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Monday, February 14, 2005

Lloyd Cohen on The Hoppe Affair

For those who don't know about the Hoppe Affair, it involves a professor at UNLV who hypothesized that gays tend to save less. He was taken to task for having offered the hypothesis.

[Update: It is not at all clear that Hoppe is beyond reproach. See here and here. And follow the various links.]

Lloyd Cohen, who manages an e-mail list devoted to economic analysis of law, was e-interviewed by The Chronicle of Higher Education about the affair. Here is what he sent to them, quoted in full (with permission). It is well worth reading.

A reporter from the Chronicle of Higher Education asked me to answer a specific question about the Hoppe affair and to offer whatever views I might have on the question. I repeat below my email to him.

Where to begin?

First, let's begin by what for lack of a better term I will call the epistemic
question. As a general matter the Provost's distinction between "opinion" and
"objective fact" is empty and can--and is--only used for a deceitful and
pernicious purpose. If forced to choose between the two I would say that
everyone, including professors, only offers opinions and not objective facts.
Some opinions are virtually universally shared and thought to be supported by
incontrovertible evidence but opinions they remain. Noone I know, professors
included, as a general matter bothers to distinguish between the two for his
listener in the statements he offers. On the other hand many people will
distinguish between those opinions they hold strongly and those they hold
weakly. As that applies to the Hoppe case I would think that that is something
in his mind and in no other, and I would think it entirely inappropriate for the
Provost to insist that Professor Hoppe equivocate over the strength of his
conviction to suit the Provost's view as to the degree of conviction Professor Hoppe should have on the question.
I will guess that the strength of Professor Hoppe's opinion about the marginal
propensity to consume of homosexuals lies somewhere between his view that
Vladimir Putin is the President of Russia and whatever view he has on the
prospect for sustained liberal government in Iraq.
Does any of this really require someone to state it? I hardly think so. So this is all intellectually silly and politically ugly.

Second, this brings me to the response to your specific question. My answer is, no the principle of which you speak would not mean that classroom life would grind to a halt. If I lived under such a regime I would simply state orally and hand out a written memorialization on the first day of class each semester a statement to the effect that:

"Every statement I make in this class for the remainder of the semester
shall be understood to be my opinion and not as 'objective fact'. During the
course of the remainder of the semester I will not repeat this disclaimer
and distinction, nonetheless it remains in force. I will however endeavor to
distinguish from time to time: (1) the strength of conviction with which I
hold particular opinions; (2) the degree to which my opinions are shared by
others in the profession; and (3) the empirical evidence or theoretical
arguments that support my opinion."
That should cover it. Of course it is extraordinary silliness--a very dark silliness however. It is similar to the way in which Soviet geneticists had to begin each paper with a false paean to Lysenko.

Third, let me move on to the substance of Professor Hoppe's claim that
homosexuals tend to "plan," i.e., save, less than heterosexuals. This
seems to me to be: (1) not merely highly likely as a theoretical matter
but implied by rather straightforward economic theory; (2) supported by
empirical evidence; (3) not in the least invidious; and (4) a very useful
teaching illustration. The point I believe that Professor Hoppe was trying
to make is that our tendency to save rather than consume is a function of
the particular circumstances of our lives.

Specifcally, to the extent that we have affective relationships with others and are concerned with their financial well being, especially if they are financially dependent on us, we will be inclined to save more than were these conditions not to prevail. Thus because homosexuals tend not to bear and rear children they will tend to feel
less of a need to save and insure their lives. The distinction between homosexuals and heterosexuals is but one of many that I ( and I suspect Professor Hoppe) would pile on to capture the point of the relationship between our economic lives and our social, cultural, religious, sexual and other differences. There is a fascinating variety of ways in which this relationship presents itself. For example, I am inclined to tell my students that in those cultures where chastity and marital fidelity are more present more saving will occur because paternity is more certain. The various points being made by the examples are powerful and important: (1) it shows the relationship between the ordinary psychological, social, religious, and cultural aspects of life and their economic consequences; (2) it shows that the savings rate, something that is normally thought of as a function of narrow government "economic" policy,
e.g.., monetary policy is driven by more fundamental human drives, and that differences across communities in the savings rate is effected more by differences in their "non-economic" ways of life than other things.

As to the point that the broad tendency of the group does not apply to every
member, this is both true and trivial. It is mere silly political posturing and
bullying to insist that it has to be pointed out. It is as valid about differences in height as between differences in marginal propensity to consume between hetero- and homosexuals. Only the most lunatic of political apparatchiks would insist that the statement that men are taller than women needs to be qualified by the statement that "not all men are taller than all women." To insist on such things, especially selectively, is once more an exercise in political bullying and nothing more.

Note as well that there is nothing invidious in Professor Hoppe's hypothesis or observation that homosexuals save less. Saving more is not "better." It is, as a general matter, merely different. I am not being coy or flip in saying this. We save because we have a reason to save. To fail to save when you should may be foolish and immoral and to save when you should not may likewise be foolish and immoral.
Actually this tendency to see something invidious here is of intellectual interest. It shows one of the many pernicious effects of political rectitude. On issues such as homosexuality all discussion has been collapsed into the question "are you fer em or agin em?"

And if you have something to say that does not fall on that base and linear
dimension it is not heard, or viewed with suspicion. Surely there is more to be
said about homosexuality than that? For example, I offer you the proposition
that homosexuals tend to congregate on islands and peninsulas. Consider Manhattan, San Francisco, Fire Island, Key West, Cape Cod. It is interesting and one might be curious as to why. And like Professor Hoppe's observation/ hypothesis about the savings rate it does not constitute anything invidious.

The evil in all this is quite simple to state. Professor Hoppe is being persecuted for the crime of teaching economics--and as best as I can tell for teaching it well. Using captivating social illustrations is better--not worse--than teaching the subject with dry equations and diagrams. And he chose, I think, a very easily understood and
yet informative illustration.

Lloyd Cohen
George Mason University
School of Law
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