produce

the motive is revealed
in the expected result ahead
not the reasoned
science behind



"the structure of government lends itself to bad decision-making, or at least worse decision-making than a functioning market"

this evades
the whole question
of general welfare

"look to one's self interest "
has well defined limits
even for benthamites

market failure
is a basis
for collective choice

gubimnts are self correcting too

in the long run
gubmint is not
an unnecessary evil

general welfare improving
by state intervention
may easily
move market activity
away from inferior
spontaneous outcomes
---at least at the margin---

such interventions
may often require very little
the mobilization
of a sufficiently
"larger "interest
to overcoming
the pack of winners
now being
rewarded by spontaneity


A letter to the NY Times a couple of weeks ago put it well, something like this (from memory):
"There are two kinds of economists:
1. Those who believes that markets always work, except for when they don't.
2. Those who believe that markets never work, except when they do."


This has been an interesting exchange. One thought that comes to me from work in benefit-cost analysis is this: the fundamental division is between economists who see the political system primarily as a source for error, and those who have enough faith in democratic politics to see themselves as contributors to it.

The political skeptics tend to emphasize the corruption and irrationality found in all known systems, and they point to the theoretical problems with decision by majority rule. The role of BCA, in their view, is to remove as many decisions as possible from the political arena, and have them determined by whether B>C or C>B. This entails a strict adherence to BCA formalisms, including the monetary valuation of all outcomes of a policy choice.

Believers in democracy see BCA as an input into a larger process that may confer a greater degree of wisdom and social acceptance than economic analysis alone can provide. This means that the bottom line of the study is not the bottom line of the policy process, so strictures can be adhered to selectively. In particular, one may choose not to monetize a particular result (for instance health) or to point to cultural or political factors that economics may sidestep altogether.

The practical consequences of these two positions in the way analysis is conducted are profound. They depend, however, on priors that are nearly impervious to rational argument. You can show me (a believer in democracy) case after case of democratic political failure, and I will still cling to the hope that the next time around it will be different. Anti-political economists, who I think constitute the majority, will be unimpressed by any example of democratic success. How can we be sure, they will ask, that this will happen next time?

The link to the first-best/second-best dichotomy can be found in welfare economics. If you believe, in general terms, that orthodox welfare econ really speaks to human well-being, you will tend to place more stock in the rest of the argumentation that links efficient market (and pseudo-market) mechanisms to welfare maximization. But, on my reading, welfare economics has walked off an empirical cliff some time ago. The evidence on human behavior and well-being is profoundly incompatible with the basic premises of the received theory. It would be interesting to investigate the sociology of knowledge aspect of this situation, the delayed effect this development is having on the profession, but I think that on logical grounds, once the awareness of what has happened to welfare econ has seeped in, it will be much more difficult to justify the anti-political perspective.


Dani is perhaps raising a hidden problem; namely, are economists becoming a serious problem in govt decision-making on bread and butter issues? It'd seem, for us +70 old timers, that both politics and economics has moved along, and globalization (gatt/wto) has made the average citizen reticent about those who control levers of power in govt.
They don't seem to understand fundamentals of economic decision-making which becomes ever more complex and global in terms of its impact.
For those of us who have professionally spend more than three decades trying to prune down tarrifs and trade under gatt rounds, the outcome is not very flattering-at all!
The imperfection of economic science is further eroded by its intrinsic inability to provide simple answers.
My take on "first" and "second" group is simply a function of US politics. It may not be the same outside US. Which leads me to argue that perhaps we need more "political economists" to come into grips with evolving problems of globalization.


Perhaps other divisions might make more sense:
humans are selfish/humans are altruistic
humans need strong leaders/humans can govern themselves

I suspect that the psychological outlook of many people makes them lean towards certain economic and social viewpoints. They then tend to find information which reinforces their viewpoint and slight that which doesn't.

Since much social and economic data is ambiguous this gives lots of scope for mischief.

Bruce Wilder

I am not as interested in the dichotomy, as in the relationship to research experience and results, which you posit.

Paul Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis codified economic theory in a way that makes the reflexive return to the first month of Econ 101 (as Atrios described it) a natural first response. It was an incredibly important achievement for economics, and was only reinforced by Arrow-Debreu, but it privileged theory over all else in economics.

What economics desperately needs is some kind of framework, to catalog empirical experience and results. Instead, even your second-best economists are likely to respond with a meandering narrative thru a catalog of theoretical models, rather than a deep knowledge of institutions and circumstances.

In trade, the Heckscher-Ohlin model persists as a frame for thought, despite abundant empirical evidence of its limitations and deficiencies. It is the modern triumph of Ricardo over reality.

The dominance of case study in biology might be a good model for reform. Biology has a strong theory, in Darwinian evolution, but Darwin came along long after Linnaean classification and empirical results dominate, in part because an elaborate catalog organizes empirical results as examples of variety and process.


I guess the important question is what will the next generation of economists look like? Will it be biased towards more people in the first group or more people in the second? I see in the econ profession, editorial boards of top journals and conferences a high ratio of people from the 1st group to the 2nd. I hated grad school because I did it in a school that couldn't stand any of the 2nd group views. I believe the next generation will increasingly be conservative and follow the 1st group if they want to get published and promoted. I wish there were much more intellectuals like Dani Rodrik in the profession and less arrogant (often ignorant) people like ManQ and company (see his last post on the attitude towards other social siences as an indication of both arrogance and ignorance)

Nico Luchsinger

Very interesting post! I noticed that the economists you cite as examples for "first-best economists", from Becker to De Long, are all blogging, whereas none of the second-best economists you mention, from Stiglitz to Krugman, have a blog (at least as far as I know)... And now that I think of it, I really don't know any other "second-best bloggers". Aren't there any or have I just not found them yet?

jack sparrow

Is Steven Levitt, a first-best or second-best economist? Or maybe he is in a different league of freaks, not economists.

Bruce Stram

This is an interesting commentary.

I’d like to supplement it with some real world observations which may be overly idiosyncratic, but might be broadened through some interaction here.

I’d query as to the actual success or failure of first-best and second-best economic ideas in practice. My examples are taken from micro policy prescription, since I would assume we are all in some sense second-besters when it comes to macro (at least since Keynes).

A very successful first-best policy was the deregulation of the air and surface transport industries in the 1970’s. The first-best economic analysis of the airline and trucking industries strongly suggested an underlying competitive structure and therefore that then existing regulation was counterproductive. Nonetheless there were second-best qualms about potential network effects that might lead to market dominance. (My friend Steve Salop had those concerns for example.) Even more concern attached to railroad industry deregulation though the first-best conclusion was that the industry was workably competitive when geographic and inter-modal competition was taken into account. At least to date that deregulation would seem to be a roaring success with many passengers and much freight being transported at less cost than any reasonable projection of where things were headed would suggest.

Telecom deregulation has also been a roaring success, but I at least, have trouble classifying it: the idea seems basically first-best but the process was highly managed by second-best ideas, IMO, and with wireless, the industry has evolved into a more prima fascia first-best competitive industry.

National energy policy since the 70’s and probably before, has always been an arena of second-best policy, for the simple reason that the first-best policy prescription, a tax on imported oil, was and is viewed as a political disaster. The legacy of the 70’s second-best policy efforts include bizarre ethanol subsidies and economically disastrous coal gasification plants which quickly devolved into exemplar pork barrel policy and grist for Roger Knoll’s mill. The same might be said, at least so far, per current energy policy vis a vis global warming and energy security.

Natural gas deregulation can, I think, be labeled a success. I’d classify it as both a first-best idea and a first-best implementation of that idea. At least from the inside, the deregulation seemed to proceed through industry initiative step by step, rather than regulatory fiat, though it was critical that FERC, the relevant agency, supported those initiatives.

Electric power deregulation in California would of course be labeled a failure and famously so. Bill Hogan, a proponent of a second-best market approach that became the starting point for legislators and regulators in California is on record, I believe, for contending the political process made a mess of his ideas. And there were those of us who opposed his ideas in the first place as too prescriptive, i.e. too second-best.

That’s my pitch. I’d obviously be interested in seeing rejoinders.


I could be expressing my ignorance here, but I haven't seen the evidence that demonstrates that the benefits of air and trucking deregulation exceed their costs.

Air: Was there a discontinuity in the growth of air travel pre and post deregulation, controlling for the appropriate factors? In raw (uncontrolled) terms, I have seen graphics that suggest not, but of course the raw view is often misleading. At another level, it is not clear to me that, given the uncompensated externalities in this sector, such as those associated with fuel use, that aggregate miles is necessarily the best metric. Perhaps an efficiency measure would be more appropriate -- is it clear that deregulation succeeded in this sense? One would have to factor in quality changes, which have arguably been negative overall. (Dean Baker used this as a poster child in his critique of the CPI commission.)

Trucking (but this also applies to air): Deregulation has led to a dramatic reduction in union density and wages. This could be viewed as a transfer, almost certainly regressive. Many labor market studies view the wave of deregulation in the late 70s and early 80s as a measurable contributor to rising inequality. (Yes, the Teamsters union was not so wonderful either in the old days, but it is better now, and that's another story anyway....) The Keynesians among us, incidentally, will tend to think that more wage compression is a good thing, provided there are sufficient incentives to achieve a reasonable labor force match; total employment is not mainly a function of how hard a bargain you can impose on those "pampered" long haul drivers.


I don't think the two camps can be usefully differentiated by the "complications they see," because most first-best economists acknowledge that market imperfections exist, people do not always behave rationally, etc. Rather, the point of differentiation is the null hypothesis employed by the camps. The first-best group assumes such imperfections are economically unimportant unless a given researcher can provide convincing evidence to the contrary. The second-best group assumes such imperfections are economically important unless a given researcher can show they aren't.

Someone asked why the two camps seem to have different ideological leanings. It seems to me the answer boils down to different null hypotheses regarding government. The first-best group assumes government action will be ineffective or even counterproductive unless a given researcher can provide convincing evidence to the contrary. Whereas the second-best group assumes government action will be productive unless a given researcher can show it won't be.

Tying these two paragraphs together, first-best economists will perceive few "large" imperfections and will doubt government's ability to correct them, whereas second-best economists will perceive many "large" imperfections, most of which are amenable to government action. The natural implication is that when one party favors more government action than the other, first-best economists will lean toward the limited-government party and second-best economists will lean the other way.

Bruce Stram

I'll cite studies for you if you like, but the simple fact is that planes are flying fuller and truck are more fully loaded. Pre deregulation, airlines flew 52% full. This summer UA is 89% full. If this isn't an efficiency gain, I don't know what is. We're flying people with less emissions of everything per person mile, but that IMO is beside the point. If you think good emissions policy means keeping airline fares so high that few people fly, well you're welcome to that point.

As to labor, I don't think there's any question that a smaller labor force, protected in part by regulation, has had their wages fall to competitive levels. On the other hand, a lot more people are employed in what the market seems to suggest are good jobs.

If the idea of workers lining up to get above market wages under union auspices is a good idea, then deregulation is obviously a bad thing. You'll have to explain to me, however, the second best theory that would suggest such an outcome represents a gain in optimality.


I'm glad we've returned to the original theme. Your (Bruce S.) final two paragraphs are a great example of Dani's "first-best" approach, in this case to labor markets. I don't think you'd disagree that behind your post is a vision of the determination of wages and employment "more or less" in accordance with supply and demand diagrams, and in which a market equilibrium is "more or less" a social optimum.

Some of us have an entirely different view of the matter, and even a lifetime of email exchanges would probably not narrow the difference too much.

Good point about load factors and efficiency, although quality issues remain salient.

Bruce Stram

I'm not trying to pretend I'm not a first best economist. Rather I'm citing some examples of economic policy in action in order to apply a criteria of efficacy to the debate. Obviously my selection of examples may be biased, it seems clear that in some notable instances first best policy prescriptions had the predicted effects and the results meet some honored criteria for improvements in welfare again as predicted.

Therefore such theory is clearly useful.

What would be of interest, at least to me, is some examples of second-best theory in action and an assessment of results.

Matthew Saroff

What about the 3rd group of economists, those who look at real world events, and alter their theories to reflect what they observes, Keynes comes to mind on that.


Me and a co-author have recently completed a paper on the analysis of economists’ disagreement and of its determinants.


As a case study we took the Italian profession and we measured Italian economists' disagreement about : 1) the cause of the difficulties of the Italian economy; 2) which are the most effective policy proposals to solve the economy's problems.

Then we relate the respondent's opinion on each specific policy proposal to her individual characteristics, academic profile, methodological approach and political opinions.

We find that the political view of the respondent matters a lot in explaining difference in the judgement of a policy proposal but which aspect of her political view matters most depends on how much controversial the policy proposal is.

We have also prepared a website for additional documentation on the survey - the questionnaire, other descriptive statistics, etc.. The link is:


No need to say, whatever comments or suggestion is more than welcome.


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