Economics and Arguments

I started out thinking I’d be an econ major in undergrad. The positivity (v. normativity) of “rational actor” analysis appealed to me, and it felt like a way to employ my talents for quantitative thinking for something more than simple math problems. I took Microeconomics with Prof. Robert H. Frank at Cornell, and his “economic naturalist” assignments were a delight, in which we had to apply economic reasoning to a seeming paradox. I still remember two papers that I wrote: one on why the Cornell rowing team didn’t cut athletes (despite being a top-tier program in the sport) while the football team did (despite being dismal, even within the Ivy League), and one analyzing the use of wire-work and undercranking in fight choreography through the lens of the prisoner’s dilemma. I switched my major to English after taking an econometrics course where the opposite felt true; rather than discussing how to explain individuals’ actions in the real world, it felt like we were back to just doing pointless math and deriving conclusions about what would happen in a world that matched our assumptions.

Despite this disenchantment, I retain a deep-seated respect for efficiency and aversion to waste that I believe drew me to econ in the first place. Though Common Goods focuses on taking a theological approach to “economic issues,” its subject matter represented a welcome emphasis on values in action in society after some of the more esoteric religious studies of previous books in this project. Its subject is more accessible than the densely academic/technical language often is, and I found the concept of a “carbon debt” particularly compelling, i.e., that those economies that have contributed the most to unsustainable levels of pollution must repay that debt through not only reductions in future emissions, but also through supporting/subsidizing those who have polluted less than their sustainable fair share. I believe deeply in the potential of capitalism to improve the efficient allocation of goods and resources, but that efficiency is predicated on a) transparency of information and b) minimization of externalities. Pollution (and carbon emissions in particular) have not already been handled effectively by the market in part because measuring pollution is difficult, and the polluters never bear the entire costs of pollution themselves. It saddens me that so often political arguments that could be over how we do the hard work of striking the right balance of competing priorities instead devolve into near-religious/absolute statements of people talking orthogonally to each other, on totally different axes. For example, in my lifetime I feel that discussion around abortion in the Democratic party has changed from “legal, safe, and rare” to “abortion is an inviolable right.” A portion of the populace views abortion as murder and will never be convinced otherwise; taking an equally rigid and extreme stance dooms us to total polarization where there’s no point in even trying to reach agreement.

In order to engage with empathy (and broaden our own minds), we have to read and take seriously what other people write and say, and try to understand it first on its own dimensions before bringing in external perspectives and the thought experiments or scenarios that inform our own opinions. Daggers of Faith describes the debates between Jews and Dominican proselytizers in the 13th century. While the Dominicans’ arguments generally were based on readings of the rabbinical tests that were out of step with traditional Jewish interpretations, I found it commendable that the Christian disputants at least attempted to engage their interlocutors using material that the latter would find compelling, rather than simply based on their own purported sources of truth. The Presidential/Vice Presidential candidates’ debates exemplify this problem to me; they are not aimed at convincing or discussing issues, but rather at scoring points and denying the other party’s facts. Nothing productive can come of such interaction.

On the other hand, the most compelling arguments (at least to me) for governmental action in the economy are based not (solely) on appeals to a given moralistic view of how the world ought to operate, but rather on prisoner’s dilemma-type situations in which classic economic theory recognizes and acknowledges that individuals’ “free” actions will lead to inferior outcomes even based on their own priorities and metrics. I try to incorporate this attitude into my career advising and corporate consulting; rather than telling the client what I think they should do, I try to listen first to their goals and values, and then help them understand their options. One of my moments of disillusionment with large consulting firms was the extent to which the “hypothesis-driven approach” which can be a powerful tool for efficient project management easily slides into a presumption of what the client’s goals ought to be, rather than a thoughtful discussion of the tradeoffs entailed in their discussions. In short, don’t proselytize without doing your homework on the leading thinkers of other faiths, and don’t engage in debate without seriously thinking about how reasonable, benevolent people could still disagree. You may not convince any more people, but at least you’ll be engaging respectfully instead of presumptuously.

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