Irritated by an Economist

Who isn’t? In particular, I’m irritated by this article from the NYT, in which an economist tries to grapple with the question of why voters simply don’t believe it when economists say global trade is good.  You’ll be glad to know, voters, that he has an answer! In fact he has four; First, you are isolationist. Second, you are nationalist and don’t care about other countries. Third, you are focused on the benefit to your own ethnic group (that’s racist, folks; you needed me to tell you that because) Fourth, you are insufficiently educated.

You’d think that a professional economist reflecting on the failings of his profession would mention things like that 2013 spreadsheet error in the paper supporting austerity economics – especially since that paper was from the very department he works in. But why quibble over trifles?

When I read this article I thought to myself, here we have a discipline that studies large-scale issues that lead to great human suffering, and often gets things about them wrong, and generally seems more interested in analyzing the numbers than in helping the individuals who are suffering, and they wonder why they are not trusted by those people. Duh?  But then I thought about other disciplines with those same potential drawbacks. I thought about epidemiology.

Why do people feel more positive towards the person who writes about how many microcephalic babies we can expect in Brazil than they do toward the person who writes about how many job losses we can expect in Ohio? I think the reason is obvious; epidemiology is subordinate to medicine.  It’s an outgrowth of medicine, and as such it is the servant of attempts to cure people. The epidemiologist or pathophysiologist may seem (or in my case, be) more enthusiastic about the cool disease than about the patient, but the discipline will not even exist if it doesn’t serve the actual doctors and nurses who are helping that patient.

Where is the equivalent moral grounding for economics? Where are the cadres of selfless economics professionals fanning out through underemployed communities to do something about human misery? I have never seen a field economist. I’ve never been asked to donate to Economists Without Borders. So basically, I mistrust economists because I don’t see any evidence that the profession gives a damn about human welfare – yet it expects to influence policies that affect my life. What’s not to hate about that?

I searched for better articles on why economics wasn’t trusted, and found several that seemed to have a faint notion of this issue — at least, they suggested that economics should be more tightly integrated with social sciences  (one also suggested that they pay attention to data, which boggled me). But I didn’t find anything that suggested that economics needed to become subordinate to some discipline explicitly directed toward human flourishing. I’m not even sure what that discipline might be. And that may be the underlying problem.

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