Close to the ground

Hey, it’s John McCain time again! The Free Exchange blog has this (under the nifty headline ‘Tsk-onomics’), on the familiar topic of McCain’s support for the gas tax ‘holiday’. Congress doesn’t like it, economists don’t like it, so far so familiar.

Apparently McCain’s getting slammed for being rubbish at answering questions on this, and other, policies he’s advocating, but let’s leave that to the analysts. There’s a fun exchange quoted from a George Stephanopoulos chat with McCain:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Not a single economist in the country said it’d work.

MCCAIN: Yes. And there’s no economist in the country that knows very well the low-income American who drives the furthest, in the oldest automobile, that sometimes can’t even afford to go to work.

I think it’s neat that presidential candidates get chips by opposing economists, and I don’t mean that as an offended economist; I think it’s interesting. Anyway, is there any merit in that particular McCain quotation? Or, to paraphrase: is economics too far from the ground? Is it too esoteric to properly understand the actual, real implications of its preditions, its recommendations?

The classic case, I think, might be the globalization debate, the protectionism debate: typical economist’s position might be ‘trade good because it allows specialization based on comparative advantage, cheap stuff, more to go around etc’; the counter-argument could run ‘trade bad, erodes localism which we like, hurts those people whose livelihood depends on those things that their country will stop producing when trade makes it cheaper to get those things from other countries’.

Now, sure, the response to the latter is usually ‘yes, yes, we know some people lose out, compensate the losers’, but is that particularly constructive? Are we blind to the real, tangible content of the disagreement with the ‘economist’s answers’? Do we splutter and get indignant with John McCain because he had bad policies, or because we don’t really get the argument?

When we say ‘your gas tax holiday plan sucks, aha!’, we lose friends and alienate people; could we actually make economists a little cuddlier and meet McCain halfway? How can we deal with the problems he’s referring to, that people feel like they’re struggling to get by? We don’t deal with it by ridiculing, that’s for sure. There’s no need to compromise if you think a gas tax holiday isn’t right, so by all means make that case, but every time an economist is painted into a corner as an enemy of the prosperity of the common man, we must argue our way out double-quick, as a matter of principle and credibility.

Noble goals

Talking about growth and development yesterday made me think of the twin institutions that bear the brunt of a decent portion of the anti-growth, anti-capitalist, anti-America, anti-“economics” anger in the world. Those would be the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (perhaps we could throw the World Trade Organization in too). Remember the Seattle riots around the WTO meeting in 1999? How I sympathize with those who would criticize these institutions, who would debate their goals and their practices. Yet here I go, so help me, to try to raise the defense.

Forget for a moment, if possible, any prejudice for or against these institutions. These were not organizations born of evil purpose. Let’s read along with the part of the Bretton Woods agreement that set up what is commonly known as the World Bank:

“The purposes of the Bank are:

(i) To assist in the reconstruction and development of territories of members by facilitating the investment of capital for productive purposes, including the restoration of economies destroyed or disrupted by war, the reconversion of productive facilities to peacetime needs and the encouragement of the development of productive facilities and resources in less developed countries.

(ii) To promote private foreign investment by means of guarantees or participations in loans and other investments made by private investors; and when private capital is not available on reasonable terms, to supplement private investment by providing, on suitable conditions, finance for productive purposes out of its own capital, funds raised by it and its other resources.

(iii) To promote the long-range balanced growth of international trade and the maintenance of equilibrium in balances of payments by encouraging international investment for the development of the productive resources of members, thereby assisting in raising productivity, the standard of living and conditions of labor in their territories.

(iv) To arrange the loans made or guaranteed by it in relation to international loans through other channels so that the more useful and urgent projects, large and small alike, will be dealt with first.

(v) To conduct its operations with due regard to the effect of international investment on business conditions in the territories of members and, in the immediate post-war years, to assist in bringing about a smooth transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy.”

This reflects both the origins of the Bank as an institution of post-war reconstruction. The World Bank was set up to help nations and people who were in need. Don’t these goals seem kind of noble, or important?

The IMF equivalent:

“The purposes of the International Monetary Fund are:

(i) To promote international monetary cooperation through a permanent institution which provides the machinery for consultation and collaboration on international monetary problems.

(ii) To facilitate the expansion and balanced growth of international trade, and to contribute thereby to the promotion and maintenance of high levels of employment and real income and to the development of the productive resources of all members as primary objectives of economic policy.

(iii) To promote exchange stability, to maintain orderly exchange arrangements among members, and to avoid competitive exchange depreciation.

(iv) To assist in the establishment of a multilateral system of payments in respect of current transactions between members and in the elimination of foreign exchange restrictions which hamper the growth of world trade.

(v) To give confidence to members by making the Fund’s resources available to them under adequate safeguards, thus providing them with opportunity to correct maladjustments in their balance of payments without resorting to measures destructive of national or international prosperity.

(vi) In accordance with the above, to shorten the duration and lessen the degree of disequilibrium. in the international balances of payments of members.”

It’s a triumph of global cooperation that institutions like these exist, with the aims – broadly expressed – of achieving stability, development and prosperity. It’s amazing. Like I said, part of me hates playing devil’s advocate for institutions that are routinely characterized as evil tools of evil people in evil countries, but, if you don’t like these institutions, at least tell me you don’t reject the idea of these institutions.

Yes, we know that these institutions have dropped the ball – to put it mildly – in the past, and that is not an economists versus the world thing, it’s just a fact. Yes, it’s incredibly, astonishingly misguided to put headquarters of these institutions in the capital of America, and all the more unfortunate given the strong feelings that alone arouses. Yes, the balance of power in the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, hell, the UN too, is probably a mess.

But here’s the rub: I want international cooperation that tries to tame the beast of the global economy, of the complex and difficult problems that arise when everyone in the world interacts while trying to make the best out of what they have. I want to worry about figuring out how to help countries and people who want help, and then giving it. I want to acknowledge that we’re all in this together and that our decisions matter for each other.

We – everyone – are the people who can embrace the ideals that gave us unprecedented international cooperation in the aftermath of a bloody and destructive war, and develop those noble ideals into institutions that work, practically, for everyone. I can only quote the first principle of the World Trade Organization: “The first step is to talk“. If you believe the institutions are sick, let’s cure them rather than let them die.

Psychologists are evil

This is just an outstanding quotation, from a New York Times article:

“Often introducing money into the exchange — putting it into the marketplace — is what people find repugnant. Mr. Bloom asserted that money is a relatively new invention in human existence and therefore “unnatural.”

Economists are asking the wrong question, Mr. Bloom said at the panel. They assume that “everything is subject to market pricing unless proven otherwise.”

“The problem is not that economists are unreasonable people, it’s that they’re evil people,” he said. “They work in a different moral universe. The burden of proof is on someone who wants to include” a transaction in the marketplace. (Mr. Roth, who acknowledges that “economists see very few tradeoffs as completely taboo,” did not take the criticism personally.)”

Sadly, it seems that Bloom was kidding. Isn’t it nice that “economists are evil” is a statement that can be mistaken for seriousness, but “psychologists are evil” is so clearly ridiculous?

How can economists plausibly evil, but psychologists cannot? I think the idea that economists “assume that “everything is subject to market pricing unless proven otherwise.”” is wrong. It’s a common criticism: economists reduce everything to dollars and cents, trying to measure the value of stuff that’s invaluable (the article is talking about how “repugnance” affects trade, using the example of selling organs).

As the social science of the allocation of scarce resources, how could economics operate without trying to figure out some concept of the value of something to someone? I think environmentalists have long despised economists for this reason. Say we’re talking about a scarce natural resource, a rain forest for example. Again, positive economic science cannot possibly hope to tell us what the “best” use of this resource is, but it can hope to tell us the consequences of each use. Unfortunately, it’s clearly easier to measure, say, the value of this resource to the logger and grazer who seek to use it today than it is to measure the value to humanity of preserving the forest.

Similarly, it’s easier to measure the willingness to pay for an organ by a terminally ill individual, and to measure the willingness of another individual to give up an organ, than it is to measure the potential consequences of allowing the sale of organs. The question at hand is: do we do what we can, even given this imbalance, or does the imbalance justify making no valuation, even the ones that are possible? Is attempting to value anything an assumption that “everything is subject to market pricing”?

Trying to understand more about the consequences of a particular allocation of resources is not the same as either propagandizing for that allocation or method of allocation, that is, markets. Even in jest, the charge that we “operate in a different moral universe” is a serious one. It actually makes me very sad, because I’m very familiar with the particular problem of introducing myself as an economist: it alienates a decent percentage of people you meet. (“I’m an economist, but I’m not evil, honest”.) Economists are evil, or at least morally bankrupt, to some people. I wish that wasn’t the case.

It’s understandable. Let’s take the ideal world where all positive economics is done scientifically and without normative judgment. Is it surprising that value-neutral economic science seems evil, while value-neutral physics, or chemistry, or psychology, seems like the noble pursuit of knowledge? The Methodology of Positive Economics by Friedman is, again, eloquent on this subject:

“The subject matter of economics is regarded by almost everyone as vitally important to himself and within the range of his own experience and competence; it is the source of continuous and extensive controversy and the occasion for frequent legislation. Self-proclaimed “experts” speak with many voices and can hardly all be regarded as disinterested; in any event, on questions that matter so much, “expert” opinion could hardly be accepted solely on faith even if the “experts” were nearly unanimous and clearly disinterested. The conclusions of positive economics seem to be, and are, immediately relevant to important normative problems, to questions of what ought to be done and how any given goal can be attained. Laymen and experts alike are inevitably tempted to shape positive conclusions to fit strongly held normative preconceptions and to reject positive conclusions if their normative implications – or what are said to be their normative implications – are unpalatable.”

It’s not just confusion between positive and normative economics, between the practice of the science and its interpretation, it’s the very attempt to be value-neutral, to be agnostic, that makes economics seem evil. This is all the more true if, as Friedman is arguing, that there’s temptation to attach value judgment to positive economics. If there’s any hope of us shedding the “evil” tag, this is a temptation that all economists must resist and fight.