Economics as a responsibility

I’ve been reflecting on multiple things for a few days, and two recent events brought them into focus. First, I was having an online discussion with somebody really smart* who was critiquing a journal article that was likely to become grist for the YIMBY mill. She caveated the discussion by noting that researchers can’t really control how people use their findings. They can’t, not strictly, but that means they have a strong responsibility to think ahead about what kind of knowledge they are trying to create and who it benefits and in staying engaged with the work after publication. Edited to add: Smart Tweeter notes that this makes it sounds like she was absolving scholars, when in fact “it’s a misread on your part. The caveat – included in that same tweet – was that scholars were responsible for the ways in which their work upholds and caters to the very paradigms those that use their work as weapons take their cues’s a misread on your part. The caveat – included in that same tweet – was that scholars were responsible for the ways in which their work upholds and caters to the very paradigms those that use their work as weapons take their cues from.”

The second thing that I’ve been reflecting on was that dumb piece from Forbes about shutting down libraries and replacing them with Starbuck’s and Amazon from Dr. NoName this weekend. I shan’t link to it because I don’t want to give him or Forbes any links for garbage.

See, the thing is, I do think scholars can reasonably see how people are going to use their work, and it’s a matter of research ethics to think about those consequences. Human subjects review requires you think about potential harm the participants might experience weighed against the research’s benefits. But that is different than thinking about the potential harm caused by the research itself to social groups.

For instance, I think Charles Murray knew *exactly* what he was doing with The Bell Curve–he’d have to have done in order to go to the lengths he does to come to the conclusions he desired–and he’s been living off it ever since. I think the person who published the “Hey, maybe colonialism was good for all those countries and peoples” piece (also not linking) last year knew what they were about. It’s easy and sloppy and lazy–and likely very remunerative if you get lucky and go on “universities are oppressive dens of political correctness” circuit if you fail to get tenure.

For research harms that are harder to predict than these, it can be tough. I don’t know how many programs teach research ethics, but they should. I got a good dose of it from my feminist epistemology teacher, Sandra Harding, who assigned in that class a book that in my opinion is a classic in research design, from an anthropologist who is also Maori: Decolonizing Methodologies from Linda Tuhiwai Smith. Now, if you can think of any discipline more responsible than anthropology in messing up things for the Maori, I’d be impressed because I can’t. In this book, Tuhiwai Smith lays out a research ethics that places “do no harm” and “elevate the subject” at the center of inquiry. I highly recommend it because it’s not just useful for researchers; it’s useful for planners, too, and public administrators, doctors, parents, etc. Anybody who wants to find things out in order to help serve other people.

Which brings us to economics as a responsibility. Economics is the king of the social sciences, and thus it’s also the king of the policy fields, much to the chagrin of political scientists and sociologists who legitimately have a great deal to contribute to the discussion. Many economists would argue they have this status because they are more rigorously trained, and as a result, their findings are more accurate and more useful in shaping policy (and management strategies, etc).

The critique, of course, is that economics gets elevated because as a paradigm, they are consultants to power who tell power what it likes to hear. They provide the intellectual cover for policies austerity, despite mounting evidence that there is little wonderful about austerity or trickle down or supply-side anything.

You could say that the truth is somewhere in the middle, but I’d argue that these two points are duals, two sides of the same coin, and as a result, economists have a responsibility–and it isn’t just the responsibility that all of us have to be as rigorous as possible. The responsibility is to recognize that the status and privilege enjoyed by economists in the policy fields means that they have to be ultra conscious about the ways they frame, evaluate, study, and interpret social policy questions. All scholarly disciplines have some power to some degree, but it’s really nothing like what economists have when it comes to social policy.

Marty Feldstein produced a reasonable critique of Social Security and a proposition for changing it. Paul Ryan turned it into the Satan’s baby of a social policy proposal individual accounts became.

We in the policy fields tend to describe economics as a “tool” in policy formation and analysis.

But I see it used more often as a weapon. And that’s what Smart Lady on Twitter was describing. Instead of approaching a study as partial, it becomes a weapon to club the people you see as your political enemies instead of a spark to begin thinking together and deliberating about what we want policy to be.

In that kind of knowledge environment, it’s not good enough to write the study and wash your hands of it. It’s not good enough to enjoy the privilege that our systems convey upon economists and to ignore the rest. Economists have a responsibility to de-center themselves at times and elevate the work of disciplines that bring to the table what economists don’t. There is a responsibility for clarity about the harms that may result from implementation of teh ideas. You can’t be everything to everybody, but you can speak up when you see your results misinterpreted (I particularly like the way Christina Romer has done so over her work on minimum wage.)

Or you can get up in the morning and “own the libtards” and write an obviously idiotic, click-bait essay highlighting all the things you know will piss off liberals. Replace beloved local institutions (libraries) with Amazon and Starbucks, two corporate giants. Watch the libs melt down. Whee.

*I never know whether to identify people on the blog or not, and since I seem to annoy this person anyway, I’m going with no this time out just in case I misread her points.