06 April, 2009

A curious rash of anti-economics

I was encouraging my Honors Calculus class to take an economics course the other day and while I was holding forth on how much I enjoyed my economics classes and how I had considered becoming one,* one of the pipsqueaks piped up somewhat disdainfully, "Aren't they responsible for the current mess we're in?" A few others chimed in agreement.

I did my best to explain that no, economists were not responsible for it; economists study the economy, and do not make policy, and the the advice of some economists helps managers and politicians make policy. They didn't press me, but they didn't look very convinced, either.

I've seen this kind of thing elsewhere. People talk as if all economists are the equivalent of alchemists, merely because some of them made recommendations that led to bad policy.

That logic strikes me as equivalent to saying that chemists are responsible for pipe bombs, global warming, and the growth of prescription medicine in rivers and streams; while physicists are responsible for nuclear weapons; and computer scientists are responsible for hackery. Or, for that matter, that atheists are responsible for the Cultural Revolution.**

Many of these same economists have also made some recommendations that led to good policy. Many economists disagreed with their bad recommendations, and many disagreed with their good recommendations. And what makes for a "good" recommendation, anyway? The appearance of a good economy can lead many to conclude that they have achieved financial security, when in fact much of their wealth is, in the late Sam Walton's words, "just paper".

Think of it like a visit to the doctor when you're coughing: he has to figure out why you're sick. This isn't so easy to determine, so he could easily misdiagnose once or twice before getting it right. Meanwhile, the patient falsely thinks he is healthy, only to learn that he is worse than ever. This is quite common, yet for some reason people still visit doctors.***

On the other hand, many of the managers and politicians who made the decisions that caused this mess—frequently against the advice of economists, motivated by greed or from naïve notions of financial realities—cling to power, and cast aspersions on people who either had nothing to do with it or, worse, tried to sound the alarm. Such as, you know, economists.

Meanwhile, the real problem—our national addiction to cheap, easy credit—remains untreated.

*It has something to do with applications of Calculus to economics, I think, but I can't remember how.

**Happily, I couldn't find a way to blame mathematicians for anything, but anyone who can find a fault with us is welcome to take potshots.

***Come to think of it, it is pretty fashionable in many circles to bash "Western medicine" and the "pharmaceutical companies" while pumping oneself full of untested, unregulated "herbal" medicines. Still, even these people will visit a doctor when their usual placebos fail to pan out.

No comments: