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Today my colleague Steve has a wonderful post discussing how economics is compassionate, or at least more compassionate than seat-of-the-pants emotional theorizing, because it is one of the few intellectual disciplines that forces us, as a matter of foundational methodology, to think about ALL people. This is nice, because in conversations about the desirability of certain policies, if you are doing good economics you can’t simply make stuff up – and instead of waving your hands and vaguely talking about feigned goals, we can have honest conversations about real tradeoffs. Here is a nice excerpt from his post:

The response to the government shutdown has been as good an example of this as any. Nothing but a garguntuan failure of empathy can explain the chorus of voices insisting that the shutdown is a bad thing because government employees might lose their paychecks. It takes a mighty powerful set of moral blinders to care so much about the recipients of those checks and so little about the taxpayers who fund them.

It gets even uglier when that same chorus of voices responds “But the government employees are poor and the taxpayers are rich!”. Put aside the question of whether that’s true. If your goal is to transfer money to the poor, and if the poorest people you can think of are government employees, then the well of your compassion is truly dry.

Argue if you must for transferring income from the rich to the poor. But to turn that into an argument for transferring income from the taxpayers to the employees of the government, there are a couple of billion poor people you’ve got to willfully ignore.

The single biggest lesson that economists have to teach is that it’s important to care about everyone, not just about the people who happen to cross your path. That’s a really good lesson, and this week has been a good reminder that we have to keep on hammering away at it

Now, Steve has spent a career driving these points home. But my sense is simply that people WANT to ignore it, and will ignore it. We can talk all we want about how economics helps us make tradeoffs transparent and explicit. We can talk all we want about how the efficiency criteria forces us to think about everyone. We can talk all we want about how welfare analysis forces us to pay as much attention to what is not easily observable versus what is observable. But the plain fact is that people treat this like being punched in the face, unprovoked, by a stranger. Now of course, it is these people who are punching people in the face. But the fact remains that for many, the idea of efficiency, caring about everyone, etc. is simply NOT what they are interested in, their rhetoric notwithstanding. I don’t really have a better alternative than to continue to make the excellent points Steve makes above, but if we think folks are going to “see the light” by pushing for the morality of efficiency, I just think we’re doing no better than urinating into a freshening zephyr.

Now, onto the title of the post. Steve and I perhaps disagree (I actually don’t know, maybe I should ask him!) on whether economics is a science or not. I tend not to think so, but I don’t think it is necessary to wade into that semantic swamp. Whatever it is, it IS useful. But I would not call economics itself compassionate. It’s rather neutral in that respect. I don’t see how we can anthropomorphize something called “economics” and say that “it” has compassion. I am sure Steve knows this and implicitly makes this point, but for the benefit of readers here at TUW, I just wanted to remind them not to fall into the same trap that many do when they anthropomorphize markets and the state and the church and so on. The tools of economics surely help us be truly compassionate, but economics itself is simply a meta-tool for how we think about dealing with the problem of scarcity. Done properly, it ought to encourage more compassion than armchair theorizing.

What I see common in arguments like the one Steve is addressing is not simply a refusal by people to want to consider all people – but a deeply felt need to justify and defend any and all things that are government related. Such a thing, when done by me, for example, trying to defend any and all things happening in markets, would be universally condemned as religious dogmatism. But look deeply at the way these discussion proceed (indeed, read the comments over at Steve’s page) and you’ll find ample evidence that people are simply starting from the premise that government employees or employment or activities are “good” and will use any line of reasoning to justify it. And for the life of me, I just can’t see how people can be so attached to an institution that they themselves seem to have so many problems with. That is a discussion for another day of course, but it’s there like a big fat zit on a teenagers nervous nose.

On a somewhat related note, here is the actual opposite of “Compassionate” and the opposite of “Science” all rolled into one: “Greenpeace” (worse than an oxymoron, it’s simply an antonym) has just employed its thug activists to destroy another plot of experimental GMO food. This time it is Golden Rice. So, despite the fact that GMOs have a ridiculously good track record of safety, despite the fact that they have already reduce the amount of land under till, reduced the amount of herbicides and pesticides, and even have the promise of adding micronutrients into the nutrient deficient diet of the world’s poor, and despite the fact that some of this GMO rice is being given, for free, to farmers, the “sciency goodness” of the “Greenpeace” activists destroy fields. They argue that the stuff is not safe, despite evidence to the contrary. And they argue that more science needs to be done – but of course they destroy the very experiments that would be required to provide more evidence that they say they want before they allow the stuff to be grown and eaten. Now, of course, Greenpeace has no right to say who gets to eat what. But if ever the emperor had no clothes, this time should be it. They are thugs, villains, criminals and anti-human. And no amount of appealing to the efficiency criteria will ever get “them” to alter their “views.” They are not into Green and they are not into Peace but something altogether. Say what you will, but there is true evil in the world. and these are one example of it. I used to try to debate folks like this – what an incredible waste of time. As I am now fond of saying when the time is right – may these people burn and rot in hell. And I mean it.

2 Responses to “Is Economics the Compassionate Science?”

  1. Graham Peterson says:

    For the majority of people posting heart-wrenchers on FB about gov. employees, the narrative is that big corporations pay taxes, not real people, and that the Tea Party is essentially denying little poor kids Head Start classes, which saves big corporations money. This requires several background assumptions:

    (1) Our tax system is progressive (it’s not), with the majority of taxes coming from monopolistic surplus (nope).
    (2) Tea Partiers and Libertarians are basically a couple few mega-billionaires and a horde of country bumpkins who love guns and will do whatever Koch brothers tell them.
    (3) The leaders of these parties, and most republicans, therefore pay the majority of the taxes and of course want lower taxes and less redistribution.
    (4) Tea Partiers and Libertarians believe only in self interested markets in order to justify their greed (nope), and because of that ethical vacuum will do anything to exploit the government and private sector in the interest of themselves, the very rich.

  2. Scott says:

    Comparitive advantage, sunk costs, marginal returns, etc, I perceive these principals to be science. It’s energy transformation – after all, what is matter other than energy? is economics not a study of how to most efficiently tranfer matter to a specific end? How to distribute matter (energy) optimally amongst an infinite number of variables?
    Markets emerge – so to my mind, it seems the study of markets can rightly be described as science, the same as the study trees, beehives, etc.
    When it comes to policy/legislation…well, if anything there is onlya denial of science in order to prevent effective energy transformatio, to maintain a status quo. And those who are responsible for this denial of science – the denial of truth -muddying facts to benefit at the expense of others, I must concur with WC, may they burn and rot in hell.

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