Economics doesn’t hold all the answers

Ian Ricoy

In American academia, there is a tendency to move many social sciences towards quantitative analysis. It started with economics, originally a branch of philosophy, trying to rebrand itself as a hard science and has been spilling into political science for almost 30 years. Economists really want to be mathematicians; political scientists really want to be economists. I could tell you how bad of a leader Trump is (granted, I could define “bad” without using philosophy), but why he is bad, or how to fix him? Yeah, sorry, no-can-dosville baby-doll. I was trained as a political scientist, notapolitician. Economists claim to have all the answers because society loves how they combine statistics with money theory.

Disclaimer: I’ve taken economics, stats and math courses here at the College, abroad, in high school and at The University of Michigan — the policy school most famous for its use of quantitative methods. My I.S. is all quantitative analysis. One of my favorite podcasts is “Freako- nomics.” I’m not saying we need to flush out math people and economists from policy circles or abolish the use of statistics in social science. I am not saying all economists and financiers think this way or are bad people either. I don’t even necessarily blame them for making normative claims. I blame the society (that we live in) for putting them on a pedestal. My main claims are that economics is overvalued in society and economists are given authority over areas that aren’t economics.

I find, in my experience, that economists feel that their status as the chief social scientists gives them authority over topics outside of economics, namely ethics. A basic example: the philosopher claims that the wage Foxconn pays its workers is too low to sustain a decent living and therefore, immoral. An economist would respond that the worker voluntarily agreed to the wage offered by Foxconn, both are mutually benefitting from this arrangement, it is irrational for Foxconn to pay higher than they need to and that an unskilled worker can only get so far in a saturated labor market. All of that is 100 percent true, but guess what? That has absolutely no bearing on the morality of the wage and living conditions of the worker. Efficiency does not equal moral permissibility nor is a system built on rationality and voluntary association infallible. Now, one must decide if they value efficiency or morality over the other. Just because some- thing exists or is rational or is optimal or is arrived at via a market system does not mean anything about the morality of that thing.

In my humble view, I think economics needs to look in the mirror and decide if it really wants to be like a hard science or take a step back towards its philosophical roots. If economics is a hard science, as it wishes to be, then its ability to make moral claims is very weak. But if it moves back to its roots in utilitarianism, then it has some ground to stand on. I think it’s high time economics goes back to its utilitarian roots or incorporates other philosophers like Marx into its canon. Marx, though not right about everything, pretty much predicted how capitalism would destroy our planet, divide our society and fail to serve the common people — but nobody wanted to listen to an economist who wasn’t a mathematician. Or perhaps it was because he was a wee bit radical. You decide.

So often, what is true is conflated with what is right, and that just ain’t it chief. When all you have are economists advising you, every problem starts to look like a matter of supply and demand. We will always need economics, and I think it’s a valuable discipline that I want to continue studying after undergrad. It’s like the famous economist Jim Burnell PhD. of America’s Premier College for Mentored Undergraduate Research often says, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Economics is theory. Theory is an abstraction. Theory is not truth.”

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