Saturday, June 1, 2013

Economics, Then and Now

The study of economics is contested territory - some see it as a "hard" science, like chemistry or astronomy, subject to the rules of empirical observation and mathematical modelling; others see it as a "soft" science, in which reflection and analysis are of a more nuanced type and not subject to algebraic patterns. It is also a controversial topic inasmuch as the purely descriptive nature of economic laws is continuously conscripted to work in the service of prescriptive policy. It is a rare economist indeed who can keep his work as a purely academic exercise in categorizing data under the headings of various hypotheses; if, by himself, he is not tempted to veer from the descriptive into the prescriptive, someone else will nudge him into that temptation.

Wherever economics crosses into the prescriptive - which is almost everywhere - then it will become controversial as a matter of course, as policy makers and parties seek justification for their views.

The use and abuse of economics becomes clearer over time. A student graduating from Yale University in 1950 would have been exposed to an economics curriculum shaped by the teaching faculty and its views. One such graduate, William F. Buckley, recorded his experiences. The introductory concepts can be taught by professors of various leanings - despite their biases, they are competent

to explain the price system, the laws of supply and demand, the cost curves of the business firm, and the myriad details and background knowledge that must serve as the basis for any well-conceived course in economics. The elementary textbooks at Yale do this job well enough. It is when the author begins to talk about desirable government action, appropriate social policies, just economic goals; it is when he discusses the obsolescence of individualism and the waning of free enterprise and capitalism, that he reveals his biases. And these biases are readily espoused by the average student.

The practicalities of economics are, in many cases, non-controversial. But the economist always walks the tightrope over the abyss of policy recommendations. There is a double danger here: in the examples given by Buckley, the textbook author writes about which government actions might be "desirable" - first, in choosing one set of actions over another, the author has betrayed a bias; but second, in assuming that government actions can be "desirable," the textbook author has already accepted the premise that the government should act, rather than leaving the organic economy to work on its own to find its way to an approximation of an equilibrium.

Likewise, not only is there a subjectivity in choosing one or more social policies as "appropriate," but there is a deeper belief behind the choice - the hidden and unquestioned belief that a government should have a "social policy," rather than letting society choose its own course. Societies can largely structure and guide themselves, and it is a large assumption to assert that the government can and should override society's internal guidance.

And so it is with the other examples listed by Buckley: not only is it an assumption that one can decide which economic goals are just; it is also an assumption that a government should have economic goals, or that such goals could possibly be just. It is a conjecture that individualism is "obsolete" or that capitalism and free enterprise are "waning" - a conjecture which is not strong enough to be stated as a brute fact in introductory textbooks.

These were the ideologies hidden in the curriculum of economics at Yale in the late 1940's. Although still current among some people - among some elected leaders of both parties, among some career bureaucrats and civil servants, and among the less competent academics who are all the more influential because of their incompetence - these ideas are even less credible 65 years later than they were then.

However incredible, these ideas were influential, and influential by design. The teaching of them was part of a broader social and political vision. The ideas were certainly not meant to fuel some violent overthrow of the economic system:

It is a revolution of the second type, one that advocates a slow but relentless transfer of power from the individual to the state, that has roots in the Department of Economics at Yale, and unquestionably in similar departments in many colleges throughout the country. The documentation that follows should paint a vivid picture.

Buckley goes on to list the examples already discussed. There is certainly neither crime nor sin in teaching various ideas, but there is both when the mission of the university is thereby betrayed. Yale in particular, as a privately owned and operated university, has the mission of fulfilling the desires of its founders, of those who fund it, and of its alumni. By contrast, a publicly run university, to the extent that it is funded by tax dollars, has the mission of carrying out the desires of the voters and taxpayers, as those desires are expressed by their elected representatives.

I cannot repeat too often that I have cause to object to the current Yale policies only if there exists a disparity between the values the alumni of Yale want taught, and those currently being taught in the field of economics. If, after digesting this section or pursuing personal investigation, the alumnus finds himself in accord with the values that are being fostered at his college, I have nothing more to say to him - unless, of course, I find him, some day, lamenting the collectivist drift of our government.

It may well be inevitable, that as long as economics is taught as an academic discipline, it will be an ideological battleground in a way in which, e.g., trigonometry is not. In any case, the biases and unspoken dubious assumptions which Buckley identified in Yale's curriculum remain common, despite the fact that they are intellectually even less respectable now than they were then. To present such ideas, and deliberately withhold data which reveal such ideas as untenable, while being funded by those whose desires are not represented in such ideas, and funded by those whose well-being is measurably harmed by policies based on such ideas - be they taxpayers or alumni donors - amounts to fraud.