Neil Reynolds: Not Ready for Prime Time

For some time Neil Reynolds published his op-ed pieces in The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, where they generally escaped readers’ attention. Now that he’s been moved to the op-ed page, he’s getting lots of attention.

Reynolds’s take is what might be called Tea Party Canadian-style. For Reynolds, government is always parasitic and the private sector is always innovative, so that we should have less of the former and more of the latter. His second main concern is energy and the environment, and his message is that global warming and peak oil are myths, which leads to the policy prescription: drill, baby, drill. Reynolds’s Wikipedia article says that he was a Libertarian Party candidate in a 1982 by-election, and it’s clear from his columns that a Libertarian he remains.

Reynolds’s modus operandi is to find some academic research out there – often on the web sites of American Conservative think tanks – that he claims supports the policy positions he advocates. In my view, his arguments are often specious. I will cite three instances, and then connect the dots.

His column of April 17, 2010 argued that the average Canadian household spent almost $15,000 on personal income taxes and the average American household about $2000. This claim was carefully analyzed by Steelworkers’ economist Erin Weir on the Progressive Economics Forum (www.progressive-economics.ca), who showed that when appropriate data were used per capita income taxes were almost equivalent.

His column of July 26, 2010 on the census repeated the claim that the Nordic countries have eliminated their censuses, but without the qualification – made clear by his fellow Globe and Mail journalists – that this was because they use many other data sources. He also repeated the conservative economist Hayek’s argument that the prices produced by the market are society’s most important statistic. Students in first-year economics courses should be familiar with that argument. Students in upper-level economics courses learn that, if there are market imperfections such as pollution, congestion, monopolies, or subsidies, prices provide misleading information.

In his column of August 9, 2010, Reynolds argued that people will adapt to global warming because they have in the past adapted to heat waves. The evidence he gave was an article by economists Olivier Deschenes and Michael Greenstone claiming that the increase from the US annual mortality rate due to global warming by the end of this century would be statistically indistinguishable from zero. He claimed that the paper was “published three years ago by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

I looked the paper up on Google Scholar. The abstract notes that the predicted mortality rate increases for some subpopulations, notably infants, would be statistically significant, and that annual resident energy consumption would increase by a statistically significant 15 to 30%.

What concerns me more, however, was that the article was not published three years ago by MIT. It was and remains a National Bureau of Economics Research Working paper. Working papers, as the NBER website makes clear, and any academic knows, have not passed peer review. Furthermore, a working paper that has remained in working paper form and hasn’t made it into a journal for 3 years is encountering difficulties in the reviewing process. It should be quoted, if at all, with caveats, and not referred to as published.

Okay, let’s connect the dots. We see a pattern of citing supposedly impeccable sources that, upon examination, doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Reynolds’s Wikipedia entry mentions a long and distinguished career in journalism but makes no mention of any university education. People generally ensure that their Wikipedia entries are accurate. My conclusion is that Reynolds either has had no university education or thinks it isn’t important enough to mention. For me, this is highly problematic for a columnist who relies so heavily on academic research. What he appears to me to be doing is citing research that seems to support his positions without much understanding of the research process. Not only is it important to distinguish between working papers and refereed work, but it is important to look at an overall body of research – the work of numerous scholars – to see if there is any consensus.

The Globe and Mail is English Canada’s newspaper of record. Its columnists should be the best in the country. The Globe is printing Reynolds because he represents the “right wing ideologue” position, just as it prints Rick Salutin (but only on Fridays) who represents the “left wing ideologue” position. I am not claiming that the Globe shouldn’t have a right wing ideologue columnist, but if it wants to have one, it can certainly do better than Neil Reynolds.

This post should in no way be considered an attack on Reynolds’s freedom of speech. He may say whatever he wants to say on his own blog or in whatever organ (perhaps the proposed Fox North channel) will publish him. But, if the Globe and Mail represents prime time in Canadian journalism, then my considered opinion is that he isn’t ready.

11 comments

  1. I met Neil Reynolds over 25 years ago. He is a fascinating, learned man with a good heart and a sharp mind. He is also exceedingly honest.

    I would much rather have an “ideologue” like him influencing public policy than the power-hungry lobbyists and fat cats of industry and unionism trying to continue their cronyism.

  2. Dr. Borins makes it sound like a bad thing that Neil Reynolds was and may still be a libertarian.

    Being against the status quo and the way that powerful elites use government force to become even more powerful and steal from the everyman, you would think that Dr. Borins would welcome the contributions of anyone who challenges the right of some people to subjugate others through government.

    But alas, no, he would rather dream that he and his friends might get the levers of power instead in order to re-distribute wealth from the productive to the less productive.

    Too bad there are two problems with that: first, it is rare that his type can outmuscle the powerful elites and actually GET their hands on the power, and second, if and when they do, redistribution does not work for long as the productive will either find ways to ignore the laws or the disincentives will curb their productivity.

    The irony of it all is that what the powerful elites REALLY fear is a citizenry that is libertarian, that will assert their freedoms and refuse to be subjugated. They do not fear a loudy and boisterous government-worshipping left that only wants power for themselves, since they will almost never win.

  3. Unfortunately what Mr. Levis fails to disclose in saying that Dr. Borins makes it sound as though Reynolds having been and possibly still being a libertarian is a bad thing is that it isn’t Neil’s belief system but his methodology he objects to. He shows how Neil Reynolds using unquantified writings or research as proof of his position. Telling me is so simply because your father told you it is so and he was a trustworthy man does not in and of itself make it so. Neil is an accomplished person in journalism, this does not make him a good journalist or a good researcher. This is not to criticize him the person, simply his work that puts out to the public for criticism. I have read a number of his, what I will call opinion pieces. He rattles off generic data and most often provides a general, not specific source as proof. He makes sweeping generalizations without quantifying them.
    Libertarianism and pure Capitalism have a serious problem that people tend to ignore. In economic terms we are told money moves efficiently to make the best use of scarce resources. This is catagorically false. Money flows to where it will make money the most efficiently. This could be in the form of a monopoly or even illegally. A great example is the pyramid scheme in the US known as the mortgage debt crisis. This money did nothing except look for the most efficient way to make the most money. It was contributed to by poor (even if good intentioned) public policy and pure capitilist greed working hand in hand.
    People complain about our Canadian income tax rate vis-a-vis the US as Mr.Reynolds did, incorrectly as Dr. Borins points out, without looking at our actually overall tax rate as well as the services we receive for our tax dollars. Progressive tax rates also make sence since generally the higher the income the larger the use of services tax dollars provide ie. roads, sewers, water systems etc.
    There is a balance between our government services and private enterprise. As for our citizenry, one of my favorite movie quotes is “A person is smart; people are dumb panicky dangerous animals…”.

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    • Hi Jessica–You’re most welcome. Just keep in mind that how much you can make depends mostly on your abilities and willingness to put in the time and the effort. Blog writing is NO magical get rich quick scheme. What it is though is an opportunity at self employment and additional income that so many people find so hard to find.

    • love to you page – so true that it’s not what happens, it’s how you respond to it. you are an amazing runner and triathlete and i so look up to you. i can’t wait for you to have your IM moment because you will just shine! get well SOON!

    • Agreed God’s delay is not a denial, it’s time to prepare for what’s ahead .May God continue to open our eyes of understanding to know this at all times.Thank you so much for the word.

  4. I dont dive a damn about Reynold’s politics; his functional illiteracy when it comes to economics and finance is what I find most unsettling.

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