Monday, August 06, 2007

Is it really all small stuff?

or, The Fundamental Problem with Public Discourse

Atrios got my attention, but the original post at Crooked Timber is the really interesting one. First, Atrios' point as it critiques the media perception of any Complex Subject is precisely a sound one. Economic theory is no simpler nor any more verifiable than quantum mechanics, super-string theory, or theology. Yet all three are usually treated, in public discourse, as knowable in their rough outlines, and all the rest is small stuff (don't sweat the small stuff). So all economists are "first best economists," and because some physicist somewhere is talking about super-strings (a empirically unverifiable theory of physics, I'm given to understand), and because Pat Robertson pontificates on Christianity, then all economists think like that, all physicists accept theories of alternate universes, and all Christians think...well, think like Pat Robertson.

And those who don't are just supercilious eggheads arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or "existing deviations from optimality" (MEGO! MEGO!), or about whether the strings are really, really long or just kinda sorta long (How long is a piece of string, anyway?). The basics are settled, in other words, and any existing arguments are just among people who don't understand God really, REALLY doesn't exist, or that economists are scientists not theorists (and aren't all theories false, anyway, by definition?), and that if Einstein could figure out relativity on a streetcar in Berlin (or wherever! Like it matters!), then surely super-string theory, which sound so cool, must be true! Right?!

We do ourselves a favor to consider that reality is quite a bit more ambiguous than that; to consider, in Atrios' words, that whatever the topic of the public discourse might be, and however clear the answers seem, "the world is quite a bit more complicated than that." Which brings me to the wonderful post from Crooked Timber, from which this all springs:

Dani Rodrik argues that much disagreement in economics is between “first-best” economists and “second-best” economists. The former take Mark 1:14-15 as their text, and believe the Kingdom of God is at Hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. The second believe, with Proverbs 16:18 that pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
The first comment to this post is the most astute observation I can make on it, if only because it was my first thought, too, on reading this entry:

But where are the economists who take Matthew 25:44-45 as their text?
The second comment, of course, picks up the "Pat Robertson" line of thought as the given presumption of all religious thought:

“A third argument is that the government could never get complicated interventions right, so we are better off sticking with simple solutions.”

If you ask me, this looks remarkably like the Genesis 1:1—1:31. The same line of argument as with creationism: we don’t know, therefore we know.
Which works as an observation if you assume Pat Robertson speak for all Christians, throughout time and throughout space.

He doesn't, of course. Not only does he not speak for all theologians, he doesn't even speak for all lay Christians, anymore than all the "first best world" economists the media loves to rely on, speak for Dr. Duncan Black. The real intent behind the first chapter of Genesis (or the second, for that matter) is much closer to the humility counseled by Proverbs 16:18 than the the arrogance of ignorance trumpeted by people like Mr. Robertson. But getting back to Matthew 25: what about those economists?

Isn't that a fundamental problem with economics? That it assumes a utilitarian stance, where what I do for me is ultimately of benefit to society (thus economic decisions are ultimately either wholly rational, or rational enough to make the system work), especially if I do it to further my self-interest and can do it in a system which benefits the self-interest of either the numerical majority, or simply of the most powerful (which is all we really have in the world today. The "first world" of America, Europe, and Japan, is hardly the majority of the world's population. China's inclusion may eventually shift that balance, I don't know, but I suspect it's full inclusion (i.e., a lifestyle comparable to America's today) will mean a sharp diminishment/decline for at least America. We can only make the pie so much bigger, and then we have to divide it up again.).

So where are the economists gauging economic decisions from a fundamentally moral, v. fundamentally ethical, stance? (I know, I know, the distinction appears wholly idiosyncratic, but I make it based on Aristotle's Ethics, which has little to do with the morality expressed in the Mosaic law and the justice preached by the Hebrew Prophets and Jesus of Nazareth). Without that intervening consideration (which could, as well, be based on a Buddhist ethic, I suppose; I speak only from what I know, not to the exclusion of other cultures), isn't it still largely a question of angels dancing on the head of an economic pin?

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