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.