Economics and Values

A recent NYT article has roiled the economics blogosphere by spotlighting several prominent economists who ostensibly challenge the “fundamental assumptions” of their field. A snippet:

“Economists can’t pretend that the consensus for free markets and free trade that existed 30 years ago is still here,” said Robert B. Reich, a public policy professor at Berkeley who served in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet.

Part of the reason is the growing income inequality and dislocation that global markets and a revolution in communications have helped create. Economists who question the free-market theories “want to speak to the reality of our time,” Mr. Reich said.

The article references some interesting material, including Alan Blinder’s criticism of offshoring and David Card’s provocative work ($) with Alan Krueger on employment and the minimum wage. However, contrary to its tone, the article is not (for the most part, anyway) about disagreements in economics — it’s about disagreements over values.

Consider, for instance, this bit from Blinder’s recent Washington Post op-ed:

And if the jobs do move offshore, displaced American workers may lose not only their jobs but also their pensions and health insurance. These people can be forgiven if they have doubts about the virtues of globalization.

We economists assure folks that things will be all right in the end. Both Americans and Indians will be better off. I think that’s right. The basic principles of free trade that Adam Smith and David Ricardo taught us two centuries ago remain valid today: Just like people, nations benefit by specializing in the tasks they do best and trading with other nations for the rest.

Blinder does not dispute (and indeed endorses) the economic orthodoxy that trade materially benefits participants. Instead, he notes that a change in trading partners produces both winners (the new trading partners) and losers (displaced partners), and that change can often be painful for the loser — a notion that most all economists would endorse.

Given this economic analysis, Blinder offers a values judgment: the United States should implement public policies to aid displaced workers caught in such change (but he expressly eschews protectionist measures that would prohibit change). Libertarians may disagree with Blinder’s policy proposals (perhaps on the grounds that such policies are not appropriate for limited government, or are economically inefficient, or would create perverse incentives and unintended consequences). But this disagreement is not about economics, it’s about competing values (e.g., limited government is preferable; economic inefficiency is undesirable, perverse incentives and unintended consequences are to be avoided).

Like “hard” science, economics is a non-normative field that attempts to determine certain types of relationships — in this case, economic ones (e.g., what is a minimum wage’s effect on employment; what market power effects result from industry regulation?) — and use those determinations to predict the future. Economic analysis often leads to policy recommendations, but those recommendations are the product of value judgments: Should the well-being of one group of workers (e.g., domestic, unionized, members of a particular group) be promoted over another? Should the harm experienced by displaced workers be mitigated, and if so, how?

From a policymaking perspective, it is useful to distinguish what part of economic policy is about economics and what part is about values. Economic analysis of U.S. farm subsidies and trade protections reveals their effect on farmer and consumer behavior, but good policy ultimately comes from answering such values questions as whether the tradeoff of higher consumer food prices for higher producer revenues is acceptable, or whether ag subsidies are a good use of the public fisc.  Or, concerning Prof. Reich’s comment above about income inequality, good policy would come from answering the values question of whether it is a problem that some people are rich or, instead, that some people are poor.

All of this is not to say that we should not question whether neat, simple economic theory plays out cleanly in this messy, complicated world. The debate ($) over Card & Krueger’s minimum wage findings is one of the most interesting in economics, and the burgeoning field of behavioral economics is reinvigorating long-simmering questions about the rationality of market actors — though those questions may not support the values judgments that the apostates and heterodoxoi presume. But I would argue that economics is not so different from the hard sciences — the core tenets are quite solid (though revolution does occur). What remains (appropriately) shaky is a pluralistic society’s attempts to apply its many values (as well as its hopes, fears, grievances, immediate concerns, and political aspirations), to economic phenomena.