Thursday, August 8, 2013

How do you swagger? Addenda to my post on economists

In the last post in my series on being a jerk in academe, I talked about what I interpret as the argumentative style pursued by some economists.  I feel I need to clarify a few things.

By implication I suggested in that post that this style might have something to do with economists as a class, that when they talk to non-economists, they tend to adopt a certain posture that does little to encourage people to listen to them.

In that post, I wrote:
Again, I'm not trying to bait economics by the argumentation style of two people, Landsburg and the blogger I mention.  They all have valuable points. But I'm at a lost [sic!] to understand how the tone is designed to make it easier to listen to what they have to say.
Well, I'm no wholly at a loss.  In fact, I'm partially at a gain. I realize making provocative, outlandish claims,can, from time to time, goad someone to think differently or engage old topics in a new way.  It worked with me, or I wouldn't have written about them.

And it's not just the economists who do this.  I do it, too.  My insistence that the American Revolution wasn't a just war is, in addition to being a defensible statement in my opinion, is something I offer too often as a gadfly as a sneaky way to shock people.

My point about this type of talk being about economists as a class comes from what I observe to be their tendency to talk as if they assume everyone already shares their values and as if their values are not in some ways choices about what to value, sometimes universalizing their values to be some sort of objective truth.

This was part of the point I was trying to make about the letter Landsburg wrote to his daughter's preschool teacher.  In part, that point got lost in my poor writing.  I should clarify what the situation was and what I wanted the takeaway to be:

Landsburg has a strong distrust of some elements of the environmentalist movement, especially those near-religious elements that suggest we have an almost spiritual duty or obligation to take steps to preserve the environment.  Under this view, if we don't take those steps, if we "sin," then we face an assured destruction not unlike the calamities invoked in Revelations.  (That's not wholly Landsburg's point.  Robert H. Nelson has noted this aspect of some forms of the environmentalist movement, but I think Landsburg would probably find Nelson's interpretation congenial, at least insofar as it applies to environmentalists.  He has another point about economists.  See his The New Holy Wars:  Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in America).  This environmentalist worldview is sometimes used to impose obligations, via shaming or more direly, via government policy, that compels Landsburg to live in a way he doesn't want to live.  There's also an implicit claim by Landsburg that many of the policies and obligations imposed, such as recycling programs, might not work as well as their proponents think they do, and might come with their own externalities.

Now, Landsburg saw his daughter's preschool give an assembly where the preschoolers recited many of the mantras of the environmentalist movement.  Landsburg sees this as the equivalent of a school giving religious instruction to his daughter, and without his consent or approval.  Instead of talking with his daughter's teacher, however, he writes the teacher a letter in which he assumes that the teacher ought to have known that environmentalism is like a religion and that he feels so strongly about the issue that he finds the assembly as imposition of her (the teacher's) religion on his daughter.

My criticism of Landsburg is twofold. First, the snide tone of the letter was unnecessary.  There were simply nicer ways to explain his objections when she asked why he didn't like the assembly than to say, in a letter, "I reject you right to ask that question."

Second, he shouldn't assume the teacher or anybody else sees the environmentalist movement as obviously a religious-like movement.  Even today (about 20 years after Landsburg wrote his book), I imagine if you polled most people in the U.S., they would not think environmentalism is a "religion" in the same way that Christianity, Judaism, or Islam are.  Therefore, someone can believe in the separation of church and state or church and school (I believe this was a private school his daughter attended) and yet out of ignorance or out of having a different definition of religion, simply not recognize that teaching envrionmentalist-centric obligations is like teaching a religion.  To be fair, I do think Landsburg has an argument here.  A lot is done in the name of helping the environment that seems questionable and based on apocalyptic assumptions about what will happen if we don't.  But when people think about secularism in our schools, their (understandable, in my view) default assumption is usually that it's about what formal religions (with their clerisies and thou-shalt-not's) to inculcate or avoid inculcating, and not about claims that at least on the surface are grounded in scientific (and much that is said in support of evironmentalism at least claims to be scientifically backed) notions of the good.  If Landsburg actually discussed this with the teacher, then maybe she would have been receptive to some of his ideas.  (As a side note, I'm bothered by the assumption that once we have shown something is like a religion, we have therefore discredited it.)

Now, I criticized this example as a sneaky way to suggest an objective truth that might be more contestable than the claim of objectivity.  I think that's a type of approach we all can be and often are guilty of, whether we're economists or not.  But economics is given such deference in policy discussions (although perhaps not in actual policies), that economists are wont to talk as if they believe that theirs are the only values.  They have a podium from which to speak, and they are speaking as if the choir and only the choir are before them.

That's not to say they're wrong about any given policy or argument.  While I'm not sure I understand fully how economists define "wealth," I suspect their definition ought to be part of the equation at least for public policy and for one's own personal sense of how wealthy one is.  And  I, for one, buy the argument that freer trade increases aggregate wealth, the argument that voluntary exchange is a good thing (although I find it hard to distill purely voluntary exchange from coercive networks that I feel are embedded in our society), and the assumption that it's usually better to have more choices than fewer.  And for what it's worth, for all my talk about economists' "values" and the non-objectivity of those values, I believe that a majority of people in the western world have already drunk that particular flavor of kool aid.  For good or for ill, most of us like our things, and we like the fact that many of those things are cheaper and more available than before.  Even a nontrivial number of the dissenters seem to base their objections on the claim that some people (i.e., the less affluent) are denied a fair portion of the pie that they want to grow bigger.  (Of course, others, like some environmentalists, offer more fundamental objections.) But these are points that economists either need to be make and defend, or need to show that their interlocutors already agree with them.

Perhaps I was too quick to suggest that economists are peculiarly susceptible to the type of swagger where, so confident of the truth of their religion, they must proselytize it as if there be none others.  After all, I based my illustrations on only two examples, Landsburg and the blogger who discussed sweatshops and the sex trade.  I cannot claim to have been systematic in my "review" of the literature.  In fact, I cannot claim to have reviewed the literature because, well, I haven't.

But I do ask my economist and economics-trained friends to ask themselves whether they do at least sometimes adopt that type of swagger, and then to ask themselves if they are creating more noise than converts.  In fact, this whole "series" of blog posts is much more a call for introspection than it is an attempt at condemnation.

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