Tuesday, September 13, 2005

a marginal note on economics

So, my fellowship is intended to bring together people with backgrounds in economics, political science, and sociology to learn about and do some health policy research. This has led me to be lately reading more economics-as-written-by-economists-writing-mainly-for-economists that I have previously. I've done this with some eagerness because, frankly, along with psychology, I've long suspected that, had my chain of intellectual biographical experiences brought me into more or better contact with it earlier, I may well have gone into it instead of sociology.* Anyway, while I'm hoping that this program gives me a chance to further deepen my familiarity of economics, which presumably may change some of the ways I think about it, allow me to record here as an orienting fieldnote my four most overarching, para-intellectual impressions of economics right now:

1. The seduction of economics is in the way that it connects intellectual elegance to social power.**

2. The poignance of economics is in the trade-offs.***

3. The affirmation of economics is the way that it allows for a self-concept of adopting a stance toward some of the most emotionally and ideologically freighted issues of the world that is (or seems) thoroughly bleached of sentimentality.

4. The dangers of economics are in mistaking the inexorable logic of math for the oh-so-exorable logic of people and in letting concepts like efficiency substitute for a fully-developed ethics.

* Which is not to say that I regret how things have turned out, especially since I would imagine that it would be harder to organize karaoke among economists. [See recent photo from my Madison karaoke encore here.]

** Including instances in which economic theory sometimes has the power to remake institutional arrangements out-of-line with theory so that they are more in line with theory, which can then run the risk of being perceived as being affirmations of the descriptive power of the theory in the first place. [See, e.g. if imperfectly, Donald MacKenzie and Yuval Millo, "Constructing a Market, Performing Theory: The Historical Sociology of a Financial Derivatives Exchange," American Journal of Sociology 109 (2003): 107-145.]

*** Then again, at least to my impression, one could say that the whole of economics is about trade-offs and about how everything is a trade-off, but some of these trade-offs do manage to be really and almost excruciatingly poignant. If you don't believe me, start doing some reading on the economic trade-offs of different kinds of health-care provision arrangements.

9 comments:

Tom Bozzo said...

Regarding point 4, I'd think reifying one's abstractions is a general problem of social science theorizing, though economics is probably more inclined than the others to derive "theorems" that can be willfully disobeyed. (I might note that having tried to provide a central result in my dissertation in a somewhat informal way for this reason, one of my revisions was to put that section in theorem/proof form.)

Footnote (*) -- probably true about the karaoke thing.

Footnote (**) -- probably not unique to economics.

Footnote (***) -- that's what keeps it interesting for me.

Brayden said...

Couldn't agree with you more on your four points. Sociology has no comparable theory that would directly guide us in dictating social policy or designing organizational structures.

Tom Volscho said...

Number 4 is important: I once heard an economist guest speak in a economics graduate class I took where he bragged about how his math was so complex that journals often had difficulty finding reviewers for his papers.

But, economists are handling a lot of traditionally sociological questions and they are handling them really well (e.g., Bowles and Ginits recent work on family structure and opportunities for mobility).

What's the last sociology book that sold (given historical differences in population and literacy rates) at least a quarter of as many copies as Paul Krugman's average book? The Lonely Crowd (1950)?

According to a National Post columnist writing in 2001, "He [Riesman] produced a literate and daringly speculative book, altogether different from the narrow and nervously guarded assemblies of statistical data that often make sociology a synonym for dreariness."

I really like this discipline, but your are right, we have to ask bigger questions and answer them better.

The number 3 point, though is because they appear objective and try hard to be pragmatic, but it is an illusion. These people look for ways to justify an unjust and oppressive economic system. I always thought it was neat how hard-headed and pragmatic they appear when approaching a question. Gary Becker's theory of discrimination hypothesizes that employers just happen to have a "taste" for discrimination and that it will all disappear because in the long run, it is irrational. Unjust institutionalized racist wage discrimination has not disappeared.

They give economists nobel prizes because they support and justify an unjust economic system (even if the prize comes from a benefactor originating highly socialist Sweden).

I am not personally attacking economists, I am just remarking on the superstructural ideologies that mainstream economics lends support to.

For a good critical textbook on economics, see:

Understanding capitalism : competition, command, and change / Samuel Bowles, Richard Edwards, and Frank Roosevelt, Oxford UP (2005)

Rhymes With Scrabble said...

And if you COULD get the economists to karaoke, could you get them to sing "I Touch Myself"?

Tom Volscho said...

Ironically one of my economics professors (a radical political economist) described his highly mathematical colleagues' work as "mental masturbation."

Jonas! said...

As Larry Summers says, "Is there anything sociology can do that economics can't do better?"

jeremy said...

Is this an actual quote from Summers?

Tom Volscho said...

SUMMERS QUOTE:

Postmodern economics? Just kidding.

Economists probably never would have asked if reality is socially constructed.

They wouldn't have figured out that "taste classifies and it classifies the classifier" (Bourdieu) or that there are payoffs to cultural and social capital (Coleman)

Their models do not predict how impression management influences things as mundane as economic transactions.

That they got their human capital ideas and models from Davis and Moore (1945 ASR) and borrowed models from Blau and Duncan's (1967) on the occupational structure.

Most economists do not study gender or "race", but they study discrimination.

Not to say that the two disciplines have not influenced each other over the years.

Tom Volscho said...

SUMMERS QUOTE:

Postmodern economics? Just kidding.

Economists probably never would have asked if reality is socially constructed.

They wouldn't have figured out that "taste classifies and it classifies the classifier" (Bourdieu) or that there are payoffs to cultural and social capital (Coleman)

Their models do not predict how impression management influences things as mundane as economic transactions.

That they got their human capital ideas and models from Davis and Moore (1945 ASR) and borrowed models from Blau and Duncan's (1967) on the occupational structure.

Most economists do not study gender or "race", but they study discrimination.

Not to say that the two disciplines have not influenced each other over the years.