I have just moved house, and while doing so I discovered a bunch of old books that my brother had loaned to me. One of these was the Foundations of Economic Thought (1990) – a good title, so I figured I’d give it a bit of a read.
Within the book is a series of self-contained essays which mix economic history with economic ideas and methods – I am a big fan of this sort of thing. I’ve just been reading the essay “the debt burden” by Brian Hillier and M. Teresa Lunati. In this essay they discuss the issues I was trying to get across to a general audience in the series on tax, specifically in my last post. In the final post I make the point that borrowing is really another form of broad “taxation”, but as when discussing different types of taxation we are asking where the burden lies.
However, the quote I’m going to pull isn’t directly about that. It is about the use of the word burden.
The era in which an essayist can get away with ex cathedra pronouncements on factual questions in social science is coming to an end.
Very good, and Pinker’s co-operative version of science with the humanities seems appropriate to me (where instead we are merely asking about how to deal with certain propositions and using the best tools available). I think Pinker won this debate, I am unsure why Wieseltier felt it necessary to take such an extreme position though – I think he initially believed Pinker was trying to force through a view based on the superiority of scientific authority (one that Pinker rules out in his initial article!), when he was really just suggesting the use of the scientific method (namely introducing a degree of the positivist view of theory creation) given the improvements in data availability and usability we have had.
As XKCD says:
But even within Pinker’s reasonable claims there is one area where I would be a touch careful Read more
Today’s quote of the day stems from me starting to reread “Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy“. Last time I went through this book it annoyed me, as it didn’t seem to be attacking a “fair” version of an economist – rather a caricature.
However, I have noticed this time, in the first chapter, Hausman admits that is what they are doing – and it is to make the basic ethic principles they want to discuss “clear” to other economists. In other words this isn’t a book about criticising economists per se – more a basic description of some important moral principles to keep in mind when translating from theory to practice in economics and policy making, and decision making more generally. I can deal with this, and should be able to read the book far less defensively.
On that note he says:
I am currently disappointingly short on time, I apologise. So I will take this chance to quote from smart people, in this case Amartya Sen on inequality again. This time at the end of chapter one from ‘Inequality Reexamined’.
The tendency to assume away interpersonal diversities can originate not only from the pragmatic temptation to make the analytics simple and easy (as in the literature of inequality measurement), but also, as was discussed earlier, from the rhetoric of equality itself (e.g. ‘all men are created equal’). The warm glow of such rhetoric can push us in the direction of ignoring these difference, by taking ‘no note of them’, or ‘assuming them to be absent’. This suggests an apparently easy transition between one space and another …
But this comfort is purchased at a heavy price. As a result of that assumption, we are made to overlook the substantive inequalities in, say, well-being and freedom that may directly result from an equal distribution of incomes (given our variable needs and disparate personal and social circumstances). Both pragmatic shortcuts and grand rhetoric can be helpful for some purposes and altogether unhelpful and misleading for others.
The purpose of thinking about this is not to say there is nothing that should be done. But instead that, as was made clear here, these moral issues are too important to just relate to some vague partially related factor and pretend we have a silver bullet. If we genuinely care, we need to try to understand why and about what – instead of using ‘grand rhetoric’ to simply make others think about how thoughtful we really are 😉