Back in December, I wrote an unhappy piece on the subject of blaming professionals – in particular, lawyers, bankers and economists – for a whole host of miseries that are currently afflicting us. I concluded thus:
Though there is, of course, an alternative to making diabolic the entire financial services sector: hate the lawyer as suggested; envy the banker just in case; and commiserate with the poor economist for the impossible task he or she has always faced.
Suzanne Moore, writing yesterday in the Guardian, concludes with no such kindness. Instead, she says (the bold is mine):
Do not complain either when economists and government ministers tell you that what you thought had a social purpose must now be profit-driven. Money must be made from schools, hospitals and looking after the elderly. The privatisation of care is one of the only growth industries. This is what you get from this dictatorship of economists, and it should be overthrown. It is wrong and keeps being wrong. The choices to be made now are moral, not economic ones. Only an idiot or an economist would think otherwise.
Which brings me to wonder if we couldn’t conflate the two concepts: no, not idiocy and economics; that – as an idea – is surely the laziness of Moore’s (and, on occasions, my) writing. No, what I’m really wondering is whether there isn’t a place in economic theory for the matter of morality – in particular a democratic morality.
At the very least there currently exists an amorality of considerable proportions. (Some of us on the left of the political spectrum would even see it as immorality – though, for the sake of today’s discussion, let’s settle on the former as a less inflammatory and distracting starting point.)
What’s the argument I have in mind? Nobody these days would expect of a “proper” science a total disconnect from moral issues. If then, as Moore alleges in her piece, and even as she charges it fails, economics aspires to such a state of scientific grace, shouldn’t it also be required to take onboard issues relating to societal right and wrong?
The problem would currently seem to be that in its socially scientific ingenuity, economics manages to get away with getting things amazingly inexact. Like the weather forecasts we expect not to believe, economists have the grand virtue of working with complex systems with many variables to justify their getting predictions off-beam. This may, in fact, be what’s at the heart of Moore’s little rant. Yet we wouldn’t ask the Met Office to stop its investigations into such complexities; why, then, does she want economists to step off the accelerator pedal?
Maybe the reason is precisely that: we have learned – and have the capacity as ordinary citizens in the street – to ignore the implications of an inexact weather forecast whenever we want. But that level of democratic disengagement doesn’t seem to exist in the application of economic theory.
Today, for example, I read that according to the rating agency Fitch, which presumably employs a number of economists to validate its periodic pronouncements, the Spanish banking system won’t need €40 billion to sort it out as originally believed but, instead, between €60 to a €100 billion (in Spanish) (Google robot English translation here). Just imagine if we ran any other expensively rewarded profession in a similar way: being paid to get things wrong by such enormous factors.
Meanwhile – to a non-expert – another question arises: how did the banks themselves get it so wrong?
After all, money’s their business surely. More than any of us, they should have known how far to go in getting into debt and marshalling the consequential risk.
So did an absence of the morality Moore requests of society play a part in the disasters they are now bringing to the table? Would things have turned out differently if a democratic morality had had a place in economic theory? And how long can economists continue to exert their profession without factoring in the social pain their experiments are apparently leading to?
Of course, Suzanne Moore is unfair in her criticism of economists – just as I was unfair back in December when I foulmouthed not only the latter but also bankers and lawyers. Those of us who find ourselves at the mercy of forces beyond our ken are bound, at some time, to make the mistake of shooting the messengers.
Or mistaking the messengers for the actors themselves.
But whilst economists refuse to integrate into their assumptions their effects on finite human lives, perhaps – after all – it’s not such a massive mistake.
Not because they are idiots, though, as Moore would have us believe; rather, because they are just too undemocratically amoral for them to acquire the right to be the scientists they wish to emulate.
Economics simply hasn’t caught up with the moral progresses and societal engagements of the hard sciences.
It’s time it did.