Friday, January 04, 2008

Economics and Human

ADDENDUM: This post contains a pretty egregious error. I've tried to explain my feelings more clearly in "On my economics post." If you're going to read this, read that too.

I don't like economics.

Part of my dislike of economics is the arrogance I perceive. In my experience, people in the Humanities are comfortable discussing their theories as theories; in literature and literary theory "truth" is not quite what you think, and even history is not merely a chronicle of what happened, but an evolving interpretation of the meaning of what happened. Even the scientists I've encountered seem comfortable discussing the theoretical, subjective nature of their work (one of my college science teachers explained cosmology as our current model of the universe, not simply our knowledge of what the universe is). Some of the economists I've encountered seem to have greater assurance in the correctness of their own statistical analysis; I haven't noticed the same comfort with doubt in their own numbers, theories, and analysis. Particularly when I read economists (and mathematicians) writing on sports, I sometimes sense that the writers don't have even a slight doubt that their numbers are pristine and infallible indicators of truth. But this is entirely subjective: I don't have specific examples, and I'm basing it on my perception of my very limited experience (which is largely based on economists commenting on subjects other than economics, like sports).

But my further dislike of economics stems from the dehumanization inherent in economics. Of course, economics explores trends, and the individual is easily ignored (or merely categorized). But it goes further. I think every reader of this blog knows of my other incarnation as a sports blogger, and I do encounter some economists writing about sports. One such economist is David Berri of Wages of Wins, a blog devoted primarily to basketball analysis. In a recent post, Berri wrote the following passage:

"In sum, our teams can make us happy or sad. Or if I were to pretend to be an economist, teams can increase or decrease our utility."

I'm not writing this to criticize Berri himself (he's not the specific problem, and furthermore the post was written with a light-hearted tone), and I don't know his precise intent with this passage. I write now because the passage struck me as microcosmic, in some way, of a larger issue. I fear this passage gets at the heart of what disturbs me about economics as an area of study: humans are defined by their utility [NOTE: see the comments: Holy Hitter set me straight on what "utility" means in economic terms. The inspiration for this post was based on my ignorance and misunderstanding of economics terminology, and so my apologies to David Berri. However, I won't eliminate the post, as I hope the points made are valid even if the impulse that inspired these points isn't].

I don't believe an individual's dignity resides in how useful or not useful he or she is; I believe there is an inherent dignity in each individual human that transcends mere "utility." If a person is defined by his or her "utility," then it is merely that person's production that matters, not the person himself or herself. And that is at the root of capitalism's dehumanization: you are only worth what you can produce. You the person don't matter; you the productive employee is all that matters. There's a place for such a view, I believe (for example, Troy Williamson the person doesn't matter to the Vikings when Troy Williamson the wide receiver is a completely unproductive employee). But the values that reduce humans to their productivity are often extended out of the fields where such a reduction is useful and necessary, and into social attitudes, social policy, and general ethics and behavior.

The dehumanization takes other forms. In economics, it seems people are part of groups that can be studied and placed into trends. People are merely the units that can be manipulated by "incentives." Provide the right "incentives," and at least according to groups and trends, people will behave in a particular (and hopefully predictable) way. It's almost a denial of free will. As Dostoevsky writes in Notes from the Underground, "as far as I know you deduce the whole range of human satisfactions as averages from statistical figures and scientifico-economic formulas."

Of course I stand with Dostoevsky's underground man (for better or worse): "the whole range of human satisfactions" cannot be so easily quantified into an economists' system. The man from the underground suggests that human behavior cannot "be worked out by those laws, mathematically, like a table of logarithms," and that humans will ignore their own best interest (or, if you prefer, "incentives") to assert their own free will. In other words, humans have transcendent spiritual needs that defy their merely utilitarian economic needs--and their behavior sometimes follows these other needs.

Human dignity doesn't reside in the individual's utility, and the complexities of human desire can't easily be fit into codified trends or defined by incentives.

Economics, of course, wasn't really intended to get at deep human spiritual needs. And yet, economists keep branching out to apply economic theory to other areas of human life. So if my criticism of economics is well off the wikipedia definition of economics ("Economics is the social science that studies the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. [...] A definition that captures much of modern economics is that of Lionel Robbins in a 1932 essay: "the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses"), that's OK. What brought on this post was two sentences in a post that replaced "make us happy or sad" with "can increase or decrease or utility"; while I'm not writing about economics as a study of "production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services" but as a field of study that defines individuals in a dehumanizing way, I don't think I'm off-base in doing so.

And at any rate, I'm just a crackpot with a little-read blog ranting about my own dislike of economics. My revolution is solitary.


  1. Anonymous7:47 AM

    Man is not a piece of fruit.


  2. You can't eat the orange and throw away the peel.

  3. I believe his use of utility we meant slightly differently then the "utility" you think.

    In the book I am reading I get a sense that "utility" within the economic field is similar to happiness.

    That does not mean that your critique of economics is off, but just a comment on that aspect.

    I would suggest reading "Naked Economics" which I am reading right now. Wheelan as and economist seems really down to earth and explains complicated economic theory in layman terms.

  4. Indeed--this all may be a misunderstanding based on my ignorance of economics terminology. At wikipedia:

    "In economics, utility is a measure of the relative satisfaction or desiredness from consumption of goods. Given this measure, one may speak meaningfully of increasing or decreasing utility, and thereby explain economic behavior in terms of attempts to increase one's utility."

    Indeed, I don't recant the larger meaning of my post. However, I must note that all Berri was doing was transferring "laymen" terminology into economics terminology.

    I'm glad, however, that RK quoted Arthur Miller, who was much more eloquent on the dehumanization of the business world (if you haven't read it, RK, I recommend "All My Sons," which is about a war profiteer). What I once wrote about "Death of A Salesman is a shorter summary of what I write here:

    ""You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away--a man is not a piece of fruit!" Willy Loman cries as he's getting fired. And in this line we see the dehumanization of capitalism. In "Death of a Salesman," Miller explores the marketplace value of humanity, where all that matters is what a man can produce and acquire, where the economic value of the man is seen as the whole value of the man...and what is lost in such a value system.

    In various places, I get to see how economists and capitalists think. And I wish for them all to read "Death of a Salesman." I wish for us to see that human dignity matters more than marketplace capitalism, and that humans have value beyond their economic value. In a country where more and more economics define the value of a human, "Death of a Salesman" is the most necessary--and the most tragic--of American plays."

    So my apologies to Berri--I see his shift in terms from "happy or sad" to "utility" was merely a semantic terminology shift. However, I wouldn't recant my critique of economics and the business world, which does tend to define people by their production.

  5. Note: I could either delete the post or revise the post, deleting the quote that I misinterpreted (but leaving the central ideas). I'll leave it up (with the note apologizing for my misunderstanding) as a testament to my ignorance.

  6. This is a serious suggestion. Read Naked Economics. Not so you become an economist, but so that you know the economic field a little more and can criticize and debate them via a mutual language.

    The one thing I have been running through my head lately is the fact that both economics and religion have the same viewpoint of humanity: that somehow humanity only cares about itself. Religion explains it via "original sin" while economic theory just says that is the way it is, so lets put a system in place that feeds of that desire in a way to help the most people.

    It doesn't try to change the person like religion does via the "grace" of God, but rather tries to use the fault to create some sort of "good" Greed fuels economies.