Has Greg Mankiw been smoking dak?

Another short post from an anonymous The Hand poster this week – make sure to comment with your views.

I hope that I didn’t give the impression in my last post that Mankiw actually likes philosophy.  If anything, he sounds rather negative.  Economists drawing on philosophy when making policy advice is apparently a “dirty little secret”.  The point seems to be that making a case for a policy will involve value judgements, often on disputed value judgements about distribution. 

Hey, I get it.  Just about any substantive policy would help some people but harm others.  So how does Mankiw propose to avoid the need to call in some philosophy?  His proposed principle is, …. hang on, I had it a minute ago … “[f]irst do no harm”.  Eh?  Didn’t he just say that government policies pretty much always harm someone?

I guess I must be getting the wrong end of the stick.  Perhaps I am failing to distinguish tasty and sweet-smelling type 1 harms from those nasty type 2 harms.  Or something.  He does give us a couple of hints about what it is all supposed to mean.  But I really think we could ask for some more clarity about the normative foundations of his perspective.  You know, like doing a bit of philosophy.

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.

Thinking about what ‘economics’ is

I am trying to gradually clarify my perception of what economics is.  Here are some cliff notes from a recent discussion I had:

Economists try to answer questions about “the allocation of resources given scarcity”.  Every question is quite specific and different, economics education involves learning a broad set of skills that allow us to tackle questions.  To do this economists use models.  Models embody a set of assumptions, assumptions that create an “artificial world” that we can deduce conclusions from given these assumptions.  We then use data, robustness testing, and rhetorical debate to help us inductively infer conclusions about the real world question we are asking from these artificial worlds.

As a result, economics is a discipline that can discuss a wide range of social questions that range from deterministic statements, to prediction, to description, to exploration – but the answers provided are always conditional on the question asked, and the assumptions we have made for answering that specific question.

Further details can be found in these (in order):

  1. What is economics in the most general sense.
  2. On economics as method.
  3. On assumptionsand again on assumptions.
  4. What does it mean to have many models?
  5. Economics and science – careful with the prediction call.
  6. Before railing against economics – what economists do.

If you know of any literature I should peek at to help inform myself on the status of the accumulation of knowledge and method in the discipline (as there is A LOT of improvement I can do in my understanding here) I would really appreciate it.

QOTD: Plato

Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.

Economists like to think they’re above politics and deal only with positive questions. Is that really much of a boast?

Quote of the day: Uskali Maki on economics

From the prelude to ‘Fact and Fiction in Economics‘ comes the following gem by Maki:

“Is economics a respectful and useful reality-oriented discipline or just an intellectual game that economists play in their sandbox filled with toy models?”

Variants of these questions fly around all the time. Why are economists making unrealistic assumptions? Why won’t they just assage to “common sense” about the situation? Why are they making the ‘wrong’ choice in some trade-off between looking at the real world and narrative and/or mathmatical beauty?

These questions sound appealing, but in many ways they are often misspecified – not pointless, but without enough content to actually be answerable. As Maki says:

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Economics sucks, it is just the study of ‘common sense’

This is a view I hear all the time, a view that (in my view and given how it is often framed) completely misses the point of economics, social science, and even common sense!

Common sense is an important thing to keep in mind, and the concept undeniably has a place when thinking about the application of economic ideas, or the reference point from where the social sciences should put effort into building understanding.

Common sense refers to judgements, knowledge, and beliefs that are shared between people. The context I’m using here is a touch weaker – but similar to the more common definition:

Common sense is a basic ability to perceiveunderstand, and judge things which is shared by (“common to”) nearly all people, and can be reasonably expected of nearly all people without any need for debate

The main difference is that this is descriptive of the way common sense is treated, not an indication of the way we should treat it ;)

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