Has Greg Mankiw been reading philosophy?

A couple of short posts from an anonymous The Hand poster this week – make sure to comment with your views.

Greg Mankiw has an article in the New York Times.  It is notable for making explicit reference to literature in normative philosophy.  Does this mean that he has been doing some homework?  Some of his earlier forays into philosophical territory didn’t show much evidence that he was aware of work in that discipline.  Some philosophically literate readers weren’t very charitable about the sophistication of what he came up with.  “Low quality freelance philosophy done by people with PhDs in economics” according to Matt Yglegias.  A “laughably sophomoric attempt at political philosophy” according to Chris Bertram.

After he finishes his homework, perhaps we can look forward to some better freelance philosophy.

  • Hey Hand,

    Interesting stuff. However, I’m sort of interested in working through the “why” there is an issue with Mankiw’s characterisation – as after reading it, I was interested in working through it more myself! Initially it reads as a call to conservatism, but I think we can dig in a bit further right!

    My view is sort of as follows, in a post which is coming out at the end of the week I link to it and a critique and state:

    “the “harm” comes from a “change” in policy from an “initial position” – how do we define this initial position such that something counts as change? If we define it solely as “now” then we are simply conservative, if we define it as some “ideal type” that we believe is “natural for the social system”, we are trading in ideologies. Applying the harm principle starts to get tricky!”

    And before Mankiw wrote on the harm principle I touched on it when discussing choice (http://www.tvhe.co.nz/2014/03/14/on-economics/):

    “The fact that our knowledge is of an inexact nature implies that following a principle such as “first do no harm”, like medicine does, is incredibly valuable. This places limits on what we should expect the government to be able to come in and do – as the choice of government policy is a treatment. Of course, there are specific ethical principles we may have that government, as a representative of all of us, can fill – given that an economist can help work out the trade-offs and costs and benefits both ex-ante and ex-post, but the discipline doesn’t tell us whether the policy is a bad or good idea. Also, we can ask where the burden of proof lies given some assumption about where we start!”

    When my view of “burden of proof” was a characterisation of asking where the “initial position” was. My view is that the fact we need an initial position take us “back to square one” with regards to policies, and states more that we need to be transparent about normative assumptions more than anything else.

    Is this position valid? And is this view really that different from what Mankiw is implying?

    • TheHandTVHE

      Hey Matt. You are getting way ahead of me. For now, let me just say that it is a nice feature of consequentialism (such as with conventional examples of social welfare functions) that you don’t need pick a normative “reference point” such as an initial position, in order to be able to evaluate a policy change.

      • Hi,

        This is completely true.

        However, the justification for thinking about a “harm” principle is that economists knowledge regarding consequences is uncertain or imprecise. As a result of this, and the fact we are risk averse, we could be justifiably concerned about policy that tries to engineer a change from some presumed “initial point”. Given this, isn’t it a short step to also say that, given our concern about risk and given we may have a certain harm and uncertain benefit (the key principle behind “first do no harm”) perhaps we should weight perceived potential costs more heavily than perceived potential benefits?

        I am not saying this is the way I think per se when I look at policy – I prefer to have standard cost-benefit calculations, and try to quantify my uncertainty about results by defining a cut-off CB ratio that incorporates this along with the cost of funding/dead-weight loss. But given the predilection of some economists (of every political persuasion) to sometimes ram policy prescriptions down people’s throats – and sometimes cause harm – perhaps considering when the harm is certain and our benefits are more, theoretical, would lead to better advice?

        • TheHandTVHE

          It sounds to me as if we might be about to talk about two different principles. First, the “do no harm” principle associated with medical care, is the one that Mankiw invokes. “[L]audable but obviously deficient” according to the article he links to. Second, something like the precautionary principle would be closer to what you seem to be interested in. Am I reading you right about that? There is a third one as well, Mill’s harm principle. I assume that it is off the table for now.

          • Hi,

            Indeed, out of the three it is closest to the precautionary principle – I don’t think we need Mill’s harm principle here, as I don’t think we are talking about externalities (or public goods being akin to externalities). If the discussion did go in that direction it would be very interesting.

            I think it is a little separate from the precautionary principle though (I’d say that what I follow is the precautionary principle), I was under the impression that “first do no harm” as a principle also states something about the “certainty” of harms – weigh an certain harm more highly than a uncertain benefit.

            With the precautionary principle both harms and benefits are uncertain, we have a situation of symmetry. But the “first do no harm” principle applies to situations where there is an asymmetry in certainty around costs and benefits – as it is to avoid “speculative” treatments on patients.

            Whether Mankiw’s examples fall into that category are questionable – especially what the “treatment” is, and what the certain harms and uncertain benefits are.

            With regards to “initial point” my terminology could simply be a mess. It is with an eye to treatment I’m stating that – so what we define as treatment (change) with corresponding forms of benefits and costs (with varying degrees of certainty) depends on what we define as our “natural position”, which is no so obvious to me.

            Cheers for the conversation though, it is very useful. If you have more comments I will keep replying – as that is what I do 🙂

  • Greg Mankiw is absolutely right to point out that economists implicitly moralise when they give advice. Perhaps his advice is naive but I hope it begins a conversation. I would like to hear the view of philosophical sophisticates, such as the anonymous author, so it is a shame that he has chosen to provide neither a substantive critique nor an alternative suggestion. I hope that will come later in this series!

    • TheHandTVHE

      Hey James. Do you think that Mankiw’s article actually made the value judgments behind his “moralising” clear? If you do, I’d be grateful if you’d explain them.

      BTW, I’m a little intimidated by the prospect of having to develop and articulate my own normative framework, before pointing out that Mankiw has been reading up 😉

      • Probably not as explicitly as you would like but it’s a NYT article, not a philosophical treatise. Maybe you could point to specific elements of Mankiw’s piece that you disagree with and cite authors who disagree?

  • In the course of rebutting Rawls and Nozick, the issue became do we own our own eyes behind the veil of ignorance.

    Should there be an eye lottery for the benefit of the blind.

    Once you concede eyes can be taken behind the veil of ignorance, what other concessions must be made on a slippery slope to capitalism.

    The NYT readers can do without these higher insights from academic philosophers.

    • One I enjoy is when you say to people that part of the justification for progressive taxation is “from each according to his ability to each according to his need”. People nod. Then they hear it is a Marx quote. Then they panic about being communist!

      Ultimately, normative issues be complicated – and social preconceptions help to drive how a description of normative principles is taken, and even what normative principles people assume “matter”. However, without some explicit discussion of this any policy conclusion economists give is implicitly assuming them – a key point methinks!

    • TheHandTVHE

      That might be arguable for hard-out utilitarians. But Nozick is like, totally off the hook.

  • an oddity in the top 1% beatup is Steve jobs is a hero but bill gates is not despite giving his wealth away. Jobs has no known charities.

    • Yeah, I think that is indicative of the way we can sometimes value each other – people just like Job’s personality more, deserved or not.

      We are group creatures in the end, and if we were honest about our moral judgments we may feel uncomfortable about them. The thing I’d give Mankiw is that at least he puts them out there, even if they are disagreeable and open to being attacked as a result.

  • we saw the movie Jobs, which include a fire alarm at the Roxy. We had the upstairs theatre to ourselves.

    I could not work out what Jobs actually achieved on his own. Jobs was portrayed as a thoroughly unlikable fellow who was a terrible CEO who deserved to be fired in the mid-1980s.

    If he had been hit by a bus in 200, no one would remember Jobs now.

    Good to see that having a winning personality gets you a pass on your membership of the top 0.01% of income earners in the eyes of the Twitter Left.

    • People who pick political teams often have inconsistencies or biases that aren’t transparent. The advantage of a good social science/economic analysis should be to make these transparent 🙂

  • Pingback: Some beautiful links | The Dismal Science()