Happy Clappy Economics

equality is not equity

[Image description: two cartoons of three people standing on boxes in front of a fence to see a baseball game. In the first cartoon, labeled EQUALITY, the smallest person can’t see the game because they are too small to see over the fence. In the second cartoon, labeled EQUITY, the tallest person has given his box to the smallest person to add to his box. The tallest person is tall enough to see over the fence without a box to stand on. Now all three can see the game.]

When I studied economics at Sydney University in the 1980s the Economics Department was split down the middle between the happy clappies (religionists who swallowed the free market koolaid and wanted the world remade to fit their models) and the realists who wanted a data driven profession. It was so divided that the Department was effectively two departments though students got credits by studying either strand and it was compulsory to take units in each.

These days many more younger economists are data driven and not happy clappy ideologues. Realists point out that the problem of production has long been solved by humans and what remains are the problems of distributing the incredible wealth of the planet and externalities (pollution for example). Solving these are political questions. Those who don’t want them solved hide behind the myth of scarcity.

There are unfortunately sufficient numbers of happy clappy economists who are either convinced of their religion or happy, like other scientists, to sell their services to the highest bidder.

That bidder falls into three main categories. 1) media controlled by profiteers, 2) university chairs endowed by profiteers, 3) government servants and politicians within the koolaid camp. The argument they often use is that the worker bees won’t work unless they are forced to, that they will sit at home and accept government handouts if you let them. So cruelty and hardship are the best motivators. There is plenty of evidence that this is la la land but the happy clappies ignore it while dressing themselves in happy clappy econobabble.

I was a government economist for a while and three instances spring to mind.

1) I worked with a particular economist in the Australian aid agency that steadfastly refused to accept that Papua New Guinea was a dual economy (ie swathes of the economy were outside the wage sector and were therefore unresponsive to neoliberal economic levers which were popular at the time).

2) Another economist was happy that “the market” operated nicely in the Philippines so that people could eke out a living on garbage dumps. There was absolutely no personal downside or responsibility for these ideologues promoting their delusions. They wielded enormous power over our regional economies and on multilateral bank boards (ADB, World Bank etc for which I also had policy input). The bureaucratic manouevering was something to behold

3) The mastery by the then World’s Greatest Treasurer Paul Keating (I served under him and Hawke in the Prime Minister’s Department) of the dominant econobabble. He learnt the script like no other and it was always about media performance, public perception and how he had the facts under complete control and could tell you which economic levers to pull as if they were real and not constructs within an economic model. That we were riding a mineral boom at the time seemed to be lost on the happy clappies who briefed him and those that gave him the award while real wages fell pretty much worldwide in a trend that is continuing.

So to the “value” question, central to “economics”. Marx had a labour theory of value which was rubbish (duckduckgo on why). Sraffa tried to save the theory, unsuccessfully. “Time” as a metric would probably suffer the same fate. But the critical point is the model into which you plug your value metric. All models have assumptions and simplifications and will eventually trip you up unless tested rigorously against the real world. If the model includes measuring things which are self-referenced within the model (GDP is a classic example) then it’s garbage in garbage out and your metric is useless.

And in modelling the world (economies, weather, biological systems) we come up against complexity and the NP-hard barrier. NP-hard algorithms, under our present state of knowledge, can be proven to run the life of the universe and still not give you an answer. You are then left again with a basic political and moral question in deciding how to organise an economic system. People like Sam Harris think morality can be measured. He might be right.

But for me in the meantime as a striving older wiser humanist realist scientific economist there is only one metric worth the cake. Call it what you like – sharing, love, compassion, caring. Build your societies and economies on these. Altruism versus fear has a strong genetic link as I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog and the gene seems split 50:50 among living organisms (science published early 2016 showed different ant colonies possessing measurable differences on a related metric).

Good luck with your study of economics.

Here’s three books to begin with:
1. Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality
2. Ha-Joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide
3. Thomas Piketty

2 thoughts on “Happy Clappy Economics

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