Economics Will Be Our Ruination

That there title is known as “clickbait.”

But there are challenges in using economics in public policy. Economics is a value-free tool that makes it easy to overlook embedded values.

In a recent story entitled “Pokémon Go is Everything that is Wrong with Late Capitalism,”—talk about clickbait—Vox reporter and Cato alum Timothy B. Lee recounts “some real downsides” to the new mobile gaming phenomenon. In brief, Internet businesses like Nintendo, Amazon, and such are causing a cash drain from most parts of the country to a small number of tech-industry centers. The result is a slow-down in the overall economy because entertainments like Pokémon Go don’t support complimentary businesses like the theaters, parking concessions, and restaurants, for example, that crop up around blockbuster movies.

Tech businesses are moving wealth from most places to San Francisco or Seattle, and the rest of the country concommitantly slumps.

But what is it to “slump”? Pokémon Go players aren’t slumping. They’re running all over the place, offending some of the more curmudgeonly among us. They’re making friends.

On average, market transactions make all parties better off. And Pokémon Go players certainly look like they’re having a good time. How is it that millions of market transactions are making us worse off?

The question is one of values. Orthodox economics prioritizes a bottom line measured chiefly in the flow of dollars or dollar-equivalents. To oversimplify, “good” is more dollars moving around. Fewer dollars on the move is “bad.” That’s often right, in my opinion, but sometimes it’s not. I don’t think people exist to keep certain measures of the economy moving upward—much less the numbers for their nation-states.

Happily, there’s some economic research being done out there that more neatly fits my values. Erik Hurst, a macroeconomist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, is investigating whether tech-based entertainments like Pokémon Go are contracting the labor supply—contra the widespread assumption that there’s a curious lack of demand.

It may be that young men, in particular, with less than a four-year college education, are forgoing work to play video games. Crucially, Hurst says, “happiness surveys actually indicate that they [are] quite content compared to their peers.” Let the economists fret. People are having a good time on the cheap.

Plenty of us in the world of advanced degrees and blog reading—we flâneurs among material that might contain the word “flâneur”—are inclined to believe that preferring video games to educational and career advancement is a road to a horrible life. That may be true, but it’s also a little self-focused. It may be that continuing advances in technologies of many kinds will make it smart in the future to have declined the rat race and enjoyed more leisure across the entire span of life—economic statistics be damned.

Title aside, I think Tim Lee’s piece made a pretty orthodox economic case. His prescriptions included both liberty-friendly and liberty-loathing ideas. And his real point was something about the Euro. Another response to his clickbait, naturally, is: ‘Pokemon Go’ Represents The Best Of Capitalism. My point here is to highlight the values embedded in economic orthodoxy, which I sometimes find dubious, as I prefer individual liberty.