Geoff Simmons, Politics and “career suicide for an economist”

Disclaimer:  I used to work in the same space as Geoff, and I know him as a guy who is genuine, wants to improve social outcomes, is a mad good communicator, and who works hard on the issues.  But none of this would prevent me from disagreeing with him if I did (such as my comments on food here and here and here and here), so I swear there is no bias involved 😉

In a cool interview over at Geoff Simmons outlines what is going on with the TOP party, which he has just become leader of.  For the sake of clarity I think he’ll be an excellent leader for this party.  What I want to concentrate on is this quote though:

How can the public know I am serious about the long haul? When Cortez took on the Aztecs, he trashed his ships to make sure his men had no choice but to fight with everything they had. The reason I bring up that story is what I am doing right now is pretty much career suicide for an economist. There’s no going back.

Haha, this is good – I like the nifty description of a commitment mechanism.  But I’d like to ask a couple of questions about it.

  1. Is this true.
  2. Should this be true.

For the first one I don’t know, as I’m no-one important enough to make these sort of decisions – I’m just a random guy that writes on a blog.  Given Geoff has already stood as deputy-leader I’m not sure that signing on as leader for an extra term will make any difference.  The guy has economics, writing, and oral skills which a bunch of public and private sector organisations would be happy to use.

But if it was true, should it be?  When discussing whether economics was consequentialist I revisited the positive-normative distinction.  For economic policy this is:

A positive economic analysis is about comparing outcomes – describing what occurs and why, given shared definitions of what the key elements are, but not of how they are valued.  A normative economic analysis is about choosing from a set of outcomes – it requires valuing these elements of our analysis.

Being “an economist” as a profession/career is about describing the trade-offs that exist between outcomes of policy.  Being a politician is about associating values to outcomes and selecting one.  Someone with economics training like Geoff has clear training in understanding the trade-offs that exist between these outcomes – but is not necessarily more equipped to associate values, and definitely not armed with values that are simply more valuable/important.  However, the training allows someone like Geoff to articulate those values more clearly because the trade-offs involved are explicit.

In this way, economists should not be scared of getting into politics – economists are people with values too and should be allowed to represent them.  Their training does not make their values more important – but it does give them a language for communicating those values more clearly.

The problem with economists going into politics is a belief that their values are more important – not the fact that they are economists.  The career suicide “should” be when an economist shows an inability to separate normative and positive roles, not the fact that they dared to have a normative position as a human being.

Now in this way it shouldn’t be career suicide for Geoff – and hopefully if the politics thing doesn’t work out he still has plenty of opportunities to jump back into the exciting world of analysing trade-offs for a living!  I just thought this was a cool idea to think about.