Recently, I’ve been buffeted by contradictory waves of thought. I’ve posted on hating august professions as a result of their proclivity to self-interest above wider responsibilities. Then I read Norman on how cold concepts such as egalitarian justice, not love, should drive our socialist instincts.
I’ve also wondered if politicians should spend more time imagining and being creative (more here) than managing and administering our futures – the latter link being a highly considered post from Paul over at Never Trust a Hippy.
And then, via Andrew on Facebook, this piece on economists being imagineers of the future has finally come my way. It’s quite a long piece – and deserves to be read in full. Essentially, it would seem that to date many economists have predicted the future on the basis of what has happened in the past – without taking into account the variable that is human behaviour and its ability to change how it reacts to (mainly) government diktats:
To understand the critique, suppose that the government is considering imposing a new tax on a particular industry. Based upon the government’s estimate of profits in the industry, it expects to collect a large amount of taxes and solve its revenue problems.
But when the tax is actually imposed, profits do not turn out to be as large as expected and tax revenues come in far short of projections. What happened? The firms took steps to reduce their tax exposure, e.g. they used the usual accounting tricks to inflate costs and lower reported revenues to reduce taxable profit. To the extent they were successful, tax collections were lower than expected.
The lesson from this example is that people change their behavior in response to changes in the conditions they face. And this is one of the things that separate what researchers in the hard sciences do from the work of economists. If I tell my TV set that I am going to smash the screen with a baseball bat, it will just sit there. It won’t take evasive action. But a human in the same situation will do their best to get out of the way and avoid harm. When harm is expected, whether it’s physical harm, higher taxes, more work for less pay — whatever — people try to avoid it.
In conclusion, the post argues:
The end of the second essay calls for “attempts to create a future that does not now exist, rather than mindlessly crunching the numbers that do exist.” There are plenty of number crunchers in the profession, and as an applied econometrician I’ll certainly defend their value in grounding theorists in real world data. But there are also plenty of “imagineers” — people who play with toy models and toy ideas to envision worlds that do not now exist, but could — and perhaps one of them will discover the “blueprint for a better way” that Roger Martin hopes will emerge from the broader conception of science he writes about in his essay.
And whilst, as someone fascinated by the act of following trains of thought, I would be inclined to believe that society needs more imagineers than managers, a saddening and depressing thought does – after all the above – come furiously to mind: imagineers tend to find an intellectual driver in following such trains of thought whatever their potential impact on the outside world. Like engineers and designers of weapons of mass destruction, they become isolated from the reality they manage to change as they become capable of effecting massively significant alterations in our environments.
On the back of some of my recent posts, a couple of people have commented that it is when the politicians get their grubby hands on incompletely understood economic concepts that everything – and everyone – tends to go belly-up. But I would find myself arguing that where economists have already gone down the route of imagineers – Milton Friedman is one case which comes immediately to mind – they have succeeded all on their lonesome in occupying the role of engineers of society.
Cheap and nasty second-hand car salespeople who slide into political activity for their very own benefit will always use the hand-me-down ideas of semi-popular science to support their already existing prejudices of how the world should be organised.
But if truth be told, the only profession which has a moral right to imagine the future should be our political class – and that class alone. Scientists should resist the temptation to create social empires on the back of empirical research – it is not their business to recreate the world but – simply and plainly – observe it.
Even where this observation may influence the result on more occasions than we might care to admit.
And yet, given our experience in three successive regimes – Thatcher’s painful epoch of industrial deconstruction; Blair’s influential, and influenced, three terms of compensatory socialism by stealth; and Cameron’s quite evil and savage imposition of a British Year Zero that aims only to fill the pockets of the already rich and wealthy – I do wonder if we really want, or need, another generation of politicians who want to engineer societies.
Manage decline for everyone or engineer success for the few? Are these the only alternatives that neoliberalism has driven us to?
If so, I now find myself thrashing about as to whom I should blame.
Even as I wonder if I am right to want to blame anyone …