Economists: Intellectual Whores

Since the early days of recorded history there have always existed a class of people who will sell their intellectual prowess to those in power. The exceptions seem so rare that they are talked about for centuries afterwards. The most famous being Socrates.

More typical are those who come up with reasons that the status quo is the appropriate organization of society and that those in power are the perfect persons to be running things. Starting in the "Dark Ages" and up through the 18th Century religious leaders played a prominent role. They were able to find justifications for concepts like the "divine right of kings" and the "just war". As religion became less pervasive there were secular advisers that replaced them, Machiavelli for example.

We now live in the "Age of Enlightenment" or the "Scientific Age" and the arguments used in the past don't have the same weight. What is needed is a "scientific" rationale for the organization of society. This role has now been taken over by economists. Using statistics and mathematical theories they have been able to produce whatever justification was desired by those employing them. Proof of their intellectual dishonesty is easily found. For every economist who can "prove" the effectiveness of, say, trickle down economics there is another who can demonstrate that such policies are a complete failure. Science is based upon the concept of testability. A set of conditions is set up and the outcome is observed. If the outcome is as predicted then the hypothesis being tested is considered more likely to be correct. If the outcome is different a new hypothesis must be found to replace the failed one.

In any given society there are so many factors operating at once that it is impossible to determine which are the significant forces. There is also no way to rerun an experiment. So what happens is that economic developments which occur sequentially are stated to have a causal relationship where no such thing can be proved. I'm in the middle of a book which claims to prove that the rise in the size of the payroll tax as a replacement for tariffs has led to a fifty year decline in the growth rate of the US economy. Others claim that tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy have led to economic growth, but they can't demonstrate how much growth there would have been if a different tax structure had been in place.

It is time to start evaluating economic policy from a humanistic perspective. Are policies making things better for everyone? If there are losers as a result of a policy can their losses be mitigated in some other way? Do the policies increase wealth disparity, political power or ecological harm? These things don't require economic models, just dispassionate observation. If the number of people in the US who are poor and/or lack health care is increasing then the present policy is a failure. If the oil drilling in Nigeria is ruining the local ecology and destroying the surrounding communities then the policy is a failure.

It is time to stop debating economic theories and recognize them for what they are, the modern equivalent of the divine right of kings argument. If things are getting better and the ecosystem is being treated in a sustainable way, then the policies are working, regardless of what the economist's "theories" say. How to move from a society dominated by a wealthy elite is a difficult problem. In most cases it has required a violent disruption in the social structure. The classic examples are the French and Russian revolutions. But, recently many Eastern European and Latin American countries have been able to transform their economic systems with a minimal level of disruption.

The question is whether the Western industrialized countries are willing to face their current challenges or whether they are going to let world affairs overtake them with uncontrolled consequences. Economies where the working population is declining in wealth and where employment opportunities are shifting from productive work to speculative services and militarism have always collapsed in the past. Their rivals are not hampered by a self-serving elite and its intellectual whores and can and will make decisions which make them more productive and competitive.

Moral: Replacing self-serving intellectualism is necessary for a more humanistic society.


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Copyright © 2006 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.