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Economics and Mythology

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mr_monopoly

My most recent post on History’s Greatest Monster Paul Theroux for Caring About American Workers has led to a lot of comments that say a great deal about both ideology of the New Gilded Age and about what I believe. I think it’s time to address a few. So let me refer directly to comments, if you don’t mind.

From yet_another_lawyer

So, when do we begin the social programs for the only moderately rich who live in NYC? They’re well aware that there’s local people who make even more than they do, as are the only somewhat well-off residents of Beverly Hills.

“There are people even more poor!” is frequently disingenuous, because it’s uttered by people who do nothing to combat global poverty. But if you do actually care about poverty, benefiting the already-globally-wealthy poor Americans at the expense of the actually poor is morally dubious. Is nationalism really what’s going on here? Never met an American who would support policies that benefit poor Canadians at the expense of poor Africans, but if you change it to Americans suddenly the equation changes.

(And I put my charity money where my mouth is. My charity dollars go almost exclusively to globally poor nations.)

Well that’s fine and good although your “charity” just makes you feel good about yourself as a rich white person. But the NYC comparison is completely irrelevant as if you make $100,000 in New York there are likely opportunities for you across the country while if you are actually homeless in New York, there are not. To me, this argument is indicative of someone who is not around American poverty and does not know poor people personally. This is policy created by rich people, central to the problems of modern America. Plus this, as well other comments made here, avoid the political aspect to this. Do you live in the United States? Yes, I assume. Do you want voters in this nation to care about what you care about and not support proto-fascists? Presumably. Then you might want to find these people jobs so they don’t revert to pure racial ideology. This gets back to the zero-sum game ideology of Lowrey, Matthews, etc., who revert to free market economics ideology without recognizing that the domestic issues they dislike are deeply connected to the lack of jobs for working people today who vote their resentments rather than their economic interests. Yet, their own ideological blinders, as constrictive as those of fundamentalist Christianity or Islam, do not allow them to see this.

Ransom Stoddard says:

It’s interesting how lefties have an anti-intellectual bias when it comes to economics, when usually they (correctly) mock conservatives for denying the validity of research that conflicts with their prior beliefs. “Basic economic facts” become “Econ 101 blather”, “distinguished economists” become “sell out corporate shills”, “The lifting of hundreds of millions of people out of absolute poverty in a single generation” becomes “the creation of a small middle class”, etc. I wonder what the typical “globuhlization sux u neoliberal tool!!” commenter would make of learning that Paul Krugman got his start in public writing in the 90s informing hippies that sweatshops are good, free trade makes everyone better off, and so on.

I’m also curious as to why the Vox crowd’s use of data to explain why they’re correct “obsession with data” on the issue of trade is wrong and worthy of scorn, while using data to explain why high taxes don’t slow economic growth, why Keynesian fiscal stimulus is good, why minimum wage increases don’t reduce employment and so on is generally approved of. Imagine if a supply side hack said “Okay, so you’ve used ‘data’ to show that high income taxes don’t reduce growth. But do you even understand the social context of being an entrepreneur in a country that punishes you for success? I Just Know, without data, that your view is wrong.”

This is wrong on so many levels. First, there’s the idea that economics is some sort of field above ideology when it is so clearly not. Second, there’s the idea that all economists agree on the impacts of global trade, clearly incorrect. I read economists like Mike Konczal and Marshall Steinbaum all the time who reject these ideas. There’s the idea here that “data is this objective thing” as opposed to serving ideological constructions. This is a place where economists could learn a lot from Science Studies and other disciplines who have shown just how much “data” has served pre-conceived ideological notions, but criticisms of that presentation get presented as idiot Luddites who dare question our true objectivity. Data is nothing more than socially constructed numbers choosing to serve our own ideological notions and the sooner economists understand that they are not a science and that instead most, albeit not all, are lapdogs of capitalism, the better off we will all be. A data set is not wrong, but it can’t mean much without the context of the ideological presumptions of the people making it. I will also say that the entire idea that a field of pure pro-capitalist ideology like Economics deserves a Nobel Prize and that somehow gives the field some sort of credibility is utterly laughable, especially when looking at the utter hacks that have won the award for their support of crushing democracy and dooming the poor to greater poverty. And no, I don’t care at all that Krugman won the award, given that the award should not exist in the first place. Better off creating a Nobel Prize for film, for at least that field advances human dignity.

Sapient contends:

Eric certainly contends that protectionism is a path to autarky. That’s his main thing.

I’ll forgive the serial misspelling of my name to state that I have never once stated that traditional protectionism is the path of the future. And I challenge anyone to say otherwise.

In the end, as I argued in Out of Sight, we have a deeply unfair trade regime. We can make it more fair. Doing so means rejecting the idea that free market economics are anything more than an anti-social capitalist plot to concentrate wealth in the 1 percent. But it also means rejecting the idea that local poverty is irrelevant. The idea that the poor in Alabama or New Mexico are irrelevant is a politics as stupid as supporting Lawrence Lessig for president. Rejecting the need to find people in our own nation jobs as “nationalism,” as free market fundamentalists (again, a group that makes ISIS look rational) tend to do, is totally insane because it assumes that they themselves are stateless. That of course isn’t true. They live in a nation where the poor, or at least the white versions of them, can vote. They often vote for policies that said free market fundamentalists don’t like. And then these fundies don’t understand why. Well, maybe if they had jobs, they’d reconsider. This seems utterly self-evident, yet the arrogance of capitalists gets in the way of this obvious point.

Again, I don’t think traditional protectionism is a way we can move forward. But I do think that policy making from 30,000 feet based on free-market ideology is a total disaster. In fact, capitalist ideology is the last of the 20th century ideologies that led to the century’s mass deaths, as utterly evil in its pure form that is so popular in 2015 as fascism or communism. Instead, we have to find ways to improve the quality of lives of workers in the U.S. and overseas at the same time. I suggest several ways we can do that in Out of Sight and I urge skeptics to read it to get how we can move forward here. Because the arrogant idea of wealthy white Americans that they are moving justice forward through free-market capitalism while contemptuously avoiding the real-world context of these decisions in the United States leads to meaningful consequences of their ideological arrogance.

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  • Something to help destroy the New Gilded Age? Raise the Estate Tax. Inherited Wealth is one of the worst things to happen to this country.

    • I won’t argue against that!

    • carolannie

      I would go further and make it 100%. Give money to your kids while you live, have a UBI, and stop passing accumulated wealth down through the generations while pretending that the inheritors are some sort of geniuses for acquiring their moolah from mom and dad. A much more level playing field.

      • Part of me wants it to be 110%. Make the children of the wealthy start dirt poor. There are two obviously problems with this idea – (1) that we can’t punish someone for their parents’ economic sins in either a legal or moral sense, and (2) that such a law is less likely to pass than single-payer – but it satisfies my sense of vengeance. It also would make the cliche “giving 110 percent” real, which is good for larfs.

      • I’m not sure I’d go that far, but here’s a deal I could support: don’t let the inherited basis change to fair market value at the time of inheritance. You get it at the basis of the deceased (usually cost plus whatever improvements) thus forcing the kids to work the fucking farm or business, and not live off their inheritance.

      • twbb

        100% over a certain level maybe but even the poor benefit from inheritances; that $5000 from Aunt Hattie might not seem like much but it can keep some people from eviction.

      • Just_Dropping_By

        That would seem to most significantly punish the heirs of people who die unexpectedly at a young age.

    • “The rich are different than you and I” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

      “Yeah! They’ve got more money!” – Ernest Hemmingway

    • Rob in CT

      Oooh, I get to ride my boring hobbyhorse!

      Raise the Estate Tax.

      Tax inheritance instead of estates (and make estates settle/pay out in a reasonable timeframe, to avoid zombie estates). What, in the end, do we want to do? We want to spread that wealth around. So public policy should encourage having lots of heirs, instead of a few.

      Also, this inheritance tax should be progressive. Like the income tax (or rather my ideal income tax). Start with a fairly small exemption, and then start taxing at a low rate, ramping way the hell up to somewhere like 75-90% at the high end.

      Whether this could actually be made to work (would wealthy people hide even more money? How and could that be countered?), I can’t say for certain.

      Do that, and I’d be a lot less concerned with the progressivity of our income tax at the upper end.

      • zombie estates

        You are one elevator pitch away from being a Hollywood zillionaire.

      • DrDick

        I would simply treat all income, including inheritances, the same with a top rate of 90% on income over $1 million.

  • Gareth

    If a city wanted to raise the minimum wage, how would you feel about it collecting data on the impact of other cities raising the minimum wage? Employment numbers, quality of life measures, and such-and-such.

    • “I’ll take pointless gotcha questions from New Zealand for $400 please Alex,”

      • Emma in Sydney

        Yeah, Gareth, how dare you not be American? Erik Loomis spits upon your pointless antipodean questions.

        • alex284

          I was going to comment in this thread, but after this… wow. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised after Loomis dismissed the Pope a few months back because he’s Argentinean, but… omg.

          Also, who else heard an echo of Sarah Palin complaining about Katie Couric’s “gotcha questions”?

          • Emma in Sydney

            Erik has an unfortunate habit of dismissing or ignoring comments from non-US commenters on almost every topic. There are none so provincial as those who think themselves at the centre.

            • Someone feels solidarity with Otto!

              • J. Otto Pohl

                I wish you were right. But, I am guessing not in this particular case.

                • Emma in Sydney

                  J. Otto, I certainly feel solidarity with you when your interesting perspectives, both Ghanaian and Central Asian, are summarily dismissed because non-USAian. I don’t usually take the time to comment at LGM any more myself for this reason. It must be the jacaranda flowers falling in my garden and the lovely spring weather we are having that’s given me the energy. Roll on summer!

        • Ronan

          Indeed. What would a new zeakander know about data and trade ? Being , as they are , an innumerate people coming from a gift exchange based society

      • Gareth

        No gotcha, or just an extremely obvious gotcha. If data really is as meaningless as you say, everyone can save a lot of money on research. Just pick whatever policy appeals to you and shove it through the legislature. I myself spent a tedious afternoon gathering data on whether a particular sporting event was economically beneficial to New Zealand. No need for that anymore.

        • Data is socially constructed, a fact so obvious that it shouldn’t be questioned, except that ideologues believe in the ridiculous idea of objectivity and think data shows this.

          • Gareth

            Are ocean temperatures socially constructed?

            • As our society is raising them, yes. (Or perhaps, socially mediated?)

              Also, obviously, the “measurement” of “ocean” “temperatures” clearly is socially constructed. There’s a physical reality, of course, but data itself is a representation and I trust it’s uncontroversial that representations are socially constructed.

            • Zamfir

              Yes, yes they are. Socially constructed doesn’t mean “wrong”. It means the numbers are part of a larger social situation, and should be seen in that context.

              If you stick a thermometer in water and read off the temperature, you’re getting close to an objective fact. In isolation, if you don’t go much further than noting that the water is here at this time so much degrees, according to this instrument.

              Zoom out, and the picture changes. Before the measurement: why are you measuring this variable, at this location, at this time, instead of all the alternatives? Research resources are highly contested, there’s a strong social process that determines which measurements exist and which do not. Simple example: rich places are much more measured than poor places, whether its thermometers or psychological experiments. It’s very common that theorists then build theories that work best for such places. And everyone is OK with that because those are the places of interest anyway. Plus the hard objective facts support the theory, as shown by the measurements.

              Measurement methods themselves are far from uncontested. Extreme case in point: emissions tests for diesels… There are protocols about most serious tests, about the equipment used, procedures to follow, how to deal with outliers, etc. Those are rarely as purposefully and politically biased as the emission test protocols, but they do contain (often unstated) assumptions about the purpose of the measurements. Prescribed measurements methods (or the lack of them) are a crucial part of most engineering contracts I deal with. They can make the difference between a hard claim, a vague sense of mistrust, or even complete satisfaction. All for the same situation.

              And only then do we get to postprocessing. Take your own example: few people care about raw ocean temperatures in isolation. The numbers get aggregated, over time and over geography. They are adjusted for biases. Different datasets are combined, even though they usually have some conflicts. People choose which data to include, and which not. By the time we read about “ocean temperatures”, we are reading about the resulting numbers and rarely about thermometer readings.

              To get back to beginning: none of this means that the result is wrong. You can look at the whole chain, and say, yes, that’s a proper way to do it,the resulting numbers are useful for our purposes. I’m married, and I never think “oh dear, my marriage is only a social construct”.

              • Gareth

                To get back to beginning: none of this means that the result is wrong. You can look at the whole chain, and say, yes, that’s a proper way to do it,the resulting numbers are useful for our purposes.

                But doesn’t that apply to the data Erik was complaining about in the original post?

                • Zamfir

                  Perhaps, that’s the discussion. The social construction, if you want. The point there was that raw income numbers from Zimbabwe are far lower than for poor people in Missisippi. And Loomis says that such numbers do not tell the whole story of poverty.

                  This is how I interprete this: many people, with economists and Vox as examples, use numbers as a higher, more compelling argument than other input. They might nod and acknowledge that the numbers don’t tell the whole story, but in the end they listen to the numbers. And they are proud of that. Focusing on the data gives them a cleaner, more objective, better insight than other people.

                  How many times have you seen a discussion of a complex social issue, with as highlight a plot of GDP/capita against some other measured variable, circles for a set of countries, and a linear regression line?

                • DrDick

                  I agree completely with Zamfir on this and would add that the real problem with “the data”, is that it is incomplete. The people Erik is arguing against are not presenting all of the data, and primarily focus on aggregate data. There are other data which run counter to their interpretations.

                  For instance, while extreme poverty (people living on less than $2/day) has declined, overall poverty has not and over half the world lives on less than $4/day. At the same time the wealth of the global 1% has exploded and they now control half of all wealth.

              • joe from Lowell

                Socially constructed doesn’t mean “wrong”. It means the numbers are part of a larger social situation, and should be seen in that context.

                But if we limit our definition of “socially constructed” to “occurring within a larger social situation,” then the implications that the data are therefore not objectively true, cannot be objectively measured, and reflect only political viewpoints as opposed to factors outside of politics – that is, the entirety of the argument for dismissing economic data – vanish.

              • cpinva

                “I’m married, and I never think “oh dear, my marriage is only a social construct”.

                perhaps you don’t, but of course it is. you see, nature has no such thing as “marriage”, it’s purely a human/social construct, established for a variety of purposes.

                but yes, “data” is also a human/social construct. ultimately, some person (or committee of persons) has decided what the purpose of gathering the “data” is, what the “data” will consist of, and what it will be drawn from. it’s never simply a random thing.

          • nothingforducks

            You’re playing fast and loose with the “socially constructed” idea, and you’re coming off like someone who has read a bit of Foucault, a bit of Latour, and has no idea what social scientists are actually doing in the field. The concept of “the 1%” is socially constructed. The concept of “racial oppression” is socially constructed. The concept of “consent” is socially constructed. The concept of “taxes” is socially constructed. Ditto with exploitation, wages, assault, the police, etc, etc. In what way they are socially constructed is not necessarily the same and the implications of this are widely variant. It is a complete nonsequitur and is in fact rejected by most people doing philosophy of science that using “socially constructed” concepts and filters means that fields of study relying on them do not still have some degree of objectivity. Most social scientists, economists included, have a good understanding of how theory-laden their observations and methodologies are. If your idea of economist comes only from the Cato Institute or AEI, you might believe (wrongly) what your wrote above, but this is not at all remotely representative of the actual economics establishment.

            This is one of the most crank-ish things I’ve seen on here for a while. It comes across like the people who believe in alternative medicine or weird psychiatric theories and dismiss the other side as an oppressive conspiracy. Campos, Lemeiux, DJW, and Farley all use empirical, social-scientific, economic studies regularly in their posts, and we would rightfully be laughed out of town if we just shouted BUT IDEOLOGY!!!1!1! as a rebuttal to their greater claims.

            • Totally. I completely agree with you. I should be kicked off of this blog.

              • Lee Rudolph

                Oh, I’m sure some time in reeducation camp will suffice.

              • Gregor Sansa

                Well, you should at least learn to take criticism without retreating to defensive sarcasm.

                You do a lot of good work. But being a productive blogger means shooting from the hip a lot. There are upsides to that, but also you’re going to miss the bullseye. In this case, I think you’ve actually missed the target and hit some idiot who was standing next to it. You monster.

                More seriously, I think that whether or not you see nothingforducks’s point, you’re getting into a cycle of doubling down on this, and at the very least should back away.

              • Tracy Lightcap

                No, no. That’s not necessary. You might want to read this, however:

                http://www.phil.vt.edu/dmayo/personal_website/Error_Statistics_2011.pdf

                The people who do both physical and social science are much more attuned to the basis of the truth claims that their work can produce then you seem to think. Further, the kinds of claims they make are specifically attuned to whether ideological influences are at work. You can find plenty of dishonest shills, of course, but that’s nothing new.

                Dismissing all of these endeavors as dependent on social context is jejune. Of course they are. But determining what’s interesting to study is quite different from the kinds of methods and truth claims you can make about it. And the people who do this kind of work are well aware of that difference.

            • MrMister

              Concurred. The discussion of economics in this post reads like the type of science studies that went down in ignominy as it lost the science wars. There are many important lessons to learn about the social context in which science is practiced and how this context can influence the accuracy and durability of its results, but that it’s all just ideology, man, is not one of them. None of the philosophers of science I know have the dismissive attitude towards economics which is on evidence here (including those who write and think on social science generally and economics specifically).

    • carolannie

      There actually is data on the impact of raising the minimum wage. Next question.

  • BubbaDave

    Again, I don’t think traditional protectionism is a way we can move forward.

    I think it is– not because it’s an ideal end state but because it causes enough pain to global capitalism to force them to the negotiating table. “We both agree on free trade, but let’s nibble around the edges to make it more fair” is a worse negotiating position than “We’re perfectly willing to throw up trade barriers that keep you from being able to move production in pursuit of cheap labor. If you want those barriers lowered, make it worth it to our constituents.” And since protectionism has non-trivial support from voters in both parties, it’s not an empty threat.

    • If only it worked that way. Corporations have not been nationalist for a very long time now, since at least just before the NAFTA. GE isn’t going to care that you throw up a tariff if they can move onto Myanmar and make up the difference in labor costs. The obvious solution is the one no one wants to consider: bring the Third World into the 21st Century: labor unions, basic human rights and social safety nets, and so on.

      • njorl

        Right. If a garment worker in Bangladesh wants to work for peanuts, then it sucks that our workers have to compete with her, but that’s how it goes. If she’s forced to work for peanuts, then our workers should not be competing with her. If she isn’t allowed a say in her government, if she can’t safely petition her government for a redress of grievances, if she can’t be represented by a union, then she can’t be in competition with American workers. If she makes a t-shirt for 25 cents, we should put a $5 tariff on it.

        Our government should turn the corporate world’s tactics back on them. Corporations know there are a lot of poor countries who want manufacturing centers built, so they shop around for the most oppressive conditions, and set up a sub-contractor there. If a country doesn’t oppress their workers sufficiently, the corporation creates a sub-contractor in a country who will.

        Our government can now do the same thing in reverse. There are a lot of poor countries out there. We can levy tariffs on any of them we want if they don’t treat their workers fairly. One of those countries will sell out the others and grant their workers decent rights if it means they get lower tariffs in the US.

        • Rob in CT

          Our government can now do the same thing in reverse. There are a lot of poor countries out there. We can levy tariffs on any of them we want if they don’t treat their workers fairly. One of those countries will sell out the others and grant their workers decent rights if it means they get lower tariffs in the US.

          “Fair trade” right?

          Ideally, it wouldn’t just be the US doing it. It would be the US and EU doing it together. And Japan. And Australia and New Zealand…

          Most likely, if we imagine this is actually politically possible at all, it ends up being a fairly low baseline of “don’t be cartoonishly evil” rather than an actual level playing field.

        • witlesschum

          Yes, this is the only chokepoint leftists in rich countries could ever hope to capture and hold. Global corporations need access to rich countries’ markets to make money. If they want that access, then society has a list of demands. There’s no good way for them to dodge that.

  • Gregor Sansa

    Wow. You seem to be doing your best to make your interlocutors look sane by comparison; not an easy task, but you’re certainly giving it the college try. I’m not usually a fan of “the truth must be somewhere in the middle”, but in this case I think I’d place myself about halfway between you and the people you’re responding to.

    In particular:

    -Sure, charity serves the function of making the giver feel good about themself, and sure, it is fundamentally inadequate to making the fundamental changes needed. But those facts don’t mean that it can’t have meaningful good effects; or that charity focused on the global poor isn’t fundamentally more laudible than supporting one’s local opera house or putting one’s name on a building at Harvard. (That’s not to say that there aren’t worthwhile charities in the US, focusing on the poor here, or on fixing political or economic systems which have outsized impacts around the world.)

    -Economics is not ideology-free, nor could it ever be. This is even more true of economics than it is of, say, physics. But that’s not the same as saying that economics is nothing but ideology. Such a radical rejection of economics leaves the field to those using it for evil. There are people doing good things with economics, and there are ways to reject bad economics that are a lot more rigorous and ultimately productive than just saying “that’s what you think, you capitalist tool.”

    -Comparing free-market ideology to communism and fascism is legitimate. But not if the only point is to class some people as bad guys. Free market ideology has a different relationship to rapacious greed than communism has to corrupt commissars; in the former case, it’s largely a post-hoc justification, though one which has developed a certain power of its own, while in the latter it’s actually a precondition. I’m not going to exhaust this question in a paragraph here but my point is that oversimplifying doesn’t particularly help.

    • Wow. You seem to be doing your best to make your interlocutors look sane by comparison; not an easy task, but you’re certainly giving it the college try. I’m not usually a fan of “the truth must be somewhere in the middle”, but in this case I think I’d place myself about halfway between you and the people you’re responding to.

      Doesn’t making people look sane by comparison mean being *much* crazier? If the sensible point is in the *middle* of Erik and the Interlocutors (band name!), then I’d don’t see that he’s making them look saner than him. Aren’t. They equi niputs on your view?

      I wrote this because 1) I like nitpicking and 2) I think there’s a bit of that going on her which is, I believe, unlikely to elicit Erik’s best.

      • Gregor Sansa

        Erik isn’t actually succeeding at makiing his interlocutors look sane, he’s just making a credible attempt. He’s also not even making himself look as insane as they are because we have prior information that he’s not. But if we didn’t have such prior info, then he would be.

        Also: I hate touchscreen keyboards too, so my sympathies, but it’s still funny to see your nitpicking with so many typoes.

        • We all pick different nits.

          I concur that Erik isn’t covering himself with glory here, but I also feel that e.g., Gareth’s comment was fairly predictably unproductive (though maybe not so predictable by Gareth).

          • Gareth

            I know exactly how productive my comment was.

            • Well now, sure :)

              All I meant by that is that I think Erik’s reaction was fairly predictable. If that’s what you intended, then ok.

              • Bill Murray

                gareth’s comment was pretty predictable. He doesn’t really have much range in what i think is his trolling

    • MrMister

      Indeed. From the OP:

      “Well that’s fine and good although your “charity” just makes you feel good about yourself as a rich white person”

      This particularly bothered me. To say that charity not only DOES make the presumed interlocutor feel good about themselves–and why shouldn’t it–but that it JUST makes them feel good about themselves suggests that it either has no other good effects or (more to the point I suspect) is being done only for the sake of self-gratification. On this hypothesis, the person who’s giving’s stated reasons are lies, they are self-deceiving, and their actual motive is some perverse mess.

      There is, I think, no good reasons to suppose this to be true. Larissa MacFarquhar’s recent book Strangers Drowning has a brief and lovely popular history of this idea in psychology–in short, Anna Freud, among others, was a big-time proponent of the idea that altruism was always a passive-aggressive attempt to dominate those around you. Nowadays, though, this thought is not so well-accepted, partially because more careful study has revealed that more people exist in the world than those first few basket cases who starred in Freudian psychology–aka, in addition to those genuinely controlling martyr-complex types who were showing up on psychoanalyst’s couches, there are also all sorts of happy, healthy people who just happen to really care about others.

      “Effective Altruism” is approaching a pop-culture buzzword these days, and it’s attracted plenty of (sometimes bemused, sometimes abrasive) pushback of much the form that gets so polished up in this comment: this is just a silly distraction for rich white people, and it doesn’t address Justice. I would ask anyone who feels this way to read the Julia Wise chapter of Strangers Drowning, i.e. “At Once Rational And Ardent;” it’s a character portrait of a young woman who is, as all the people in the book are, very unusually dedicated to the sort of charity that is lauded by effective altruists. I think it is very clear that she is interested in not just doing right for the sake of her enjoyment, but in doing it for its own sake, and in personally unrewarding ways. Here she is quoted:

      “There is an ad for a food bank that appears on buses all over Boston. Here we have a pretty young white woman hugging an older white woman. I guess the younger white woman is supposed to represent the food bank, since she looks happy, whereas the faceless older woman is presumably hungry and therefore in need of comfort. Oh, wait. Except she doesn’t need a hug. She needs groceries. I have a rescue fantasy–what social worker doesn’t? Somewhere inside, we love to believe that we could just hug our clients and make everything better. If we took them home and gave them a good meal and enough sympathy, we could fix everything and earn their undying gratitude. But that is an inside thought. You do not tell your clients about that thought. The point is to help, not to feel helpful… If I needed groceries, would I really want to go someplace where I might get hugged by some misty-eyed young lady with a savior complex? No way.”

      This is clearly someone who has thought carefully about what it means to give, and what it means to give selfishly. In the present context, I should also highlight that she has explicitly grappled with the thought that her lifestyle as a social worker is wrong, because even though she disciplines herself about doing the less ‘fun’ work within social work, she could instead be doing something more lucrative and then giving much more money to the distant poor–even as a social worker she gives most of her meager income, but she could be giving much more if she were, say, a banker. These thoughts aren’t just the property of gross self-deceivers. They are also the property of people like Julia.

      You can think that someone like her is all mixed up and very wrong about what’s going to be good for the world–e.g., because what we really need is the class revolution. Sure, whatever. But please none of the casual character assassination. It does everyone a disservice.

      • Ronan

        I was going to mention macfarquers book. I’m only half way through but am enjoying it

      • Rob in CT

        Incidently, two can play at the character assassination game. Erik contends that charity (or at least some charity by some people?) is just bullshit that makes you feel better. And hey, depending on the circumstances I agree.

        Ok, then. But what if Erik’s work is the same thing? Maybe all his passion for fighting capitalism is really just about making himself feel better as someone who lives a comfortable life in an advanced country. I, for one, wouldn’t claim that, because wow it’s a shitty thing to say about someone.

        And where does that get us? Nowhere!

        • Ok, then. But what if Erik’s work is the same thing? Maybe all his passion for fighting capitalism is really just about making himself feel better as someone who lives a comfortable life in an advanced country. I, for one, wouldn’t claim that, because wow it’s a shitty thing to say about someone.

          Hey, it’s entirely possible. I mean, it’s not as if I’m giving up my car.

          • Lee Rudolph

            I mean, it’s not as if I’m giving up my car shipping my car to Ghana.

            FTFY.

            • Gregor Sansa

              Jotto Pohl, Jotto Pohl, riding through the glen.
              Jotto Pohl, Jotto Pohl, without his merry men.
              He steals from the poor,
              and gives to the rich!
              Stupid b—

              (Sorry, Jotto. I know that you’re absolutely blameless in this one and bringing your name into it is uncalled-for, but it fits the meter so well. If “Erik Loomis” fit the meter, I’d have used that, because it makes more sense, even in Ghana… but it doesn’t so oh well.)

          • Rob in CT

            And even if it IS the reason… this is bad why?

            I mean, hell, how many people fight to make the world a better place without ever feeling the slightest bit proud (or less ashamed) of what they’re doing? Without taking any psychic pleasure in being/believing they are right about something Important?

  • AMK

    Economics is just another way of looking at human behavior…it has more in common with religion than with hard “science” like physics or chemistry or biology, where objective data can be derived from experimentation. There’s a reason why both the economic and religious absolutists are in one party, and the actual scientists are in another.

    • Gregor Sansa

      Wow.

      Social sciences are sciences. “Physics or go home” doesn’t even make sense; you could just as well reductio it to “Pure mathematics or go home.”

      Science is political. That includes the “hard” sciences. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t science; that it isn’t an ultimately productive way to develop intersubjectively valid knowledge. “Economics isn’t even a science” lets bad economists off the hook. The fact that they’re acting as political apologists rather than scientists is entirely their fault.

      • AMK

        Science is not political. Electrons and star systems and amino acids do not have politics. But science is unavoidably made political…imbued with political significance before or after the fact…because it is a human endeavor, and people are political. It’s like how fetching a ball is not by definition a dirty activity, but because my dog does it there’s going to be slobber all over.

        By contrast, social science is like the study of the dog and the slobber and the cut of the grass. These are all relevant factors that add value to the experience…but I don’t take a cup of the slobber, freeze it, cut it into a crude sphere and throw it so I can pretend it’s the same as the ball. Economics is not imbued with political significance…it is politics (that is, modes of human behavior) by another name

        • Gregor Sansa

          Economic activity is a real thing that exists in the world, just like star systems or amino acids. Any actual scientist studying any of those things is human. Sure, the political factors in studying economics are more important than in studying star systems. But it’s a difference in degree. Making it into a difference in kind does a disservice to both the “hard” and “soft” sciences.

          As to whether Science is political or whether it’s just the sciences we see through a glass darkly that are… meh. I think it’s better to say that reality is objective but any understanding we have of it is subjective and the best we can hope for is intersubjective validity. But at a certain point arguing about this is angels on pinheads.

          • Steve LaBonne

            Are you really trying to deny that there are very significant epistemological differences between the natural sciences and the human sciences? These are differences in kind, not just degree, because reflexivity profoundly affects the latter in ways that are just not true of the former. And to descend to nitty-gritty practicality from that level of abstraction, is it also true that it’s far easier for students of the human sciences who have a personal stake in the answers to their questions to make the answers come out the way they want. Non-human nature is a lot more intractable.

            • Lee Rudolph

              Are you really trying to deny that there are very significant epistemological differences between the natural sciences and the human sciences?

              Hell, he’s really denying that there are very significant ontological differences between the natural sciences and the human sciences: “Economic activity is a real thing that exists in the world, just like star systems or amino acids.”

            • MrMister

              Economics (in particular) is effected by the fact that our beliefs about it influence it; this is part of the reason why people really hanker after a reduction of economics to micro-foundations in terms of psychological features of individuals which are assumed to be invariant under basically any changes that don’t render us into some other kind of creature entirely. That there is this belief-object interaction is an interesting and compelling problem (to which I have already described one possible though optimistic solution–stable microfoundations!), but to dismiss the entire field on that basis would be like a 17th century physicist dismissing Calculus because they hadn’t really figured out a rigorous notion of the infinite yet. Of course we haven’t. It’s work in progress. The stable areas of science are fruits of long and very fraught work. They didn’t start that way.

              • Steve LaBonne

                It’s not dismissal, it’s a recognition that the nature of the subject is likely always, and in principle, to render conclusions less stable and practically reliable than in the natural sciences. That can’t be wished away just by hand-waving about what supposedly might be accomplished in the future.

                • MrMister

                  If you claim that economics not only is, but in fact will always be inherently unstable, then it matters a great deal what might be accomplished in in the future. The only way I could see to be confident that something will literally always be unstable is if it could not even in principle be made stable–and the only way I could see to be confident in that is if no possible future developments would render it stable. But even though there are interesting and confounding problems in economics, I think that hyper-pessimistic verdict is not at this present date justified. After all, many sciences began with periods where there were interesting and confounding fundamental problems.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  So you accept that this lack of reliability is true in the present, whatever may happen in the future?

                • MrMister

                  I think economics consists in a range of methodological principles and substantive claims, some of which are likely very good and many of which are not. I don’t think any of it commands the sort of certainty that, say, the physics of middle-sized objects made of typical materials as used for ordinary purposes does. But that’s a very demanding standard, one that not even physics itself lived up to when it comes to most all of our intellectual history. But we often have to soldier up and move on anyway. The claim that economics is less certain than principles behind the ideal lab demos we did in science classes certainly does nothing to undermine its status as central to policy formation and analysis–which, on my understanding, was what the OP was trying to claim it was pointless for.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  Saying we have to forge ahead with social technology despite serious concerns about the validity and reliability of social science conclusions is a good way to get yourself metaphorically blown up, just as it was a good way to get yourself literally blown up in the infancy of natural science. And in fact, most economists don’t even exhibit a becoming modesty about policy recommendations, quite the contrary. (And their most successful policy recommendations tend to come from largely empirical and historical observations with only a rudimentary level of theory attached, whereas the least successful tend to come from elaborate theorizing.)

            • Tracy Lightcap

              If that is what he is saying – and it sure looks like it – he’s right. The distinctions between the social and physical sciences have next to nothing to do with the methods used or how truth claims are made. They have to do with the subject matter. Social states of affairs are what is intractable; it’s actually pretty easy to study physical phenomena (“Don’t think; do the experiment.”).

              The best way to see the basis for the difference and how to think about science effectively is to read Freeman Dyson’s great essay, “Manchester and Athens”. As Dyson points out, the kinds of things we study make for different bases for truth claims, but the basic methods and how to apply them with integrity is pretty much the same. The logic for causal analysis of both observational and experimental studies is the same; it’s just a matter of how you deal with omitted variables. That’s harder when you are looking at social states of affairs and that makes it harder in turn to deal with the shysters. But, hey, no need to back off because all of a sudden your work got harder.

          • DrDick

            Exactly and there is an extensive body of work critiquing (implicitly) politically informed scientific interpretations in biology and other disciplines. I consider myself scientifically oriented, but I also recognize that scientists are products of their culture and their upbringing, which affects their interpretations of the data.

            • joe from Lowell

              “Affects their interpretation of the data” isn’t controversial.

              The notion that the data itself is an outcome of their social situation is.

              • DrDick

                Which data you use, how you collect it, and how you present it are all outcomes of their social situation. There is no point in the process that is entirely free from it.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  From a moderate pragmatist viewpoint, though, there are major differences in how reliable the conclusions are for manipulating the world with predictable results. I forget which famous sociologist, maybe Paul Lazarsfeld, wrote years ago that the social sciences were not a safe basis for technology. That remains true.

                • DrDick

                  I would not disagree with this, but would point out that data from the physical and biological sciences are not always either.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  But they are reliable in that way a hell of a lot more of the time, and what’s more, everybody knows this. I know it’s a cliche to bring up airplanes, bridges, and computers, but hey, airplanes, bridges, and computers.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  But they are reliable in that way a hell of a lot more of the time, and what’s more, everybody knows this. I know it’s a cliche to bring up airplanes, bridges, and computers, but hey, airplanes, bridges, and computers.

                  It’s at least conceivable that such differences arise, not from worse science, but from worse engineering: even if the data from a social science were as high-quality (reliable, reproducible, whatever) as that from a physical science, the social engineers—because their dark materials are people (and groups of people, and interactions among people and groups of people, and so on and so forth) rather than the materials that airplanes, bridges, and computers are constructed from—can’t necessarily be as effective (or perspicacious, etc.) in their use of those materials, ruthless as they might be or like to be. (Destructive testing, anyone?)

                • Steve LaBonne

                  That’s a both/and, not an either/or.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Yes, the process by which one works with data is socially-construced.

                  The process by which one works with beach sand, likewise. That doesn’t make the beach sand itself socially-constucted.

                  There are objective realities about human behavior, just as about geologic activity. We are limited in our capacity to access them, more limited even than in our capacity to access objective geological facts, but that should rightfully serve as a warning to demonstrate humility.

                  Not a dinner bell to deny the knowledge gained from such study has no more validity than an ideological gut check.

                • DrDick

                  The process by which one works with beach sand, likewise. That doesn’t make the beach sand itself socially-constucted.

                  However, whether you work with beach sand, river gravel, or windblown loess is very much culturally constructed. Determining what the data is and which data are relevant is very much subject to bias, which would be the whole point here. “Data” is in itself a social construct.

                • Philip

                  I really don’t think there’s a disagreement here. JfL is supporting one legitimate definition of the word “data.” The word can refer strictly to a set of numbers, which are trivially objective, not socially constructed. This is the sense the word is used in when people say “the data does not speak for itself,” because in this sense the data does not include any interpretation at all.

                  Or it can refer to numbers (or qualitative observations or whatever) along with some narrowly defined context, like what slightly more broadly speaking those numbers mean. Data in this sense, because it includes context and has some conception of meaning or interpretation, is obviously socially constructed.

                  It’s a stupid, pedantic argument that’s been happening all over the internet for longer than I’ve been alive.

                • DrDick

                  It’s a stupid, pedantic argument that’s been happening all over the internet for longer than I’ve been alive.

                  It is in fact an important argument that goes to the heart of the issue at hand. Those favoring the current trade regime use aggregate data and talk about median incomes and the numbers of people at the very bottom (under $2/day), while completely ignoring the distributional data, which shows little overall improvement among the poor (mostly still below $3.50/day), with huge growth among the wealthiest in the world. While within country GINI coefficients have declined in the developing world, global GINI has increased.

                • xq

                  DrDick, your link directly contradicts what you say it says. The graph shows that global GINI declined from 2003 to 2013, and is expected to decline even more by 2035. It also shows great improvement among the poor.

                • Philip

                  It is in fact an important argument that goes to the heart of the issue at hand. Those favoring the current trade regime use aggregate data and talk about median incomes and the numbers of people at the very bottom (under $2/day), while completely ignoring the distributional data, which shows little overall improvement among the poor (mostly still below $3.50/day), with huge growth among the wealthiest in the world. While within country GINI coefficients have declined in the developing world, global GINI has increased.

                  I say it’s a stupid argument because it looks (to me) like it’s devolved in several different places in this thread to arguing over “what does the word ‘data’ mean,” not the actual substance you’re referring to here.

                • DrDick

                  XQ –

                  Perhaps not the best link, though it does point out that global GINI is higher than that of any country. Here are some better links for this:

                  http://www.cnbc.com/2014/10/01/enormous-increase-in-global-inequality-oecd.html

                  http://reports.weforum.org/outlook-global-agenda-2015/top-10-trends-of-2015/1-deepening-income-inequality/

                • DrDick
                • joe from Lowell

                  However, whether you work with beach sand, river gravel, or windblown loess is very much culturally constructed. Determining what the data is and which data are relevant is very much subject to bias, which would be the whole point here. “Data” is in itself a social construct.

                  The first two sentences are not controversial. The third does not follow from them.

                  You’ve demonstrated a bunch of things about how one works with the “beach sand” that have social causes. You still haven’t show me that the beach sand is socially constructed.

                  Data in this sense, because it includes context and has some conception of meaning or interpretation, is obviously socially constructed.

                  Once it includes context and has been subject to interpretation, data becomes information. This is a not a trivial distinction, but an important one. The question of whether our interpretations of data have an element of social construction isn’t at issue; the question is whether there is something prior to that. And riding on that question is whether people who care to dismiss the research that shows the minimum wage doesn’t reduce employment can legitimately do so, or whether there actually are limits the facts impose on saying whatever the hell your want for political purposes.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Those favoring the current trade regime use aggregate data and talk about median incomes and the numbers of people at the very bottom (under $2/day), while completely ignoring the distributional data, which shows little overall improvement among the poor (mostly still below $3.50/day), with huge growth among the wealthiest in the world. While within country GINI coefficients have declined in the developing world, global GINI has increased.

                  You’re citing economics data to demonstrate the unreliability of economics data?

                  What you’re actually doing is demonstrating the unreliability of one line of reasoning drawn from some economics data, not impugning the data itself.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Tha Gini of an aggregate will always be as high or higher than the weighted average of the Ginis of the parts. It’s a mathematical identity, not an indictment.

              • gmack

                The notion that the data itself is an outcome of their social situation is.

                Except that, at least for the data that social scientists use, it’s kind of obvious that the data itself is obviously the outcome of a social situation, right? I mean, things like marriages, poverty, left/right political divides, and so on are data that are products of a social situation, i.e., they are created in and through people’s social practices and self-interpretations. This, after all, is one of the problems that social science faces that the natural sciences do not. Astronomers might argue with each other about how to define a planet, but they don’t have to worry about the planets themselves arguing with them about their own self-definitions, nor do they have to worry about the ways in which their own models and conceptualizations help shape the social world in which their data is acting.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Nobody’s arguing that social sciences are exactly the same as natural sciences; just that the differences are ones of degree and not large enough to justify drawing the “science” demarcation along.

                  (Except when it comes to history, cultural anthropology, psychoanalysis, political theory, and other things which happen to be called SS but are not about drawing valid generalizations about in-principle-reproducible empirical phenomena).

                • DrDick

                  Except when it comes to history, cultural anthropology, psychoanalysis, political theory, and other things which happen to be called SS but are not about drawing valid generalizations about in-principle-reproducible empirical phenomena).

                  As a cultural anthropologist, I take exception to this. While many anthropologists pursue interpretive approaches, many of us also pursue drawing valid generalizations.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Sorry, no offense intended. My wife is a CA, and I respect that approach a lot.

                  I was talking about interpretive people who don’t want to be called scientists. If you think you’re doing science, you probably are.

      • Meh; as a historian who absolutely does not believe that what I do is a science, count me as highly skeptical of the intellectual pretensions of social scientists, especially economists and some political scientists that what they are doing are on par with understanding geological change.

        • Justaguy

          Regardless of how you want to categorize history, you make claims based on facts that you and other historians have recorded. Do you think your scholarship is rooted in anything more substantive than your political beliefs? If so, how would you distinguish what you do from the social sciences you dismiss as ideology?

        • Gregor Sansa

          History is not a science, because its results are by their very nature irreproducible. This is not true of any of the other things we term social sciences. That is not to say that economic data (for instance) are not often irreproducible in practice for various reasons, but that’s a problem many sciences deal with at some level or another.

          History is like science in that it is about objective realities, albeit ones which are (as always) only comprehensible through culturally-mediated categories. It is like literature, though, in that it is about the particular; even when historians make generalizations, they do not (NEVER EVER) aspire to forget the particularities of the bases for those generalizations. Or if they do, I’d claim they’re no longer doing “history” as I understand it, but rather “historical sociology” or something.

          • History is not a science, because its results are by their very nature irreproducible.

            Er..Cosmological results are, to my knowledge, not reproducible. At least, y’know, in a general way.

            If we get to the point we can create universes, I’ll bet we can do sufficiently detailed ancestor simulations to make history effectively reproducible :)

            • Gregor Sansa

              But cosmologists are very good at finding what aspects of the phenomena they study are reproducible.

              There’s plenty of things in plenty of sciences that are hard to reproduce. The difference isn’t whether those exist, it’s whether you see it as your job to bring those things into focus precisely because of their particularity. I think that’s a legitimate and laudable goal for historians, which makes their field something other than a science.

              • But cosmologists are very good at finding what aspects of the phenomena they study are reproducible.

                Really? I thought large swaths of it was more or less observation. You see a phenomenon like background cosmic radiation and use that as evidence of inflation.

                Historians find phenomena (like documents) and use it as evidence of why a decision was made.

                There’s plenty of things in plenty of sciences that are hard to reproduce.

                So, mere lack of reproducibility isn’t a problem.

                The difference isn’t whether those exist, it’s whether you see it as your job to bring those things into focus precisely because of their particularity.

                I’m really having trouble understanding you today. The creation of the universe is a primary focus of study for cosmology. It is not reproducible.

                I’m not a big fan of demarcation exercises of this sort, but if you are going down this route you might focus instead on connections (perhaps diffuse) to predictability. Even that is rather tricky.

            • Gregor Sansa

              As for the ancestor simulation thing: I recognize that it’s a joke and that what I’m about to say doesn’t even argue against it even if it weren’t a joke. But you’ve pushed my button so here goes.

              Anybody who thinks that there’s a non-negligible probability that they are inside an ancestor sim is crazy. Not because that’s an impossible thing, and not because it’s not plausible that we’d ever get enough computing power to run them en masse (I personally don’t find it likely, but it’s not a crazy idea per se). No: it’s because any such sim would not have quantum multiplicity, which makes the breadth of experience inside the sim tiny compared to that outside, and thus the anthropic probability of being inside a sim negligible.

              • As for the ancestor simulation thing: I recognize that it’s a joke

                It wasn’t. I was serious.

                Anybody who thinks that there’s a non-negligible probability that they are inside an ancestor sim is crazy.

                Also not true. Or at least, I’d want an actual refutation of this.

                No: it’s because any such sim would not have quantum multiplicity, which makes the breadth of experience inside the sim tiny compared to that outside, and thus the anthropic probability of being inside a sim negligible.

                Sorry, this was literally gibberish tome. Why wouldn’t it have quantum multiplicity and what does QM have to do with breath of experience?

          • Justaguy

            Social science results aren’t necessarily reproducible. As an anthropologist, I researched a moment in time that has since passed – nobody can step into that river again. Other social scientists can study similar phenomena and compare it, much like historians do.

            • Medicine is often irreproducible. It partly depends on the phenomena. Most people only die once. It still makes sense to do autopsies. And is scientific.

        • liberalrob

          …count me as highly skeptical of the intellectual pretensions of social scientists, especially economists and some political scientists that what they are doing are on par with understanding geological change.

          Human beings possess the ability to exterminate all life on the planet. I think understanding how humans behave and what affects that behavior is at least as important as understanding plate tectonics.

          Now, as regards the quality and applicability of their work, that often does leave something to be desired.

    • joe from Lowell

      I wonder if the people who write things like this realize that they are echoing what the right-wingers say about anthropology, psychiatry, history, and every other social science (and the very politicized professors who teach and write in the fields.)

      • MrMister

        Even Bruno Latour himself saw it, eventually, even if only through a glass darkly:

        http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/89-CRITICAL-INQUIRY-GB.pdf

      • History is not a social science.

        • joe from Lowell

          OK, political geography.

        • liberalrob

          History may not be a social science, but social sciences would not exist without history. History records the outcomes of the processes social sciences attempt to codify. It is the equivalent of experimentation’s relationship to physical sciences. It just operates retrospectively instead of prospectively.

      • I wonder if the people who write things like this realize that they are echoing what the right-wingers say about anthropology, psychiatry, history, and every other social science (and the very politicized professors who teach and write in the fields.)

        “Right” and “left” are socially constructed. But so what? That and $3 will get you a Big Mac. Arguments about social construction are socially constructed too. I agree that a lot of the people who use social construction talk probably are not aware that it largely comes from a history that’s rooted in what most people would call conservative–and that some of them would be made uncomfortable by that realization (while some would embrace it).

        It’s just too broad a brush and it comes across as “science sucks” or as “you suck” for a reason. And even if it identifies exactly what’s wrong with the Vox approach–even if Vox itself is the best possible advertisement for the theory being correct–it doesn’t give them a reason to listen.

        • joe from Lowell

          “Right” and “left” are socially constructed. But so what? That and $3 will get you a Big Mac.

          So, all of the flaws you so easily recognize in David Horowitz’s commentary about sociologists apply just as well when it’s your team doing it.

          Also, showing off that you can use socially constructed in a sentence doesn’t really make any argument. Yes, left and right are socially constructed categories.

          I agree that a lot of the people who use social construction talk probably are not aware that it largely comes from a history that’s rooted in what most people would call conservative

          No, not “a lot of people who use social construction talk.” Almost no “social construction talk” comes from a conservative background, or has anything in common with the deep thoughts of David Horowitz. It is only this isolated little segment of “social construction talk” that denies the capacity of those engaging in social research can access objective truth that veers into the Horowitzian. Merely noting that things like racial categories or political labels are socially-constructed doesn’t share those flaws at all.

          The broad brush here is in the OP; it’s the lack of distinction that I’m on about.

          • Right; when you think you disagree with someone using the terminology, they’re “showing off.”

            No, not “a lot of people who use social construction talk.” Almost no “social construction talk” comes from a conservative background, or has anything in common with the deep thoughts of David Horowitz.

            I’m not following your logic here. Horowitz AFAIK, if he uses relativistic talk, is drawing it from Marx, like the other neoconservatives (who aren’t relativistic when it comes to theories that describe relativism). Other people on the right take relativism from Heidegger or Stanley Fish or Thomists like Alasdair MacIntyre and that school. People on the left take relativism from Heidegger and other sources. People on both sides take relativism from, for example, pragmatism, evolutionary psychology, etc., etc.

            Leftists who aren’t relativists are free to define relativism as on the right; I can’t stop them. Rightwingers who really are relativists are free to define leftism as by definition relativistic; I can’t stop them either.

            You say radical theories of social construction are only found on the right. Maybe. You imply there are no areas within social science that give more support to the right than the left. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t even one.

            If you say there’s no one on the left who attacks the “scientific point of view” for unjustified pride in “objectivity,” I think it’s probably pretty easy to find counterexamples. They may say they intend not to criticize social science, because they believe social scientists don’t suffer from the same problems as physical scientists. If you say there’s no one on the left who includes social science (even beyond economics) in that kind of attack, I kind of doubt it.

            I’m the last (well, maybe not the last) person to deny that social construction talk is socially constructed. But for the most part that only matters if you’re interested in deep questions of philosophy. It doesn’t help you with methodology or ethics, not without further assumptions.

            • joe from Lowell

              Right; when you think you disagree with someone using the terminology, they’re “showing off.”

              The line I quoted made no point. There wasn’t even a disagreement. You were showing off.

              I’m not following your logic here.

              Maybe that’s because you’re conflating relativism with “social construction talk,” which was itself a conflation of many different things. The conversation would probably become a lot clearer if were descended from these heights of generality.

              Almost none of the discussion of social construction coming from people on the left descends into the frivolity of a Horowitzian dismissal of the pursuit of knowledge through the social sciences, and the claim that the knowledge found therein is just an expression of the academic’s social circumstances and/or ideology. The blowing off of economic knowledge in this post is a departure from how liberals view the social sciences, and has more in common with David Horowitz blowing off inconvenient sociological research on the grounds that it’s just those commie academics again.

              You say radical theories of social construction are only found on the right.

              Actually, I said “almost.” The Lysenkonism reference I made above references a rather famous case of a radical leftist social-construction argument.

              You imply there are no areas within social science that give more support to the right than the left.

              No, I really don’t, and I don’t see how you could get this impression in this discussion, which is about economics, a field of social science that gets much more support on the right, and is being attacked here from the left.

              • The line I quoted made no point. There wasn’t even a disagreement. You were showing off.

                The disagreement was that you seemed to think you’d made a knockdown argument by saying, “You leftists who talk about social construction, don’t you know you’re using rightwing ideas?” And I meant to point out (obviously too briefly, but I don’t have time right now) that the people you’re talking about don’t have to accept your framing of the issue or your ideas about how to divide people up into “right” and “left.”

                I don’t have time today for the rest.

        • Also, showing off that you can use socially constructed in a sentence doesn’t really make any argument.

          The line I quoted made no point. There wasn’t even a disagreement. You were showing off.

          Wait, we can’t fail to make a point or fail to make a disagreement without it being showing off?

          Why couldn’t is just be that bianca had a bit of reactive ramble? (E.g., granting for the sake of argument that you are correct that there was no point or disagreement.)

    • Bill Murray

      well except for when many economists worked very hard to link themselves to the way physicists work. Physics envy was and amy still be a real thing

      https://rbi.org.in/scripts/BS_SpeechesView.aspx?Id=518

      With the benefit of hindsight and by wide agreement, it now seems that by far the most egregious fault of economics, one that led it astray, has been to project it like an exact science. The charge is that economists suffered from ‘physics envy’ which led them to formulate elegant theories and models – using sophisticated mathematics with impressive quantitative finesse – deluding themselves and the world at large that their models have more exactitude than they actually did.

      it is possible to construct beautifully precise models but only if you assume that rational economic agents with perfect information are operating in free markets that always return to equilibrium. But none of these assumptions holds true in the real world; models of economists are mere abstractions of reality that are useful for understanding but woefully inadequate for prediction. That is why good economists are those who superimpose judgement on the predictions thrown up by models

  • nothingforducks

    “Second, there’s the idea that all economists agree on the impacts of global trade, clearly incorrect. I read economists like Mike Konczal and Marshall Steinbaum all the time who reject these ideas… [T]he entire idea that a field of pure pro-capitalist ideology like Economics deserves a Nobel Prize and that somehow gives the field some sort of credibility is utterly laughable…”

    How’s that for some whiplash?

    I wrote my thesis on how American theologians misuse philosophy of science in Christian apologetics. The people who insist most on the social nature and practice of various fields of science typically are often ironically the people with the most inaccurate representation of what the actual actors in the field are like and what they really do. Thus, we have the millions of people working with and in economics around the world – including plenty of social policy workers, labor union economists, and critics of capitalism – reduced to the level of nefarious World Bank little Eichmanns at a high level of abstraction divorced from all social reality. This is the weird leftie flipside of the right-wing rejection of gender or race studies.

    Also, it is important not to equivocate between conceptions of “ideology”. One is the idea that most scientific observations, research programs, and methodologies presuppose prior theoretical commitments and assumptions, which is completely harmless and does not make their conclusions any less valid. Another is that many people may have certain motivations driving where and how they look at social phenomena, which can be good or bad, depending on how it’s done. But then there is the Charles Murray/Trofim Lysenko case of people who are deliberately or unreflectively forming their beliefs based on desired political goals. To say that economics is necessarily ideological in one of the first two senses is completely harmless and trivial, but to say that economics is necessarily ideological in the third sense is clearly false. Economics (and history and social psychology and linguistics and anthropology, etc, etc) may unfortunately quite often be ideological in this sense. In economics, we can look at the long afterlife of the labor theory of value and surplus value extraction as well as the claim that the American civil war happened because of the declining profitability of slavery as good illustrations of this from the left-side. Social psychology in particular is filled with all sorts of rubbish experiments and studies that we tend to embrace because they support our left-wing preconceptions of how social reality works. (I thought the set-up of the experiment about fairness vs efficiency that Campos posted a couple weeks ago to be a complete mess.) But it is silly to say that the entirety of any field of study is in thrall to such habits and that this strips all empirical data of any objective referent.

  • Steve LaBonne

    I have a suggestion for the affluent people who are so much more concerned about the global poor than our own working poor. Guess what, folks, you can demonstrate your bona fides by helping the latter without taking opportunity away from the former. All you have to do is pay significantly higher taxes so we can create a lot of new public jobs instead of trying to protect private-sector ones. I know these people are totally arguing in good faith, so they’ll jump at this idea, right?

    • xq

      I know these people are totally arguing in good faith, so they’ll jump at this idea, right?
      I think so, for the most part? One of the main points of Vox seems to be supporting Democrats who want to raise taxes on the affluent to help the US working poor. There would be some disagreement about which specific programs are best at helping our own working poor, but that same disagreement exists throughout the progressive movement (Based on Erik’s UBI thread a couple of weeks ago, it seems to be one of the least-agreed-on topics on LGM).

      • UserGoogol

        Yeah. It’s really weird when people act like Vox is full of a bunch of right-wingers instead of fairly conventional left-liberal-progressive wonks who are a bit more market-friendly than most.

  • xq

    This gets back to the zero-sum game ideology of Lowrey, Matthews, etc., who revert to free market economics ideology without recognizing that the domestic issues they dislike are deeply connected to the lack of jobs for working people today who vote their resentments rather than their economic interests.

    1. It’s Theroux, not his opponents, who see this as a zero-sum game. His NYT article at least strongly implies that the Chinese middle class was only able to rise at the expense of US workers.
    2. If Theroux wrote an article about the suffering of people in the Mississippi Delta, and how we should have a job program to protect such people, it would not have gotten the pushback it did (actually, it might have, among libertarians and conservatives). The controversial point is his proposal that we should help the local poor by diverting resources currently going to the global poor (instead of the many, many other places resources could be located). Disagreement on whether this is a good idea does not come down to free-market ideology.

    • I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think Theroux is largely correct.

      I haven’t really seen a decent argument from the free-traders to refute the fact that US workers have been harmed by these agreements.

      The best they can seem to come up with is “Yes, but that’s OK because it helped even poorer people elsewhere”.

      • xq

        I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think Theroux is largely correct.

        Many people think so! The idea that globalization is a zero-sum game is common. But let’s ascribe that view to the people who actually have it, like Theroux, or Donald Trump, and not the people who disagree with it, like Matthews et al.

        I haven’t really seen a decent argument from the free-traders to refute the fact that US workers have been harmed by these agreements.

        It’s a complicated question, but certainly many US workers have lost out. But where do we go from there? Even if you believe that the world would have been a better place without globalization ever occurring, it’s very unlikely to reverse. We should try to find solutions that help US workers without harming foreigners. Job programs, UBI, etc.

        • Why can’t things be reversed?

          Do you really mean can’t or shouldn’t?

          As someone said in a previous post, globalization is sometimes treated like a force of nature rather than a set of man-made choices.

          • xq

            I mean that the political path to reversing globalization is both more difficult and would bring less benefit than the political path towards a stronger welfare state.

            • Ronan

              Yes, exactly . It’s a worse, less sustainable solution. Technological innovation will continue to errode jobs, it will always be open to wage competition both in country and out, and changes in consumer preferences will prob mean that the old industries that maintained mass, well paid jobs won’t be coming anyway. I have no idea why people think the political economy of the 50/60s is forever maintainable and desirable (this is before we get to the extent to which such an economy locks women out of the workforce )

        • Manju

          The solution is for the Fed prioritize full-employment. Or, if we are at the zero lower bound, for Congress to approve a large fiscal stimulus.

          • How about we stop making the wound deeper rather than looking for a bigger box of Band-Aids?

            • Manju

              Offshoring did not cause the Great Recession. Wall Street did.

              • Ohio and Michigan were bleeding manufacturing jobs long before the Great Recession hit.

                The so-called “Bush Boom” of the 2000s largely bypassed the rust belt.

                • Rob in CT

                  Yeah, I think it’s good to remember that we run a significant trade deficit when we’re not in recession. Something like 5% of GDP? 7%? We’ve been doing that for a long time now.

                  We can plug that hole with government deficits or private borrowing or both (which is what we did, basically).

                  Part of the reason Wall St. shenanigans caused so much damage was that people in the US were up to their eyeballs in debt. And they got that way, in part, because their incomes stagnated (or, in some cases, fell). [Though it’s also fair to point out that household debt has risen pretty linearly since the end of WWII]

                • postmodulator

                  Yes, and how could you think that suppressed income growth had no interaction with the mortgage/debt crisis? If people had money they would have just paid for their houses.

        • L2P

          I think you’re missing the point of the critique of Vox’s argument.

          The Yglesias crowd argues that free trade isn’t a zero-sum game and so a massive outflow of American manufacturing to China is good for everybody.

          Critics say not so much. People in China are better off, and extremely wealthy people (some in America) are better off, but for the many, maybe a majority, of Americans trade makes them worse off. So maybe that manufacturing should just stay in America.

          Then the Yglesias crowd argues back that moving Chinese manufacturing back to America makes Chinese worse off, and American’s are already rich so who cares about the Americans?

          Free trade isn’t part of this counter argument. They’re simply arguing that people in China are poorer than people in America and so manufacturing should stay in China.

          And that’s what Erik and others are mocking. We’re not arguing over free trade anymore. Bigger pies aren’t the issue; it’s who should get more of the pie. And poor Americans? Screw those guys. Their needs don’t factor into the calculus at all.

          • xq

            The Yglesias crowd argues that free trade isn’t a zero-sum game

            Yes….

            and so a massive outflow of American manufacturing to China is good for everybody.

            No.

            Here’s Lowery:

            The reality, you’ll be surprised to hear, is more complicated. Globalization certainly was not an unalloyed good for the American middle class; the economist Branko Milanović has shown that lower-income workers in rich countries were among those who benefited least from global growth between 1988 and 2008, whereas China’s middle class were among those who benefited the most. That big drop in global extreme poverty does have something to do with the stagnation of wages for many workers in the United States

            Here’s Charles Kenny at Vox:

            It is shocking that a country home to so much wealth is also home to such deprivation. It reflects a growing inequality that has seen US GDP per capita more than double over 50 years while the bottom 15 percent of incomes has stagnated. I’d also agree that some of the decline in manufacturing and related employment in the United States — as many as 2 million jobs, or more than 1 percent of the US labor force — may be due to the impact of Chinese imports.

            The rest of your post is no more accurate in terms of summarizing the positions of those you disagree with.

      • Manju

        “Yes, but that’s OK because it helped even poorer people elsewhere”.

        xq is saying that the “yes” part of this argument is by and large not being said, i.e. that its not a zero-sum game…much like automation.

        You need to address this.

        • If it’s not a zero-sum game it sure seems like it from where I’m standing.

          I’d be happy to drive you around Ohio and show you where all the factories used to be.

          I rather doubt that all those displaced factory workers are now making big bucks in the tech sector. I would guess that the majority are trying to squeak by on a minimum wage service sector gig. That’s assuming they were lucky enough to find work.

          If it isn’t zero-sum I’d say it’s near zero-sum.

          • Manju

            Yes, “zero-sum game” is common-sense, just like balancing your budget is when $$ is tight. But that’s not how you run a modern economy, unless one is a tea bagger.

            So let start with the basics (theory). After that, We’ll go into the nuances and data. Paul Krugman explains the basics:

            http://www.pkarchive.org/theory/hotdog.html

            • Would you feel better if I said “extremely lopsided” instead of “zero-sum”?

              I feel like I just said “clip” instead of “magazine” in a gun-control debate.

              • DrS

                “I feel like I just said “clip” instead of “magazine” in a gun-control debate.”

                You monster

              • Manju

                “Extremely lopsided” is what you got from a Krugman primer that said this:

                But there has been no net job loss; and there is no reason to expect such a loss in the future

                Oooookaaaay!

          • MrMister

            For it to be zero sum, it would not only need to be that one player gains only when the other player loses, but that the gains of one player actually equal the losses of the other (and so: they sum to zero). ‘World citizen’ types can acknowledge that trade liberalization produces gains for some only at the cost of losses for others, but still hold that it is justified by the extent to which the magnitude of those gains is greater than the magnitude of those losses. So that’s fully consistent with bunches of Ohioans getting fucked; it depends on what happened elsewhere.

            • While I agree with your explanation, this doesn’t do much to sell me, as an American worker, on this policy.

              Once again we’re back to “You’re going to get fucked, but hey, at least some people in the Third World will be marginally better off so quit whining.”

              • wca

                Once again we’re back to “You’re going to get fucked, but hey, at least some people in the Third World will be marginally better off so quit whining.”

                This discussion sounds a whole lot like the fuss over Richard Dawkins and his “Dear Muslima” letter. Basically, Dawkins tells women in the West that the sexism they’re experiencing is not a problem because Muslim women experience more sexism in Muslim countries.

                This “Look at all the poor people in Zimababwe! Your lives in the Corridor of Shame down in South Carolina are so much better than what they have!” argument sounds the same as the argument about sexism from Dawkins. How is it different?

                • xq

                  The difference is that American feminists don’t tend to argue that we should divert resources from women’s rights organizations in the Muslim world to support feminism in the West.

                • Crouchback

                  Feminists in the US like Anne Lowrey do expect resources to focus on women like her rather than that poor woman in Mississippi. There was a similar phenomenon in the last NYC’s mayor’s race when Frank Bruni was musing why working class women didn’t support Christine Quinn and failed to consider that de Blasio was offering these women more practical help.

                  More generally, it’s bad behavior to expect other people to be more altruistic than you are.

              • MrMister

                Again, in this formulation you say that the Ohioans are getting fucking in order that people in the 3rd world be made “marginally better off.” But this implies that the sums come out such that the Ohioans are getting fucked harder than the 3rd worlders are getting helped–after all, ‘marginal’ improvements must be minimal. But I take it that the whole idea motivating cosmopolitan defenses of trade liberalization is that the sums not only come out the other way, but that they come out the other way by some vast, vast margin, with 3rd worlders benefiting orders of magnitudes more than 1st world working class lose out. Maybe this is wrong, and hey, maybe even if it’s right it doesn’t matter, but still we should be clear about what relevant idea is.

            • DrDick

              However, what this misses is that while the Ohioans are fucked, the Bangladeshis are only marginally better off and the (largely first world) 1% have realized almost all of the actual gains.

              • ColBatGuano

                This.

              • Origami Isopod

                Yep.

                Amazing how the uber-wealthy get “disappeared” from this conversation. Not unlike how, say, rapists get “disappeared” from lectures to women about how to “keep from getting raped.”

      • Zamfir

        There’s also an excluded middle here… the current trade system helped the Chinese middle class and hurt the working classes of developed countries. But there must be more alternatives, aside from hurting the Chinese to help the domestic working class.

        After all, the people in charge of outsourcing don’t do that to help people in poor countries. The same for people who negotiate trade deals. They expect to become better off themselves, or their company, or the country, or at least the parts of the country that Matter. They negotiate hard to get most of the benefits on their side, not the other side. Even if the other side is a poor developing country with thatch huts and malaria.

        It should be possible to create system that benefits almost everyone, or where the pain goes to the people who can most bear it. Yet somehow, the alternatives are either screw the poor people here, or there.

        • xq

          It should be possible to create system that benefits almost everyone, or where the pain goes to the people who can most bear it.

          I think almost everyone in this conversation agrees with this except for Theroux and some of his defenders. He’s the one who has posed the conflict as between US and foreign poor, rather than the global poor vs. the global wealthy.

          There’s a strange bit of projection going on where people who say “we can and should help everyone” are accused of saying “we should steal from American workers to help Chinese.”

          • Zamfir

            The Theroux piece itself was directed straight at the rich of the US. For example
            EVERY so often, you hear grotesquely wealthy American chief executives announce in sanctimonious tones the intention to use their accumulated hundreds of millions, or billions, “to lift people out of poverty.”
            or
            The strategy of getting rich on cheap labor in foreign countries while offering a sop to America’s poor with charity seems to me a wicked form of indirection.

            He’s surely not much on the side of Chinese workers either, but his main ire is aimed at the outsourcers.

            • xq

              Right. He’s saying that, rather than build your “system that benefits almost everyone”, the American rich should act to favor Americans over others. He focuses his anger at philanthropists helping foreigners, rather than, say, the people who spend their wealth on extravagant consumption, or those who fund the Republican party.

          • Well that sounds wonderful in theory, yet I’m the one being told that stopping or reversing globalization would be “too difficult”.

            This sounds like a much taller order than that.

            I’m using the “when you’re in a hole – stop digging!” theory when it comes to these trade deals.

            Since the previous deals have proven harmful to American workers, why should I sign off on yet another one?

            • xq

              This sounds like a much taller order than that.

              It really doesn’t. Every other wealthy nation has a stronger welfare state than the US, and one of the mainstream American political parties is in favor of expanding ours. Globalization is entrenched in international agreements and in elite consensus. Reversing globalization seems much more difficult than spreading its benefits out more evenly.

              • I’ll settle for taking our foot off the gas.

                If it’s hurting us, why do it more?

                Once again, nobody here has made a case for why I as an American would want even more globalization than we already have.

                Even if we can’t reverse it, why would I want to go further down that road?

          • Those middle class Chinese have it too good.

            They should all take a hit so that the people in next-poorer-country can benefit.

            If we keep racing towards the bottom we’re sure to get there eventually.

            • xq

              I assume this comment was intended to illustrate the projection referenced in the comment it is responding to?

              • There’s a bit of truth embedded in the snark.

                As wages have risen in China, manufacturers are already talking about moving production away from China to countries with even lower labor costs.

                Jack Welch of GE infamy once said that in his ideal world the factory would be on a barge that could sailed to whichever country had the cheapest labor on any given day.

                • postmodulator

                  I’m okay with this barge-factory as long as I get to nail Jack Welch to the bottom of its hull.

      • DrDick

        But they have not actually done more than marginally help the global poor and have done so at great cost to them.

  • asifis

    “So, when do we begin the social programs for the only moderately rich who live in NYC?” When I saw that opening I knew he or she was wrong about everything.

    Young woman, new NYU graduate, sociology degree, got a good job with one her professors on an education research grant, partially fed funded, I believe. Quit after 15 months over various issues, mostly unable to handle endless days entering data. She was looking at cell phone sales jobs, or service jobs that she didn’t want, but found a “volunteer” position with Americorps, tutoring at a charter school (run by a former finance scumbag, who has substantial interests in profit making educational businesses while his nonprofit works to destroy public education), housing provided, decent stipend, student loan forgiveness. At her orientation they hand her a stack of forms to sign, food stamp application, all filled out.

    What to do? She likes tutoring, she likes the kids and her coworkers (who all seem to be moderately rich) but she also understands what the folks running the show are after, which is to suck the life out of public education with their financial tentacles, assisted by social programs.

  • yet_another_lawyer

    Well that’s fine and good although your “charity” just makes you feel good about yourself as a rich white person.

    I hesitate to play the identity politics game, but I’m not rich (except in the sense that everybody who can read this is globally rich– c.f. the original thread about the tricky way that we say ‘poor’ but 99%+ of America is globally rich), I’m not white, and I was under the impression that fighting malaria and digging wells in the third world had value aside from whatever emotions it made me feel. I will tell the locals to immediately desist and that not dying of thirst/malaria was merely an emotional prop.

    But the NYC comparison is completely irrelevant as if you make $100,000 in New York there are likely opportunities for you across the country while if you are actually homeless in New York, there are not.

    Has anybody seen the goalposts? They were right here a minute ago. The original comparison was the guy in Africa who had a thatched roof versus the guy in Mississipi with a tin roof. Said Mississipian might indeed also have opportunities across the country, almost certainly more so than somebody who is actually poor in Africa.

    On the specific example of the homeless, not broached in the original thread: I’m sympathetic to the notion that a little bit of charity can go so far (i.e., get someone a shower, a temporary place, etc., then they can work and turn around to help the poor) that it’s a worthy investment of charity dollars. However, we’re now really stretching. The homeless population is less than 1% of the population. Should we alter our entire trade regime to knock it down another tenth of a percentage point, if it further impoverishes the poor abroad?

    To me, this argument is indicative of someone who is not around American poverty and does not know poor people personally. This is policy created by rich people, central to the problems of modern America.

    I once again hesitate to play the identity politics game, but I’ve been in every American economic quintile in my life and currently reside in the third one. To the extent it’s meaningful to call anybody in America poor, I’ve been it. Have you?

    Plus this, as well other comments made here, avoid the political aspect to this. Do you live in the United States? Yes, I assume. Do you want voters in this nation to care about what you care about and not support proto-fascists? Presumably. Then you might want to find these people jobs so they don’t revert to pure racial ideology.

    Under this logic, it will never be time to help the foreigners– not nationalism, of course, we just have to bribe the locals so they vote the right way. If a few people have to starve to death, so be it I guess.

    Wouldn’t this political logic also work globally? You don’t want people abroad supporting proto- or actual fascists do you? Okay, so why the emphasis on preventing someone in Alabama for voting for a republican over preventing someone in Africa from supporting a straight-up warlord?

    This gets back to the zero-sum game ideology of Lowrey, Matthews, etc., who revert to free market economics ideology without recognizing that the domestic issues they dislike are deeply connected to the lack of jobs for working people today who vote their resentments rather than their economic interests.

    Won’t speak for them, but I dislike the domestic issues you identify without thinking that the way to solve them is to make the globally poor even poorer. In your original post, you identified suicide and depression as possible bad consequences, and now you’re adding voting the “wrong” way. Well, why should we sacrifice the ability of the globally poor to eat at the altar of domestic cures for depression, a reduced suicide rate, and international “voting” (whatever form that takes locally) the wrong way? It appears to be nothing more than simple nationalism.

    Have to log off now and go fill some wells in Africa with concrete. They served no purpose other than making me feel good about myself anyway…

    • That’s OK. I’m off to kill myself so that someone in Africa can have my food. Hopefully they’ll put it to good use.

      Bye all.

      • Lee Rudolph

        You selfish bastard. Why aren’t you leaving them your body, too?!!?

      • J. Otto Pohl

        I am eagerly awaiting your food. I will let you know when it arrives. In the mean time I am going to go get some Africanized shawarma before my early modern European history class.

        • Denverite

          Is that shawarma that is more aggressive and tends to swarm more than non-Africanized shawarma?

          • J. Otto Pohl

            Close, it is shawarma that is really spicy.

      • Denverite

        At least you’re hauling cargo and not passengers.

        • Lee Rudolph

          How much ransom can you extract from cargo?

        • Actually I shouldn’t even joke about that sort of thing.

          The FAA, as you might imagine, is pretty worried about it after the German Wings incident.

          I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they start making us go through some sort of period psych evaluation.

          • Denverite

            I can only guess.

          • I think I know how it will go:

            Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.

          • Lee Rudolph

            some sort of period psych evaluation

            Raging hormones, kind of thing?

      • yet_another_lawyer

        After you’re dearly departed, can we stuff your corpse and use it as an actual strawman? It seems fitting.

      • UserGoogol

        It may very well be that the moral thing for people to do is to commit suicide. I certainly often wonder if my existence is justified. It’s merely that human beings are very often incapable of doing the right thing.

    • Said Mississipian might indeed also have opportunities across the country, almost certainly more so than somebody who is actually poor in Africa.

      Bullshit. He may actually have fewer as even a moment’s thought would prove.

      Put it this way, with a single factor: the man in Africa might walk a few miles to the nearest village and possibly find gainful employment there, simply because mobility is a real issue. the guy in Mississippi goes…where, precisely? It costs money in America to set yourself up someplace else, something that is not as big a factor in Africa.

      The guy in Mississippi…let’s assume he walks to the nearest village. OK, so now what? He needs housing. That’s money — which if he had in the first place, he wouldn’t have moved — unless he sleeps in his car but oh, wait! He can’t because there are eyes upon him constantly! Cops coming by, rousting him (or have you not been paying attention these past few decades to the xenophobia?) And as the Mississippi man is likely a minority, since poverty hits minorities disproportionately, he’s more than likely arrested, and convicted of vagrancy since his court appointed lawyer plea bargains him into that deal.

      So….tell me again, s l o w l y…how the American poor have it “so much better” than the world poor?

      • yet_another_lawyer

        Your contention is that maybe the guy living in Africa off $1.50 a day maybe has it better off than the guy in Mississippi because the former can just walk a few miles over to the next village and grab gainful employment there, whereas the guy in Mississippi can’t drive to the next town over because the rarely-enforced prohibition against sleeping in one’s car makes moving impossible. This is one of those cases where to state an argument is to essentially refute it, but a few quick thoughts:

        1) Depending on where you are in Africa, it’s not like the village the next town over is going to be welcoming and possibly even violent. Driving from Jackson to Dumas is significantly less perilous.
        2) The MS guy has a built-in support network, because if he’s that poor he qualifies for SNAP and other programs. There’s no equivalent for the African heading the next village over. The welfare state makes mobility much easier.
        3) There is a shortage of cooks and truckers in America, both occupations which are mobile– the latter intrinsically, the former because cooks are needed just about everywhere. Our prospective MS resident has few opportunities by American standards, but a cornucopia by global standards.
        4) I have some skepticism you believe what you’re saying. If you know you’re going to be reincarnated into the world today and given the choice between being “poor” in America and globally poor, would you really hesitate and wonder which is the better option? Really?

        • So just how poor does the guy in Mississippi have to be before you’re happy?

        • Rob in CT

          #4 is a really good way to distill this.

          It’s a shitty choice, but presented with it I have to go with USian poor over global poor.

          This does not convince me, however, that all my charitable $$ should go global. I split between local and global. Both matter. Both groups of poor need help, and since I have some nationalism left in me, I feel an extra duty to my fellow Americans that balances things a bit.

          [and of course this plays into my support for the existence and expansion of the US safety net/welfare state]

          • Depends on what we mean by “global”.

            I’d take Scandinavia if that’s an option.

            • Rob in CT

              Oh come on, that’s not what we’re talking about and you know it.

              Poor in “developing nations” not in the developed world.

              But absolutely, if the choice was poor in the US vs. poor in Sweden or Denmark or France… surely you go Euro. Not sure about, say, Greece, though.

              • yet_another_lawyer

                Absolutely. Poor somewhere in western Europe would probably be the best bet, which I didn’t mention because it’s outside the scope. But if we’re down the rabbit hole so far that we’re debating the rather laughable proposition of whether it’s to be poor in Jackson, MS or Zimbabwe, then #4 is the credited question. Once we agree on that, then we return to the nebulous question of just why we should help the relatively poor people in Jackson over the absolutely poor in Zimbabwe. “Nationalism” and “so people don’t vote republican” seem to be the leading contenders. I don’t really find this persuasive, primarily because (a) the republican party is headed to obsolescence on its own, as has been extensively written about here and elsewhere, (b) you could make the same “but they might support politicians we don’t like!” about poor people anywhere, so giving special attention to American ones is just another variant of nationalism, and (c) I find it hard to get too excited about where borders happened to fall. That I am notionally within the same political borders as the guy in Mississippi, but not the guy in Zimbabwe, is just an accident of history. Impoverishing the latter to benefit the former is illogical.

                • Rob in CT

                  (a) is overly optimistic.

                  (b) is true (see also: worries that Greece might go neofascist).

                  (c) I’m going to have to organize my thoughts about this one some more, but man do I think you’re hand-waving some important stuff here.

                • Bruce B.

                  Mississippi people are taxpayers and citizens of the United States. I think it’s sensible to say that no country ought to knowingly subject the people it’s constituted from to foreseeable misery, and that when it does, it has a strong duty to compensate them in ways that undo the damage. The arguments against Erik here seem to boil down to saying that even though we can foresee the damage, and even though we know that in practice it will not be compensated for, we should go ahead and fuck ’em up that bit more because reasons.

                  A lot of these threads feel like watching someone argue that we should continue the War On Some Drugs or the War on Terror, despite knowing so much about how they are conducted, how much harm they do and how little of their stated goals they accomplish, because after all, drug abuse and terror are bad. So if we just keep doing the things we’re doing, it’ll work out for the good.

                • Origami Isopod

                  the republican party is headed to obsolescence on its own, as has been extensively written about here and elsewhere

                  Yeah, they were saying that 25 years ago, too. Also, a wounded animal can do a lot of damage as long as it’s still alive.

            • When did we start sending food aid to Denmark? I note that y_a_l jumped on this in defense of his ridiculous idea, which should tell you that even HE thinks its weak soup.

          • Gregor Sansa

            If I had to be reincarnated as poor and Black in the US, versus poor and ethnicity X in third-world country Y, I can think of values of X and Y for which I’d seriously consider taking the latter. Even if X has to be an ethnicity that is poorer than average in country Y There are some places where the prospects for getting out of poverty and/or the nonmonetary assets are better than they are in the US. But if I don’t get to pick X and Y, then there’s no question I’d take the former.

            • yet_another_lawyer

              Oh, absolutely. My question was limited solely to the improbable contention that maybe the guy in Zimbabwe is better off than the guy in Jackson, MS because the guy in Zimbabwe can just walk a few miles to the nearest village. After all, the police there don’t care if you sleep in your car!!!

              EDIT: Misread above comment, deleted a section of my initial response.

            • Rob in CT

              Yeah, I thought about getting into that.

              It gets complicated quickly. Which third-world country? Where exactly in the US for that matter? Which ethnicity? And so on.

              There are certainly combinations that might induce me to change my answer.

          • gmack

            After lots of imagining, I’ve decided that my best option is simply to be a bat in my next life.

            More seriously, regardless of one’s opinions about Erik’s claims about the social construction of data, it seems clear to me that these speculations about what poor people can do in “Africa” (which, I’ll remind you all, is a really, really big and diverse place) vs. Mississippi reveals not much more than people’s prejudices.

            • We’re discussing the relative “merits” of being poor in diverse places in response to the proposition that being poor in America is quantifiably better than being poor anyplace else in the world.

              So yes, we’re examining someone’s prejudice. Just not the one you think we’re examining.

              • Ronan

                You aren’t really discussing any such thing. You’re speculating pretty loosely based on extreme examples to support your politics,so.. If I was poor in the US I would be living on the street in New York, or a reservation in the west, have a serious addiction and be in debt etc, against.. If I was poor in Africa I would live in a well insulated mid hut with strong tribal support networks and enough goats to feed us all. It’s fucking stupid.
                Anywsy, The sort of extreme poverty you’re taking about in the US is less thd result of outsourcing and more the result of inequality , a failure of policy and state capacity , and a failure to redistribute wealth sensibly

          • I’d take poor in an island nation anyday over poor and particularly black or Hispanic in rural America. On Madagascar, I can eke out a subsistence living by fishing and trapping, while trying to huddle in the relatively temperate climate with what clothes I can find. It won’t be pretty, but it would be a damned site better than being rousted by the cops daily or threatened with a shotgun for walking down a road.

            The differential between a poor person on, say, Madagascar and a middle class person as defined by Madagascar’s per capita income is tiny compared to that gap in America, and yes, we have SNAP and so on.

            Try getting on it. Try staying on it. Try LIVING on it. ESPECIALLY if you’re homeless. And black.

            What a fucking elitist comment to make. (not yours, Rob)

        • L2P

          Which developing country can I be poor in? I wouldn’t mind parts of Central and South America, or Southeast Asia, so much. I’d much rather be a cook at some restaurant in Vietnam or a clerk at a hotel in Thailand than a poor black guy living in rural Mississipi.

        • rarely-enforced prohibition against sleeping in one’s car

          How patrician of you. Clearly, you’ve never been black and homeless. I wonder what else you’re basically wrong about?

  • I could probably spend the rest of the Internet expanding on why both Erik (spelled it right!) and the “free market” capitalists are wrong, but I can sum it up in a question:

    Can you point to one example of pure capitalism extant in the world today?

    Economics is not a science, it’s an art and until we accept that its got more uncertainty than Schroedinger’s Cat in a box circling a star forty billion light years away (yes, I know the implications of that…prove me wrong, because there’s economics in an allegory), we will never advance past a simple truth.

    Economics demands a humanistic component. Adam Smith tried. He was not on the wrong track at all when he said that individual greed adds up to a communal good, it just might be that his conclusion (and premise) were faulty.

    But at least…AT LEAST…he tried to factor in a simple truth: humans are governed not by logic that can be quantified and codified and equally enforced across all classes, but by simple human urges: compete, win, conquer, among others.

    The economic theory that manages to incorporate that into its basic premise will be the ultimate economic system that we depend on. Right now, I’m not seeing any, altho the convergence of communism and capitalism (as espoused by Smith) gives me hope. For more detail on that, I refer you to Richard Wolff. If we could codify the capitalism of Smith, we’d go a long way towards alleviating many of the flaws in America.

    But it won’t happen in my lifetime.

    • Brett

      Eh, what people outside of Economics think is Economics barely scratches the surface. Most of it is empirical Micro-Econ stuff, like the latest version of auction theory or the effect of search frictions.

      • On a micro level, it’s possible to construct a fairly scientific rational interaction theory. I might agree with that under limited circumstances. It’s not unlike proving that Newton was correct that gravity caused an apple to fall from a tree.

  • Rob in CT

    That charity comment was really shit, Loomis. Especially given the multiple demographic assumptions you made about yet another lawyer.

    The rest of it… I think both sides of this debate have made good points. This is not clear-cut, in my view.

    Blithely ignoring the distributional impact of globalization here in the US is fucked up, and also politically stupid. On that point, I agree with Erik.

    Also, is it so wrong to be a (relatively mild) Nationalist? What the hell? Last I checked, we do not have a global government, and the closest thing that exists is the EU (which has had some recent difficulties). The United States government exists to protect and serve the interests of citizens of the United States. And for the most part (ignoring foreign megadonors and diplomatic influence from allies for a moment here), citizens of the US are those who are able to influence US policy. Now an expansive view of those interests includes, IMO, working on international problems (especially those plausibly created or exacerbated by us). But also, the government cannot retain legitimacy without addressing the concerns of its citizens. There has to be some balance here between home/abroad, not narrow focus on just one or the other.

    All that said, this is pretty pathetic:

    “I’ll take pointless gotcha questions from New Zealand for $400 please Alex”

    Data is socially constructed, a fact so obvious that it shouldn’t be questioned, except that ideologues believe in the ridiculous idea of objectivity and think data shows this.

    There are certainly studies that do a poor job (intentionally or not) with collecting and processing data. And those should be called out. But this sort of blanket dismissal is ridiculous. Shall others ignore you the next time you cite any sort of data? Maybe.

    I think we all understand that you’re a polemicist, but damn.

  • joe from Lowell

    What a dumpster fire.

    Data is nothing more than socially constructed numbers choosing to serve our own ideological notions

    Thank you, Dr. Lysenko.

    I loved the “This is so obvious it shouldn’t be questioned.” What makes it really special is that it was juxtaposed with calling someone else a blind ideologue.

    RIP Reality-Based Community.

    • asifis

      Not sure how Erik’s pointing out that it’s important to look at the sources of data as well the data itself, and that that notion shouldn’t be questioned is somehow ideological. It seems important to do so in order to more fully grasp reality. Nothing more does not mean nothing. To observe that something is socially constructed is not to dismiss it, unless one is attached to some absurd notion of objective reality completely separate from the existence of our consciousness and actions in it.

      • joe from Lowell

        Not sure how Erik’s pointing out that it’s important to look at the sources of data as well the data itself, and that that notion shouldn’t be questioned is somehow ideological.

        Let’s go to the tape:

        Data is nothing more than socially constructed numberschoosing to serve our own ideological notions and the sooner economists understand that they are not a science

        We’re a bit beyond questioning where data comes from.

        Data is socially constructed, a fact so obvious that it shouldn’t be questioned, except that ideologues believe in the ridiculous idea of objectivity and think data shows this.

        We’re a bit beyond questioning where data comes from. We’re all the way to denying that counts themselves – not what one concludes from the counts, but the mere numbers themselves – are just expressions of ideology.

        In reality, data is a GREAT DEAL MORE than just “socially constructed numbers.”

        unless one is attached to some absurd notion of objective reality completely separate from the existence of our consciousness and actions in it.

        The real world does not cease to be the real world because of dismissive adjectives.

        • I don’t think the most convincing version of social constructionism says “it’s just ideology.” Though I’m not sure it would use phrases like “nothing more than socially constructed numbers,” at least not if pressed to be very specific.

          (I find it annoying too but the backlash against it is wrong and when I look to see what’s useful in it, I end up being not convinced by the backlash.)

          • joe from Lowell

            The most convincing version of social constructionism can explain the boundary between what is and is not socially constructed – between objective facts that exist in the world (even objective facts about human activity) and interpretations of those facts.

            • If I knew what you were saying here:

              The most convincing version of social constructionism can explain the boundary between what is and is not socially constructed – between objective facts that exist in the world (even objective facts about human activity) and interpretations of those facts.

              I might agree.

              The fact is that isn’t the same as an explanation for when people think something is an objective fact when it isn’t. And there are very good reasons to want to do so.

              I’m not sure overcorrecting and risking going a little too far in the other direction is the worst thing in the world.

      • joe from Lowell

        To observe that something is socially constructed is not to dismiss it, unless one is attached to some absurd notion of objective reality completely separate from the existence of our consciousness and actions in it.

        Traffic fatalities dropped from the 40,000s to the 30,000s in the past decade, and it doesn’t matter how anyone feels about that, whether anyone is aware of that, or what I ate for breakfast this morning.

        • Rob in CT

          Look at it on a per capita basis and it’s even more impressive. That, along with the decline of crime, is one of my favorite go-to’s for “hey, it gets better” whenever I hear somebody complaining about how we’re all going to hell in a handbasket.

          • joe from Lowell

            Try air pollution in cities. Even over the past 20 years, the improvements have been incredible.

            • Rob in CT

              Yeah, that’s another one, though tempered by the fact that a lot of it was simply offshored.

              So *our* cities are cleaner. Chinese cities are now dealing with what, say, Gary, IN, dealt with in the 60s/70s.

              • Rob in CT

                Those two examples are, of course, a great comeback to people who whine about regulation (though the caveat about industry moving abroad applies there too!).

              • joe from Lowell

                The transportation sector wasn’t off-shored. Our power plants weren’t off-shored.

                You’re right about manufacturing pollution being off-shored, but that’s an asterisk of a confounding factor on a greater development.

        • L2P

          What is “traffic?”

          Why do you value “fatalities” over “serious injury or death?”

          Do you still feel “traffic” is safer now if you know that fatalities dropped 10,000, but serious injuries increased 35,000?

          Data is socially constructed. If you worked with crime stats you’d see that much more clearly.

          • joe from Lowell

            None of these questions alter the underlying data.

            Traffic (and you know what that word means. I don’t understand why you think playing dumb about the word “traffic” is even an argument) fatalities have declined from the 30,000s to the 40,000s. Neither your questions, nor any answers to that questions, alter that reality, or my capacity to understand it.

            Do I still feel safer? My feelings are wholly irrelevant to whether traffic fatalities have decreased. The decline is exactly the same size as it was before you asked me about my feelings.

            Information – the understandings we draw from data – is socially constructed. Data is about as socially constructed as a rock formation.

            You haven’t demonstrated that data is socially constructed. You’ve demonstrated that you can change the subject and play dumb about vocabulary.

            • Information – the understandings we draw from data – is socially constructed. Data is about as socially constructed as a rock formation.

              I appreciate why you are going there, but this just isn’t true.

              Data Is recorded in a language and a context of interpretation. If you move the data from that context you will change stuff.

              If you mean that the underlying quantity often is for many intents and purposes perspectivally invariant (within a broad normative structure) then I certainly agree.

              But to take a simple example: blood pressure readings seem like simple data but that are fucking complicated and interpretation laden. You easily get spreadsheets with BPs, but there’s so much you need to know and judge before you can make even tentative conclusions about who has hypertension.

              And I’ve gotten data sets that record who has hypertension!

              It was a big deal when the FBI changed it’s operational definition of rape (huge, important victory). A consequence is that interpreting trends that cross the definition divide got harder.

              You might be about to use the information/data divide to fix various of here examples, but I don’t think you can fix them all simultaneously.

              None of what I said leads to any silly irrealism. But equating the objectivity of data with the objectivity of rocks is a related error.

          • Rob in CT

            This is ridiculous.

            As noted above, not only have traffic fatalities declined nominally, they’ve plummeted on a per capita or miles driven basis. Driving has gotten much, much safer over the last several decades.

            From the CDC:

            Motor vehicle traffic deaths
            •Number of deaths: 33,804
            •Deaths per 100,000 population: 10.7

            That’s roughly 1/4 of all accidental deaths.

            The rate per 100k population in 1975 was just shy of double that (20.6). Vehicle miles traveled in ’75 was 1,327.66 billion. Vehicle miles traveled today (I’m looking at 2013 at the moment) is juuuust shy of 3k billion.

            So, the population is up ~50%. Miles driven have more than doubled. Fatalities are down from ~44k to ~34k.

            Some quick ‘net research indicates that these numbers include pedestrians and cyclists.

            Ah, but injuries, you say. Ok:

            http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/812032.pdf
            [2012 data]

            That provides injury data as well.

            Under Chapter 1: Trends, there are lots of charts. The injury chart unfortunately begins in 1988 instead of going as far back as the fatality figures, but since ’88 at least it shows the same shape as the fatality chart. So no, injuries do not refute the idea that driving (or walking around near cars) has been getting safer.

            No amount of handwaving about “socially constructed” data is going to change the obvious fact that things have gotten safer.

            As an aside, the chart I found fascinating is labeled : Proportion of Drivers involved in fatal crashes with BAC = .08+ by vehicle type. I mean, I knew that motorcycles were dangerous (for those who drive them) but damn.

            • Rob in CT

              Shorter: Injuries (and the stats include pedestrians and cyclists) have declined in nominal terms as well, and thus on a rate basis they’ve declined sharply, because population & miles driven are up over the same period.

              So the hypothetical presented by L2P (fewer deaths but more injuries) may be interesting to ponder in theory, but it’s just a hypothetical. It doesn’t describe what has been happening in the real world USA.

              If you want to claim something is socially constructed and therefore missing something important, it should follow that you have to point out what’s missing!

              The folks who put together that CDC report might even be interested to hear about it.

            • sonamib

              It’s a nitpick to your broader point, but I really dislike the “deaths per mile driven” statistic. If miles driven per capita go up and traffic deaths go up by a smaller amount*, is this a better outcome? Clearly not, especially in the US where people already drive a lot.

              The main problem is that grade-separated highways are way safer per mile than any city street so a decline in deaths/mile might just mean exurbanization.

              I guess this is one more example that shows why it’s really important to correctly interpret data.

              *This is a thought experiment. As you pointed out, deaths/capita have also declined.

              • Rob in CT

                Sure, if we were looking at a nominal increase in traffic deaths with a decrease per mile traveled, this would be a different conversation.

                But that’s not what’s happening.

                grade-separated highways are way safer per mile than any city street so a decline in deaths/mile might just mean exurbanization.

                I doubt that exurbanization is even in the top, oh, 3* reasons for a drop in injuries & deaths per vehicle mile. But it’s possible, and there’s a discussion to be had there.

                The CDC report I linked to breaks down the stats by state (possibly by urban areas too, though I didn’t look at every page), and that in turn might tell us some things, though I’m not sure it would get directly at whether exurbanization is driving certain trends. IIRC, you see things like Florida being *awful* for pedestrians, and states with lots of empty space having higher accident rates and stuff like that.

                * this is admittedly picked out of thin air! I’m now just speculating.

                edit: saw your thought experiment note just now. I understood, and yet I yammered on about it anyway. ;)

                • sonamib

                  So I was curious to test if exurbanization was *really* correlated with less deaths per Vehicle Mile Traveled (VMT). So I did an Excel spreadsheet, based on this data set!

                  So I calculated for each state their VMT per capita, then I plotted traffic deaths/VMT versus VMT/capita. If I was right and exurbanization correlated negatively with deaths/VMT, I would also expect a negative correlation between VMT/capita* and deaths/VMT.

                  It turns out I was wrong! I found a positive correlation, with R^2 = 0.95.

                  Anyway, I still don’t think that traffic deaths per mile driven is the relevant number. Luckily, it doesn’t seem to matter much since it’s so strongly correlated with traffic deaths per capita!

                  *Edit: more VMTs/capita = a more exurby place in this simplified model

                • Rob in CT

                  Nifty, well done (and beyond my capabilities).

                  I am happy to agree that deaths (or injuries) per miles driven is a not-great stat, and I much prefer to look at the rates per capita.

              • Lee Rudolph

                As you pointed out, deaths/capita have also declined.

                As Bijan pointed out in a different subthread, they seem to be very close to 1/1.

                • I think this is some other Bijan.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  “Most people only die once.”

                  Bijan Parsia? Or Ian Fleming?

                • sonamib

                  Interestingly, the 7 billion+ humans living right now constitute a sizeable fraction of the total number of humans who ever lived. So I could say something like “20% of humans have never died!”

                • Oh you mean *total* deaths/capita :)

                  Yes! That was me.

  • joe from Lowell

    One of the problems with internet politics is that people write about issues that make them so angry they can’t think straight, but can still type.

  • Murc

    Erik, I’m hesitant to write this, because you’ve been a good friend and you’re a good dude who has taken the time to help me when I’ve needed it. But I feel I have to.

    This was a crazy post. It’s downright unhinged. It’s unworthy of you as a writer and as an intellectual. nothingforducks is right that it is the most crankish thing you’ve ever written. And the fact that you are active in the comments denigrating and putting down people who have made valid criticisms without actually responding to them isn’t helping; a commenter who behaved like that would be dismissed as a troll and possibly banned. The part where you dismiss economics as not being a science is especially jaw-dropping.

    You should take a step back and consider some things.

    • I am amazed that people legitimately see economics as a science.

      • Murc

        Er, how is it not?

        I mean, how is it realistically different from any of the other social sciences? If cultural anthropology and sociology and political science are sciences, economics certainly is.

        If it isn’t a science then we’re all pretty fucked, because if you’re unable to study it rigorously using the scientific method and arrive at correct conclusions, that has profound policymaking implications, none of them good.

        • I don’t think any of those other examples are sciences either.

          • Lee Rudolph

            But you presumably also think that (at least some of) those other examples can nonetheless be “studied rigorously”, if not by (some canonized version of) “the scientific method”.

            • They are all legitimate lines of inquiry of course, including the study of economic systems. But the self-definition of the fields as “science” is pretty bloody problematic from the POV of this historian.

              • Murc

                Given that most people do seem to accept them as sciences, that may be a lost philological battle in practical terms.

                I’m curious, what is it about them being labelled sciences that hacks you off so badly? I sort of have the impression that you think they either they cheapen the term, make it less useful, or that the fields in question acquire unwarranted amounts of capital by being labelled sciences, but it’s less than clear which, if any, of those it is.

                • The problem is that it assumes that they are objective enterprises in search of a truth that exists and if we study it, we can uncover those truths. Meanwhile, economists are working with Augusto Pinchot in 1973 and to push those policies in the U.S. in 2015.

                  But I don’t know that “most people” really do seem them as sciences. They aren’t actually part of the sciences in the academy and plenty of people in these threads reject the idea, fwiw.

                • postmodulator

                  I’d actually be comfortable saying “unwarranted amounts of capital,” myself. Think how Seriously the Serious People took Alan Greenspan, for instance. You don’t get the same level of consideration for being a high-ranking member of most cults, but Objectivism is different from other cults.

                • Murc

                  The problem is that it assumes that they are objective enterprises in search of a truth that exists and if we study it, we can uncover those truths.

                  … they had better be, because if they aren’t that’s going to make effective policymaking based on the conclusions they draw really fucking hard, if not impossible.

                  Meanwhile, economists are working with Augusto Pinchot in 1973 and to push those policies in the U.S. in 2015.

                  This is true, but I’m not sure what it has to do with economics being a science or not. People use science to do horrible shit all the time.

                • Murc

                  I mean… I’m sympathetic to the idea that we can’t perfectly discern objective truth, but I utterly reject the ideas that it doesn’t exist and that we can’t get close enough to it to usefully understand and make use of it.

                  And if your requirement is that something be an objective enterprise to be a science, then by your own standards it would seem almost nothing is.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Also, people do bad science (by which I mean, stupid nonscientific things that they pretend are science) all the time. That doesn’t mean that science doesn’t exist.

                  My contention is: saying “economics isn’t a science” leaves you without a strong basis for deciding what economists should do. It lets them off the hook. If you instead say, “economics is a science, but most economists are doing it wrong”, then you get to be a lot more specific about how and why, which is ultimately more productive.

                  (And that is not true for the same claim wrt history. History can be archival research and truthful storytelling, and those come with enough implicit norms so that you don’t need to add “science” into the mix.)

                • ColBatGuano

                  they had better be, because if they aren’t that’s going to make effective policymaking based on the conclusions they draw really fucking hard, if not impossible.

                  We have an entire political party that bases its policy choices on the advice of “economists” that have been proven wrong over and over again. There is no way they can be considered scientists, but someone they still are.

          • trashdog

            And the people who practice them agree. The American Anthropological Association officially stated that they are not scientists and anthropology isn’t science. I bet you’ll find plenty of sociologists who feel the same way about their work. And that’s OK!

            • Gregor Sansa

              So I said above that history, uniquely among the “social sciences”, has no need to be a science. But I’m happy to extend that to cultural anthropology too. Ethnography, like history, is about the particular, not about the reproducible. Sociology covers much of the same territory, but does so from the point of view of the (ideally) reproducible.

              I guess there are branches of political science that are actually philosophy, and other branches that are about the particular, and other branches that are scientific in the sense I’m arguing for. So singling history out wasn’t fair.

              There are certainly economists who end up doing non-science things: apology, or abstract math, or philosophy… But I’d argue that, unlike (eg) political scientists doing similar things, they are pretending to aspire to do science, and so they should be held to that claim, not let off the hook.

              • Lee Rudolph

                Ethnography, like history, is about the particular, not about the reproducible.

                A great deal of psychology is, likewise; and a lot of what isn’t, either should be or should make different kinds of claims than it does.

        • Manny Kant

          None of the social sciences are sciences. (And I don’t think the vast majority of cultural anthropologists, at least, would have any willingness to claim to be scientists.)

          The social “sciences” are qualitatively different from the physical sciences.

          • elm

            Bullshit. I’m a political scientist and what I do is very much science. I build on existing theories and/or construct new theories that attempt to explain and predict general phenomena. From these theories, I derive specific testable hypotheses. I then gather data (mostly observational, some experiemntal) to test the hypotheses. Then I report the results so that other scholars can attemt to replicate, refute, or build on work and, thus, hopefully contribute to the accumulation of knowledge about the general phenomena that I theoreized about.

            How is that not science? If it isn’t, then how do you define science?

            No one would deny that there are differences between the natural and the social sciences and most good social scientists will acknowledge that these differences make it harder for us to make definitive claims. But none of these differences mean that social scientists are not engaged in science.

            • No, that is not science.

              • Jordan

                Thats silly. Argue for it, at least.

            • elm

              OK, then what is science? In what way is what I do not science?

              I think I’ve been around long enough and established my good-faith commenting enough that I deserve more than a flippant comment dismissing my life’s work.

              • elm

                Threading fail: this was in response to Erik not to myself.

          • None of the social sciences are sciences.

            A rule of thumb, if you are making that claim, 90% of the time your purpose is not good, your notion of “science” is analytically poor, and you’re highly at risk of merely engaging in a bit of silly denigration.

            (And I don’t think the vast majority of cultural anthropologists, at least, would have any willingness to claim to be scientists.)

            Eh.

            The social “sciences” are qualitatively different from the physical sciences.

            Biology is qualitatively different than physics. Saying that something is “qualitatively different” doesn’t do much work at all.

            We can draw distinctions to illuminate differences in a helpful way. That’s a good thing.

            We can also draw distinctions to fluff ourselves up or put others down. In this case, typically not such a good thing.

            • gmack

              Back in grad school, I studied philosophy of social science as one of my fields. I was really interested in it for a couple of years, and then I figured out what I wanted to say on the subject. Since then, the debates have made me more tired than anything else.

              With that caveat, let me say the following:

              (1) I think Bijan is absolutely correct that the efforts to dismiss the social sciences as science are generally engaging in a bit of simple denigration. Such dismissals, in my experience, almost always occur within fields as territory markers (in my field, Political Science, it’s generally a way of marking one’s position vis-a-vis various methodologies, particularly formal modeling and certain kinds of statistical analysis).

              (2) I also think that there is an important difference between the social sciences and the natural sciences. I offered it in one of my comments above: The social sciences are “doubly hermeneutic.” All sciences have to deal with hermeneutic issues as scientists try to communicate with one another (e.g., about concept formation); the social sciences have that problem plus another, namely, the fact that the stuff that they are studying (stuff like “race,” marriages, cultures, laws, and so on) is made in and through actors’ interpretations and self-interpretations.

              (3) Whether (2) implies that the social sciences can’t be “scientific,” I want to respond with “meh” (see point 1). I do think the doubly hermeneutic nature of the social sciences means that it is subject to different kinds of scrutiny and critique than the natural sciences are; I also think that it means that we have to investigate further what “truth” means in the context of the social sciences. But I don’t see these issues as somehow rendering the enterprise unscientific. And more importantly, I don’t really care about that question (see point 4 below).

              (4) To my knowledge, most philosophers of science have abandoned the “demarcation problem” for more productive work. That is, at one time, philosophers of science were really interested in things like the epistemic status of scientific claims, or the ontological status of natural laws, and so forth. In the present, however, my sense is that most cutting edge philosophy of science has shifted its focus; they study, for instance, the nature of experimentation, or the conditions under which a scientist might want to improve her statistical tools, as opposed to gathering more data, etc. In short, rather than having philosophers define the key problems, they are now engaging in philosophical analysis of the preoccupations of the actual practitioners of science. In my view, this is a much more productive approach that trying to define what is and what isn’t science, as if we’re awarding blue ribbons at a fair. Partly, I think this because such an approach can link up with actual scientific practice. Yet more relevant to the concerns of this thread, I also think this because it means that, if we’re actually interested in generating knowledge, we might simply want to start with an analysis of what these various disciplines actually do and how they can be improved, rather than blanket proclamations about their status as science.

              • elm

                I endorse this concept and will now try to use the phrase “doubly hermeneutic” at work sometime in the next week.

                Adding to point 2, to the extent that social scientists are able to accumulate knowledge and then disseminate that knowledge, that can actually change the behaviors we are studying. Even observation can change what’s being observed. This makes the social science a much more difficult endeavor than most natural sciences (I suppose at the quantum level of physics and some parts of biology, observation can change behavior) with some different chanllenges. On the other hand, there is enough in common between the natural and social sciences that it is often useful to consider them part of the same endeavour.

              • DrDick

                I would completely agree with this. I particularly like your “doubly hermeneutic” trope here, as it echoes something I say in my theory classes. Social sciences face issues that the physical sciences do not in that our subjects are self aware and conscious agents.

              • gmack for the double win!

            • Linnaeus

              A rule of thumb, if you are making that claim, 90% of the time your purpose is not good, your notion of “science” is analytically poor, and you’re highly at risk of merely engaging in a bit of silly denigration.

              A mistake that even Nobel Prize winning scientists can make.

    • postmodulator

      Maybe I spent too long reading flame wars on IT-related topics, but the original post doesn’t seem excessively snarky or crazy. It’s passionate and drawn in broad strokes, but I don’t see a lot that’s substantial in it that I disagree with.

      It might strike you as an excessive amount of anger for this comment section, and maybe it is, but I’m the guy who was called a pedophile the fifth or sixth time I ever commented here, so it’s all a matter of perspective.

      • Lee Rudolph

        From pedophile to perspectophile! Who says rehabilitation can’t work???

        (Seriously, you were called a pedophile? I guess I wasn’t around yet, or it happened when I wasn’t paying attention. Could you reprise that?)

        • postmodulator

          It was in connection with the Woody Allen/Mia Farrow superthreads a couple of years ago. I could probably dig out the details, but the short version is I’m not sure Allen is a child molester (although it seems to me more likely than not) and I worry that the accusation is so awful it could blind juries, which obviously means I’m a child molester myself. I don’t think that it was a regular that was furious with me, but I wouldn’t have known a regular for certain at the time.

          (Edit: I also made, in passing, the observation that a woman who adopts like twenty kids is a weird-ass human being. Which was the same as calling Farrow a crazy lying bitch. I believe.)

          • Lee Rudolph

            Now I remember that incident; strangely, I had successfully repressed it (and the superthreads too).

      • flame wars on IT-related topics

        I know I shouldn’t ask, but I can’t look away. Like, technical topics or Mac versus PC bullshit?

        • postmodulator

          Sure, technical topics. There was an exchange on a Mozilla newsgroup maybe fifteen years ago:

          “Oh, blow me.”

          “I beg your pardon?”

          “Your opinions are so wrongheaded that I sarcastically invited you to perform oral sex upon me. Hope that helps.”

          This was over an arcane point in message threading, I think.

          • Damn.

            • postmodulator

              It is a truism that those kinds of flame wars are so vicious for the same reason that academic politics are: because the stakes are so small.

              • I can think of any number of arcane technical points in structural engineering that I feel strongly about, but life’s too short to get into flame wars over them.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  Jet fuel can’t melt structural steel!!!

                • postmodulator

                  Those at least have to do with buildings that could fall down and kill people! The stereotypical IT flame war is about which powerful text editor a pretty small number of people will use.

                • Jet fuel can’t melt structural steel!!!

                  Han shot first!

                • wca

                  Those at least have to do with buildings that could fall down and kill people! The stereotypical IT flame war is about which powerful text editor a pretty small number of people will use.

                  Emacs is so bloated that it could overwhelm a critical system and kill people, so you had better use vi and *like* it.

                • Emacs is a better messaging system than Twitter.

      • DrDick

        Agreed.

  • Tyro

    (And I put my charity money where my mouth is. My charity dollars go almost exclusively to globally poor nations.)

    I actually find this to be somewhat obscene in the sense that it is all about making someone with money feel good about themselves because the invisible poor are always more deserving of help than the people you see.

    I take a much different approach: when I move to a new location, I seek out the local charity helping the local poor and direct my resources there, because I am responsible for my community.

    • I actually find this to be somewhat obscene in the sense that it is all about making someone with money feel good about themselves because the invisible poor are always more deserving of help than the people you see.

      Right–the original comment actually reeks of contempt for the poor around us in the same way that Annie Lowrey so blithely told off a poor woman in Mississippi who wanted help because people in Zimbabwe have it worse. This actually is charity that’s about making a person feel better about themselves. Given just how little of the money many charities actually distribute to the poor in Africa or Haiti only makes this more problematic.

      • Rob in CT

        This actually is charity that’s about making a person feel better about themselves

        How much charity do you figure isn’t about that?

        People with the capacity for empathy think about others, and get sympathetic to their plight and feel… obligation? guilt? something. And they give money to help. And my bet is that 100% of them feel a little better about themselves because of it.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Well, some peoples’ charity only serves to make them feel less bad about themselves.

        • Tyro

          Charity is certainly a combination of self-interest, creating good feelings for yourself (related to self interest), and genuine generosity/virtue. But when my grandmother needed to move in with my parents, they didn’t say, “you know, many elderly don’t have families to move in with, and our resources are better spent caring for someone with no family living in a dirty nursing home.” Rather, my parents realized that they had a responsibility to their own family and ensured they were well taken care of, even though someone in Zimbabwe had it worse.

          It disgusts me that we are really having a conversation about how it’s terrible to make light of American poverty and suffering (that or political system created!) and the unwillingness of the local rich to take their plight seriously just because there are much more destitute people on another continent.

          • Rob in CT

            You’re getting at something that I’ve been trying to explain in defense of (mild) nationalism.

            I think we have more of a duty to the poor in our own country, because in some sense they’re “ours” and this counterbalances the whole “well, that guy over there is even poorer!” argument.

            But the US welfare state, deficient as it is, also exists, so we do acknowledge this one some level. And many people, including people who are arguing against Loomis here, are in favor of protecting and expanding the US welfare state.

          • MrMister

            When the people who are taking care of them and theirs are the 1% (or the .001%) instead of the posters of this blog, with the result being that the 1% each manage to make sure that their close ones and children live lives vastly better than us the posters on this blog, then we respond by calling that special in-group favoritism out as nepotism, an old boy network, and an injustice worthy of Mmm Guillotine. But when we take care of us and ours instead of the much poorer global contrast class it’s instead responsible and just–so much so that people who raise the prospect of global poverty are ‘disgusting?’

            In putting things this way, I’m not saying that these ideas are inconsistent in a strict logical sense. But I think you’re failing to engage with intuitions that actually drive the globalist arguments.

            I will also assure you that they are not held only by the locally rich. Giving What We Can is largely inhabited by graduate students in Philosophy, not a group most famous for their immense pecuniary means.

            • fledermaus

              Once the 3rd world starts paying US taxes and cost of living then there might be a point. It’s all well and good to say we need a system that compensates the “losers” in the US but we’re two decades into the free trade regime and still waiting, I’m begging to thing that it was just lip service.

              This is like a defendant hiring an attorney to represent his interests and the attorney says on the day of trial that he can’t represent you because there is someone even more impoverished and unjustly accused and he will represent him pro-bono instead, sorry about the attorney fee you paid, no refunds.

            • Origami Isopod

              When the people who are taking care of them and theirs are the 1% (or the .001%) instead of the posters of this blog, with the result being that the 1% each manage to make sure that their close ones and children live lives vastly better than us the posters on this blog, then we respond by calling that special in-group favoritism out as nepotism, an old boy network, and an injustice worthy of Mmm Guillotine. But when we take care of us and ours instead of the much poorer global contrast class it’s instead responsible and just–so much so that people who raise the prospect of global poverty are ‘disgusting?’

              Yeah! And why shouldn’t we have more affirmative action for white people, while we’re at it?

        • postmodulator

          And they give money to help. And my bet is that 100% of them feel a little better about themselves because of it.

          I read some fascinating stuff a little while ago suggesting that the people who are most altruistic are the ones who already feel great about themselves. Buried in some longer thing I was reading about sociopaths, but I don’t have it to hand.

          • Jackov

            In the broader realm of philanthropy this certainly seems true for large donors.
            Much of that giving is driven by peer competition and a desire for recognition hence the money flows to universities, the arts, and foundations. One also sees an increase use of mechanisms which allow the rich greater control over their donations.

      • Origami Isopod

        One thing I have to correct here: Shakezula looked up the woman whom Lowery was mocking. Patricia Atkinson is not poor; she is the director of a nonprofit. Either way, as Shake pointed out, Atkinson is “a vastly better human being than the combined staff of Vox.”

        • Linnaeus

          Lowrey’s callous response to Atkinson really set me off.

          • Origami Isopod

            Me too.

    • UserGoogol

      I cannot emphasize enough how much I disagree with that. That is exactly the same logic as racists who call non-racists race traitors.

      Valuing people differently because of your relationship to them in society is one of the big differences between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives believe in hierarchy of family and community and nationality and race, and all that. If you take the accidental divisions in society as being deserving it leads to right-wing conclusions. It blinds you to the inherent injustice of such divisions and encourages you to perpetuate them.

      Sure, there are situations where it’s pragmatic to support people in your community because you have more ability to do so than people elsewhere. But if you’re giving money to a charity, that’s pretty neutral. Setting aside foreign aid, (which is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison) why not keep on giving money to the neighborhood you used to live in? If it was a worthy cause then, why isn’t it now? You are treating people differently even though none of them have changed, the only thing that changed is you. That is wrong.

      • Tyro

        As someone said, utilitarianism makes sense when it’s happening to someone else. And your questions are ones I deal with: I am moving soon, and what do I do with the money I currently give to my local charity? Do I keep giving it, do I move it to the new location? Do I ADD more to my new location in addition to what I already give?

        My instincts come from the following: first, clean up the mess in your own backyard, particularly if you helped create it, and especially because you have an obligation to take care of it. I have all these resources at my disposal when I come into a community, and it seems unfair to distribute them to others far away when they are needed nearby, in the same way that I should support local businesses. Next, nation states exist. You might not like it, but they do. And I would prefer that my country’s policies not play a role in harming the livelihood of the people there. In the same way I should clean up my own backyard, my government should not make a mess in its own backyard.

        And finally, I cannot simply say, “oh, my poor neighbors have it so well, and they need to take responsibility for themselves,” while patting myself on the back for helping out nameless strangers on the other side of the world. In that sense, it is almost as though I am throwing it in the face of my neighbors to say, “hahah. I have this money that I am using to support DESERVING people who are REALLY poor, not you assholes.” Which sounds pretty conservative to me.

        America is supposed to be “the richest country in the world.” So why does it accept such extreme poverty in its own backyard that has been made worse by policy choices, and why is its excuse for it, “well, we are helping out people who are even more poor in other countries.” ?

        • Origami Isopod

          Co-signing all of this.

          Arguments like the one you’re addressing strip out all this context and treat the problem almost like a mathematical one. Maybe the analogy isn’t the strongest, but it’s as close as I can come at the moment.

  • Jerry Vinokurov

    Everyone’s a utilitarian when it comes to someone else’s welfare.

    Yes, trade is not zero-sum. From that it does not follow that one can reasonably expect Mississippians to be happy about their own immiseration. Go ahead and try to tell those people that it’s ok for them to be poor because their poverty increases net utility by improving the lives of Chinese workers. Almost no one is saint enough to sacrifice themselves like that.

    I think this is a very simple point that’s being obscured by pointless debates about the social construction of data. The net welfare might be increased by trade, but its distributional impacts are dictated by a very small group of people who capture most of the benefits. An improvement in the living standards of Chinese workers need not necessarily come at the expense of workers in Mississippi, but it does, because the difference between paying workers in the US and paying workers in China is captured by the top 0.1%. So if you’re going to have trade, it’s absolutely necessary to have mechanisms that compensate the “losers” of that equation; unfortunately that’s not what we have in place.

    Expecting American workers to just accept that they should be made poor because it increases aggregate utility somewhere is crazy, but that seems to be the line some people are pushing, as though once utilitarianism is explained in painstaking detail to unemployed Americans they’ll suddenly acquiesce to the whole process. And besides, if this is going to be that kind of utilitarian party, then the most sensible thing to do is to just expropriate the 1% and redistribute their wealth. I assume I’ll be seeing you all on Wall Street with the tumbrels and pitchforks.

    • Rob in CT

      And besides, if this is going to be that kind of utilitarian party, then the most sensible thing to do is to just expropriate the 1% and redistribute their wealth. I assume I’ll be seeing you all on Wall Street with the tumbrels and pitchforks.

      This is well-put.

    • xq

      Expecting American workers to just accept that they should be made poor because it increases aggregate utility somewhere is crazy, but that seems to be the line some people are pushing

      Which people? Can you give me a quote? I don’t think anyone is pushing this line.

      • I have an economics colleague who went to speak at a local union hall because the union wanted some info about the global economy.

        He told them that it was OK that their jobs were disappearing because people overseas were living better lives. He was confused about why they didn’t like him.

        This is one of the slightly left-leaning economists I know.

      • MPAVictoria

        Umm most people criticizing Erik on this thread?

        • xq

          Can you give an example? I’m one of the people criticizing Erik on this thread and I’m not pushing that line.

          • MPAVictoria

            Really?

            • xq

              Yes? yet_another_lawyer comes closest, but even he hasn’t, AFAICT, said anything close to “expecting American workers to just accept that they should be made poor because it increases aggregate utility somewhere.”

              Most of the other critics are arguing that we should find ways to help American workers that don’t harm the poor elsewhere.

              • MPAVictoria

                “Most of the other critics are arguing that we should find ways to help American workers that don’t harm the poor elsewhere.”

                Which of course we don’t actually do. So where does that leave us?

                /And he is arguing that american poor aren’t even poor! What a prick.

                • xq

                  Which of course we don’t actually do. So where does that leave us?

                  We also don’t reverse globalization. Where does it leave us? Waiting for the Republican Party to implode, hopefully sooner rather than later.

        • joe from Lowell

          Umm most people criticizing Erik on this thread?

          Wow.

          Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what “everything is politics” gets you.

          This person has read the back and forth about whether economics, and social sciences in general, are sciences; and about whether objective data exists; and concluded that everyone disagreeing with Erik is really arguing “American workers…should be made poor because it increases aggregate utility somewhere.”

          This is what happens, everyone. It can be tempting to start out buying into excuses for being slopping with the facts in one case, but don’t give in, because this is where it leads. You lose your own capacity to view facts or even logic through any lens except political utility, and then you assume everyone else has, too.

          • Jerry Vinokurov

            Perhaps you’ll notice that at no point did I comment on the question of whether economics is or is not a science or whether objective data exists. Nor did I at any point endorse Erik’s views on this, which might not be that surprising given that I don’t actually agree with that position. It’s just that I don’t view that argument as a useful one to have and don’t think it really gets us anywhere.

            I’ve written a bunch of stuff already so I don’t think my views are terribly difficult to divine. If you want to respond to what I said rather than what you’d like to think I said, feel free.

            • joe from Lowell

              If I wanted to respond to what you said, Jerry, I would have clicked the Reply button on your comment, instead of that of MPA Victoria.

              No need to apologize; it can be tough following the lines, Lord knows. Although the comment leading off with, and being a reply to, a quote that wasn’t in your comment might have been another clue.

              • Jerry Vinokurov

                Sorry joe, my bad. I get lost in the commenting forest occasionally.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Yeah, who doesn’t?

      • Jerry Vinokurov

        A lot of the responses to both Theroux’s initial article and Erik’s follow-up (Lowery and Kenny specifically) focused strongly on the fact that trade has made Chinese workers better off, and that people who complain about the effects of that process on their own livelihoods are basically asking to steal from the Chinese. I think this is a disingenuous maneuver that only serves to denigrate the people making the complaints.

        Here’s yet_another_lawyer:

        Well, why should we sacrifice the ability of the globally poor to eat at the altar of domestic cures for depression, a reduced suicide rate, and international “voting” (whatever form that takes locally) the wrong way?

        I get that this is somewhat for rhetorical effect, but, come on. This is just another way of saying that it’s ok for Americans to be left destitute by an economic process if that process benefits others who are less well off. And that “we” is doing a lot of work there, making policy from, as they say, 30,000 feet. Of course we shouldn’t sacrifice the ability of the global poor to eat, but you can’t try and enforce a policy that transfers wealth from the relatively global rich (American workers) to the global poor and just expect the former group to go along with that. Whatever the benefits to the global poor, people who are left destitute can’t plausibly be expected to accept their destitution, nor can they be expected to put the welfare of people half a world away over their own welfare. But when the argument about trade is made at this abstract level, that’s basically what you’re asking them to do, because if they complain, then the shaming comes out and Lowery and Matthews will write lengthy editorials condemning Americans for trying to steal from the Chinese, and how Zimbabwe is not literally like Mississippi, as though anyone needed an article-length lecture on that subject.

        I think there’s a kind of misdirection going on here because a serious engagement with the effects of trade policy on American workers would begin by recognizing the validity of the complaints. They have been made worse off in many ways that matter, likely even if you account for cheap consumer goods. Matt Bruenig has tackled that already, so I’ll just link to his well-articulated point. If you start with that position, rather than the position that Americans are nasty thieveses who want to steal preciousss Chinese jobs, you can just move right to the problem that the benefits of trade are unevenly distributed. But if you start by excoriating American workers for being unable to see the aggregate benefits and berating them for lacking sufficient understanding of economic theory, then you’re just being a dick, even if you end by waving a hand towards redistributionist schemes.

        • Steve LaBonne

          Thank you. I don’t think the case I would wish to make can be stated more clearly than that.

        • MrMister

          Take for granted that people harmed by trade policy will be against it, and allow that they are morally so allowed because when it comes down to it people are allowed to care about themselves. Sure. But now ask how some other 3rd party should react. Take up the perspective of an American who won’t be harmed, and perhaps even will benefit. Ask: do I have to also be against this trade policy? The easiest route to “yes” appears to be one which assumes that I ought to care more about the other Americans getting harmed than the 3rd worlders benefiting. But this is just what yet_another_lawyer is questioning whether we have any reason to do. And it is fully independent of whether we ‘judge’ American workers for opposing these policies. We can fully allow that they’re fine opposing them (because personally interested) while declining to oppose them ourselves (because we think it is a net benefit over people in total).

          Or, to summarize: noting that ‘we cannot expect American workers to take it lying down’ does not address yet_another_lawyer’s basic idea, i.e., that there is no controlling moral reason for me or you, as Americans, to try to secure smaller benefits for other Americans rather than larger benefits for other non-Americans.

          • Steve LaBonne

            That all depends on what your idea of a “controlling moral reason” is, and whether it can even be made coherent. Given the realities of how humans organize themselves socially, it is not at all easy to make a case that global altruism from 30,000 feet is automatically the most “moral” option. One might add to that the additional difficulty for the 30,000 foot view that such a high level of abstraction leaves a lot of room for hidden-ball plays as to whose pockets most of the claimed benefits really end up in.

            • MrMister

              If the idea is that facts of human social organization might make attempts at global altruism less effective on the net than local charity (partially because of social unrest, partially because of hidden-ball plays, and whatever else) then I think that, if true, that would be a totally decisive refutation of the cosmopolitan argument. But that’s a big ‘if;’ the result then is that it comes down to whether that is actually true. I don’t think it’s a satisfactory rejoinder to yet_another_lawyer just to note that it might be. For myself, I very much suspect it isn’t but am open to empirical evidence to the contrary.

              • Steve LaBonne

                You’re moving the goalposts. You made a sweeping moral claim, of what I can only take to be a deontological kind, about the “lack of a controlling moral reason” for focusing on the welfare of people in our own society. Do you want to defend that claim? That humans do feel a moral pull in the opposite direction from global altruism is evidenced by the saying “charity begins at home”.

                • MrMister

                  You can argue that we ought to begin charity at home because there is a basic moral duty to take care of those proximate to us. I am not disposed to this argument myself: instead I tend to be moved by the Benthamite thought that each should count for one and none for more than one, and that this is the essence of morality. But regardless of which way we go on that issue, it has little to do with the stuff about whether American workers should be expected to lie down and take it. That just winds up being window dressing, with this basic moral duty via nearness, political union, or whatever actually doing all the work.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  Exactly, there are (largely incommensurable) moral arguments on both sides. That suffices to cut the moral high ground, that they so love to pretend they are on, from under the Voxers.

              • UserGoogol

                Cosmopolitanism is a position about values, not action. If it turns out that valuing people equally regardless of their nationality still implies that people should help people of their own nationality, then okay, let’s do that. But that doesn’t mean we should stop valuing people equally.

          • Jerry Vinokurov

            But now ask how some other 3rd party should react. Take up the perspective of an American who won’t be harmed, and perhaps even will benefit. Ask: do I have to also be against this trade policy? The easiest route to “yes” appears to be one which assumes that I ought to care more about the other Americans getting harmed than the 3rd worlders benefiting.

            I question what it means to relegate this question to “some other 3rd party.” First, it’s not as though the American electorate and American workers are some distinct groups. In one sense, there isn’t any sort of third party at all, there are just groups of voters looking out for their own interests. Insofar as you and I are third parties between American and Chinese workers, I am suggesting that we should not accept arguments that require the impoverishing of the former as a condition for the betterment of the latter. “Trade” is not a monolithic thing, but rather a vast network of overlapping policies that affect different people differently; one can support good trade policies and oppose bad ones.

            I honestly have a hard time believing all this putative concern for workers in the developing world is truly sincere. Probably in the comments of this thread it is, but all too often, this concern is used as a bludgeon against American workers. Rather than working out ways in which we can do something to help people left behind by economic progress, the default is to belittle them for their flawed understanding of trade theory and accuse them of wanting to starve Chinese and Africans. And the best thing is that this argument can be rolled out with regard to any trade provision; oh, you don’t want multinational corporations to be able to hide labor abuses? well, you’re just providing cover for impoverishing workers in developing countries! At some point you end up with a race to the bottom where any corrective measures on the American side are derided as allegedly harmful to foreign workers or protectionistic. And that’s the liberals; the conservatives will just tell them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

            It’s not like we haven’t seen this ideological apparatus at work before, which is why I become suspicious when liberals adopt its implicit assumptions and tone. Rather than showing everyone how smart we are that we’re technically correct (“the best kind of correct”) about trade being a positive sum game, we should be much more concerned with what to do about the distributional inequities resulting therefrom. Yeah, Paul Theroux is bad at economics; that’s such low-hanging fruit that I can’t imagine what going after it even yields, and whatever it is, it’s some pretty cold comfort to the people he writes about.

            • Origami Isopod

              I honestly have a hard time believing all this putative concern for workers in the developing world is truly sincere.

              Yeah, so do I. This is the same “If other people have to eat 10 lbs. of shit every day, why shouldn’t U.S. workers eat 5 lbs. of shit every day?” we’ve been hearing from privileged fuckmuppets for decades now.

              Also, I have to say that all the debating by affluent white people on this thread over whether they’d rather be desperately poor and black in the States, or desperately poor and living on an island that will be underwater in the next 20 years, is making my gorge rise.

        • xq

          A lot of the responses to both Theroux’s initial article and Erik’s follow-up (Lowery and Kenny specifically) focused strongly on the fact that trade has made Chinese workers better off

          Theroux’s initial article focused strongly on the fact that trade has made Chinese workers better off! So how can you complain that responses to the article related to its major topic? It was Theroux who said, essentially, we should take from the Chinese poor and give instead to American poor. His opponents said, no, that is wrong, we should find ways to help the American poor without taking from the Chinese poor.

          What I don’t see is anyone claiming, as you said, that they expect “American workers to just accept that they should be made poor”. I think Dayen, who is obviously sympathetic to Theroux, summarizes the conflict fairly accurately in the Prospect article Loomis linked to in the last post:

          We can write and enforce trade policies that exchange legitimate labor standards for access to markets. We can assist workers resisting the triumph of accumulated capital without cheering on “the search for a new plantation, and cheaper labor,” as Theroux puts it. And we can broadly share the benefits of globalization at home, for reasons just as moral as the impulse to help children abroad.

          Seemingly both sides of this debate would agree with such a program—but the confusion comes in the points of emphasis, in allowing for the legitimate frustration of those crushed by American policy. The perceived callousness of focusing only on global perspectives and meager compensations like lower prices at Walmart informs how Paul Theroux sees an 80-year-old woman in Arkansas in a shack with no running water, and wonders what she did to make her nation forget her.

          But if you start by excoriating American workers for being unable to see the aggregate benefits and berating them for lacking sufficient understanding of economic theory

          Again, I don’t see anyone doing this. People are excoriating Theroux, not American workers.

          • He quoted someone doing that, which you didn’t even respond to. It’s okay to admit that you’re wrong.

            • xq

              He quoted someone excoriating American workers? Or he quoted someone “expecting American workers to just accept that they should be made poor because it increases aggregate utility somewhere”?

              The quote from yet_another_lawyer did neither of those things. The quote is not addressed to American workers, and it says nothing about what yet_another_lawyer expects workers to accept.

              • Jerry Vinokurov

                I’m willing to admit you’re a more generous reader than I am.

                • xq

                  There seem to be a lot of people talking past each other.

            • Ronan

              The people who get excoriated here are not US workers, but much more often anyone who stakes a position in favour of ‘free trade.’ They are written off as elitist anti Americans who not only have no sympathy for the domestic poor but who fake sympathy for the global poor solely to pauperise US workers.

  • Justaguy

    I am somewhat familiar with science studies literature on economics and markets, and STS in general, and find your dismissal of the idea of data to be a little bizarre. If you are making it based on science studies, could you at least share what literature you’re drawing from?

    There’s a difference between arguing that scientific knowledge is constructed within and shaped by social institutions to rejecting it altogether. There is a lot of room between a naive realist belief in the objectivity of data and a complete rejection of the idea of knowledge independent of individual interests. I see STS folks as occupying a middle ground between those two poles, and can’t think of anyone off the top of my head who claims that it’s all reducible to ideology.

    Also, for someone who produces their own scholarship to reject the possibility of knowledge to transcend the individual interests of its creator is self-refuting.

    • Justaguy

      And it’s strange to invoke STS to make an argument about the ideological nature of social sciences vs hard sciences because STS scholars make similar arguments about both streams of inquiry. And people doing STS are, for the most part, anthropologists, sociologists, historians and philosophers – so, again, any argument that invokes STS to reduce those disciplines to ideology undermines itself.

      • Well, there’s STS as it’s done in specific university departments and then there are arguments that sound like STS that are made in the context of political discussions, etc.

        There’s also the question whether saying a discipline is socially constructed actually undermines the discipline or is just a statement of fact (with consequences to be determined later).

        • Justaguy

          Sure, “socially constructed” doesn’t necessarily mean “made up out of whole cloth to suit crude ideological preferences,” and I certainly don’t take it to mean that. But, that seems to be Loomis’ argument.

          • Sure. There are various contexts where you see arguments about science’s overestimation of “objectivity” where those arguments mean different things, too, such as in some types of feminism and some parts of the left. I don’t think the OP obviously draws those into the argument, certainly not in their strongest form.

            • Justaguy

              “Data is nothing more than socially constructed numbers choosing to serve our own ideological notions and the sooner economists understand that they are not a science and that instead most, albeit not all, are lapdogs of capitalism, the better off we will all be.”

              I dunno, that strikes me as an incredibly strong rejection of economics as having any basis in reality. And don’t get me wrong, I’m completely down with critiques of economics in general, and in situating the creation of scientific knowledge in social context in general. But just don’t see how reducing it all to ideology is interesting or productive.

              • joe from Lowell

                It’s the “nothing more than” part. Unless those are just words thrown in to punch up the diction, Erik is making a point that needs a lot more than “But there is social construction involved in the production of data,” to support it.

                Sometimes I think we spend an awful lot of time arguing about verbiage that Erik just throws in to punch up his posts.

                • We so agree on this last point.

                • DrDick

                  So you actually agree with my point.

              • that strikes me as an incredibly strong rejection of economics as having any basis in reality.

                Very quickly, and splitting the sentence up into two parts and reversing them:

                This

                the sooner economists understand that they are not a science and that instead most, albeit not all, are lapdogs of capitalism, the better off we will all be.”

                is not that different from most of the discussion of neoliberalism, and this

                Data is nothing more than socially constructed numbers choosing to serve our own ideological notions

                is not so different from the apparent message of some history of science that I’m able to say it’s a misreading (though I could be convinced that I’m not putting it into context correctly);

                and moreover, on the other hand, could easily be taken as an (infuriatingly) overstated way of describing a way of using data, from within the science, that might actually describe something fairly innocuous.

                So I don’t think that sentence is outrageous, out of the context, which I don’t know enough about.

                • MrMister

                  That data is “nothing more than” socially constructed numbers chosen on the basis of ideological preference may be the message of some history of science, but only a tiny minority. My understanding from interacting with people in the history and philosophy of science (as well as my own reading in the area) is that this extreme critique is just not taken seriously by most HPS types–certainly not as a claim about data in general, where they (just as much as the person on the street) are likely to respond by pointing out that cell phones work because satellites behave in the way general relativity tells us they well, and etc. etc. So even the ones who are interested in the social location of science and so on would immediately reject the “nothing more than” qualifier.

                  For instance: you can read Helen Longino’s withering critique of the persistent failures in historical sex and gender research and see how she calls for an essentially social conception of objectivity (a necessary condition on objectivity is full social participation in the institution of science). So there’s a philosopher of science who has pretty well cottoned on to the idea that science is not an activity discrete from all other human social activity. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that if you ran past her the notion that data is all just socially constructed numbers giving aid and comfort to ideological preconception, she would issue a pretty withering takedown in response.

                  When it comes to economics in particular, as I said above, there are interested methodological issues. And certainly you find HPS types sometimes giving arguments to the effect that some individual pieces of economics are ideological garbage being dressed up as if they were good arguments. However, I’ve never met one who came particularly close to the wholesale dismissal of the field as e.g. unscientific lapdoggery for capitalism.

  • MPAVictoria

    I mean just because theoretically we could redistribute the benefits of free trade to make everyone better off doesn’t mean we ever will. So far we have succeeded in impoverishing some parts of the country and allowing the rich to get even richer.

    • Steve LaBonne

      And I would also like to see some data on how much of the benefit flows to 3rd world crony capitalists vs. how much to the workers they employ for a slightly larger pittance.

      • Steve LaBonne

        There are also, of course, major benefits to American capitalists (Apple, anyone?) that Vox-type arguments typically pretend not to see. This is smart strategy on teh part of those making such arguments, since it’s harder to hand-wave away upward redistribution within the country.

      • DrDick

        As Erik’s many posts on this topic have amply demonstrated, very little has trickled down to the third world workers and that has come at very high costs. The vast bulk has gone to first world elites and the remainder has largely gone to the 3rd wold crony capitalists.

  • Unemployed_Northeastern

    Seeing “So, when do we begin the social programs for the only moderately rich who live in NYC?” made me think of an article in the Boston Globe a few days ago. Developers are putting up a new apartment complex in Kendall Square by MIT in Cambridge. With the monstrous growth of start-ups, biotechs, VCs, and incubators in and around MIT, Kendall Square has become one of, if not the, most expensive neighborhood in Boston or Cambridge. Like many new projects, there are a handful of apartments cordoned off for an affordable housing lottery and lesser rent. Wanna know the household income ceiling to be eligible for the housing lottery?

    $118,000.

    • njorl

      “So, when do we begin the social programs for the only moderately rich who live in NYC?”

      I’d go further. We have public schools, medicare, social security, subsidized drinking water and roads. There’s nothing wrong with social programs for the moderately rich, as long as we don’t make them exclusively for the moderately rich. Many western European countries dedicate a significant portion of their GDP to social programs for moderately rich people.

      • postmodulator

        Some government official in a Scandinavian country once said “Our millionaires use our public health system, because our goal was to make a public health system good enough for a millionaire.”

        • Brett

          I’ve heard that underpins Canadian resistance to anything that might resemble a “two-tiered health care system” as well. Create a system that the rich and poor have to use (or at least the poor, middle-class, upper-middle class, and most of the lower-end of the 1%), and you’ll create a system where the people most heavily involved in politics will support it in exchange for assurance that it’s run well.

          Allow them to separate, and you’ll get a system that gets increasingly seen as a “program for the poor” that burns a hole in your middle-class household’s income in exchange for nothing they can use.

    • Jackov

      At least there is a lottery. Back in the day, those apartments often only had an income requirement attached so developers or property managers in collegetowns would fill all the low income units with grad students.

  • JLV

    “Data is socially constructed” is the most useless thing I’ve read today. There’s probably a valid criticism buried in there somewhere (Measurement is important! Go read Gelman’s blog! He talks about this all the time!) Its probably better made by someone who has substantive knowledge of the topic.

    And anyway, data doesn’t “show” anything. Statistical models do. I look forward to critiques of why estimation of local average treatment effects using instrumental variables are ideological biased.

    • JLV

      (There’s an econometrics joke in the last sentence, if anyone is wondering. It is not a very good joke.)

    • Bill Murray

      do statistical models actually show anything?

      To quote David Freedman*, “There is no way to infer the “right” model from the data unless there is a strong prior theory to limit the universe of possible models … That kind of strong theory is rarely available in the social sciences”

      and

      “it is difficult to make causal inferences from observational data, especially when research focuses on complex political processes. Behind the apparent precision of quantitative findings lie many potential problems concerning equivalence of cases, conceptualization and measurement, assumptions about the data, and choices about model specification”**

      * Freedman, “Statistical Models: Theory and Practice”, p. 103, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

      ** Taken from Freedman, p. 198, quoting Brady, Collier and Seawright in “Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards”, 2004.

  • Frankly, I defy anyone to look at the history of economics, and how it actually justifies itself, and not conclude that its policy branches are patient #1 for theories of social constructionism. But maybe that only applies to macro . . . to certain parts of the field . . . maybe the new approaches are more scientific (and sufficiently separate) . . . maybe we’re doing our best . . .

    Also, if there’s anyone to whom these arguments are almost certainly not news, it’s Yglesias.

    • Malaclypse

      I’d argue that micro, which is dependent upon a theory of rational actors [*] that everybody admits are never found in the real world, is far more a pure social construction than macro.

      * Except for Veblen, which I would argue is micro.

      • I agree (I think–but don’t have time to rewrite that right now), but for example I think macro has an is/ought problem in a way micro doesn’t.

        1) Micro fits better with the long tradition of thinking about rationality, self-interest, action and consequences. Not an especially good fit, but they’re recognizably doing the same kind of thing. This should keep a lid on excessive subjectivity.

        2) It seems to be very difficult to find a point where macro turned from trying to understand the economy in a pure-science, basic-research way, to trying to understand what “we” have to do if we want the global financial and production system to work in the way “we” want. In other words, macro seems covertly ideological in a deeper and more specific way than micro does.

        3) This is even more of an unsupported feeling on my part, based a lot on how much trouble I have understanding econ: The common ancestor economics shares with physics is farther back than it seems, maybe farther back than sociology’s common ancestor with physics. Econ students just don’t seem to approach the subject in what I recognize as a “sciency” way.

      • Ronan

        Rational actors *are* found in the real world. People aren’t *always* rational , but they are enough ofthe time that you can make plausible claims by assuming rationality . All rationality in micro economics assumes, afaik, is that people have the ability to form and judge preferences , and take actions to realise them

        • Steve LaBonne

          People are not rational decision-makers nearly as often, or as well, as they think themselves or as neoclassical economists think. The data on this point are quite abundant.

          • Ronan

            People don’t look like “homos economicus”, no, a self interested utility maximising monster. But this is a different claim than rationality, and most economists have moved on from it (ie behavioural economics, which generally assumes rationality. As does, implicitly and generally, most political claims on the left)

            • Steve LaBonne

              Most of our actual decision-making processes are not rational under any definition. They are emotional / heuristic. Genuinely rational decision-making is difficult and time- energy-expensive, and so we didn’t evolve to routinely do it well. And contrary to your claim, behavioral economics does in fact take this very limited capacity for rational decision-making into account. And there are still plenty of non-behavioral economists trying to pretend that, eg., investors are something close to ideal rational actors, which is clearly nonsense.

              • joe from Lowell

                In my experience (more experience than I care to remember), there aren’t really many economists who try to pretend that, so much as market-fundie political thinkers who misrepresent economics as thinking that.

                It’s a bit like the people, circa 2004, talking about Da Troops. What they’re saying about Da Troops isn’t actually what the troops themselves think.

              • UserGoogol

                I’d say rationality is a matter of degree, and that bounded rationality is merely a lesser form of rationality rather than being something else entirely. People who base their decisions on heuristics and emotions are still reacting to evidence in a way which roughly approximates at aligning with reality, they just do in a way without the precision that an idealized Bayesian thinker would.

                • DrDick

                  People tend to be “rational” based on their assumptions about the nature of the world (which are not rationally derived), their priorities (also not entirely rational), and their knowledge of the situation (always imperfect).

            • DrDick

              There are all sorts of assumptions underlying the “rational actor” model which effectively render it useless. No one operates from “perfect knowledge” and rarely from adequate knowledge. Economic returns are not the only thing we maximize, and are often the least important among the things we do.

              • Ronan

                None of these claims negate the rational actor theory

                • DrDick

                  Actually, each of them does, as the model assumes these conditions.

                • Ronan

                  Youre an anthropologist,right? As an anthropologist would you not think of looking at the way a concept is used, rather than what you assume it to mean? The rational actor model (whatever its faults)can and does account for non economic preferences and imperfect knowledge.
                  Moving it on from there, and to the the way people around here talk about human behaviour and decision making, especially as it applies to, for example, ‘elites’ or ‘capitalists.’ The starting assumption is generally one of rationalism, at times a mirror of the most vulgar conception of utility maximisers motivated primarily (if not solely) by self interest. There’s a lot less space between the most cliched understanding of rationality and how a number of people here talk and think about politics. (rightly or wrongly)

                • joe from Lowell

                  Actually, each of them does, as the model assumes these conditions.

                  No, it doesn’t, at least not necessarily.

                  There have certainly been some models that use those assumptions, but there have also been plenty of studies that assume a rational actor who has bounded knowledge, goals other than economic maximization, or both.

                • DrDick

                  The rational actor model (whatever its faults)can and does account for non economic preferences and imperfect knowledge.

                  However, the economic model of the rational actor, which we are discussing here, assumes exactly what I said. Other rational actor models do have the properties you describe and is exactly how they are employed in anthropology.

                • Ronan

                  Na

                • elm

                  Dr. Dick, you’re mostly wrong. There is a specific thign called the ‘rational actor model’ that does make strong assumptions along the lines you’re saying, but it’s not used in present-day economics. All ‘rational choice’ means now is that individuals have transitively ordered preferences and they will do what they can to achieve those preferences.

                  Much of current economics build entirely from imperfect information games (see the time incosistency stuff that won a Nobel a few years back) or assume non-monetary preferences (Gary Becker’s stuff for instance) and other violations of the very limited model you’re referring to.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  All ‘rational choice’ means now is that individuals have transitively ordered preferences and they will do what they can to achieve those preferences.

                  Of course, there’s plenty of evidence that individual preferences sometimes are intransitively ordered. (Which is one of the obstacles to unidimensional scaling.)

                • elm

                  That’s true. Transitivity isn’t a contentless assumption, but I think it’s a decent enough simplifying assumption for most purposes whereas the stronger assumptions Dr. Dick brings up very rarely are.

        • People aren’t *always* rational , but they are enough ofthe time that you can make plausible claims by assuming rationality .

          Not by any standard or mathematically tractable model. Loss aversion alone suffices to refute this.

          If you want to use some looser notion of rationality, fine, but this equivocation is not clarifying.

          • Ronan

            I’m not equivocating , this is how (afaik) most economists (and political scientists) assume rationality . They also generally accept caveats, that it’s not always applicable (people are emotional, though not always) , that it’s influenced by social contexts , that it works better on short term and relatively trivial decision making etc. I actually tend to agree ,admittedly from my limited reading on it, that “rationality” has potentially entered no true Scotsman territory , and that conceptually it’s an overused assumption . But stil, in a significant number of decision making processes people do make plausibly rational decisions, so falling into the alternative trap (that people are never rational) is wrong. Imo .
            I’ll come back to it later though,

            • ut stil, in a significant number of decision making processes people do make plausibly rational decisions, so falling into the alternative trap (that people are never rational) is wrong. Imo .

              If by “plausibly rational” you mean “What ordinary people would say is rational, i.e., not deranged or risible” then, trivially so.

              If you mean “utility maximisers” then no. Adjust for loss aversion and still not really.

              • Ronan

                I didnt say utility maxismisers, in fact I said this wasnt a commonly accepted assumption anymore.
                I find, from an economists persepective, Herb Gintis interesting on this. I dont think Id agree with him on everything if I knew more of the specifics, but worth reading.

                https://www.google.co.uk/?gws_rd=ssl#q=herb+gintis+rationality+and+its+discontents

                Any thoughts Id be interested to hear (Bijan or anyone elses) opinion.

                https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1KBxsuMH3A

                • I didnt say utility maxismisers,

                  I know, but you didn’t really say what you meant. My point is that you can’t say, “Most people are plausibly rational” in this context without a better indication of what you meant.

                  I tried reading the Gintis but between it not being engaging and slide making needs, I didn’t get far.

                • Ronan

                  “I know, but you didn’t really say what you meant. My point is that you can’t say, “Most people are plausibly rational” in this context without a better indication of what you meant.”

                  Yeah, that’s a fair point. I dont know, tbh. My initial point was mainly that I dont think ‘rationality’ in economics means what people were assuming it meant.
                  I dont know my own thoughts on it well enough, though, or how to articulate clearly the ones I have.

                • Bill Murray

                  My initial point was mainly that I dont think ‘rationality’ in economics means what people were assuming it meant.

                  I would say that is true of a considerable amount of economic words. Quite a few words with specific definitions were taken, usually from physics, and then changed to mean something slightly different. Equilibrium is probably the worst example of this.

  • LWA

    I’ve noted before how the champions of the current structure of global trade regulations talk about it not being a “zero-sum”, then at the first challenge, resort to the Lifeboat Dilemma, asserting that we can either enrich Bangladeshis or Mississippians, but not both.

    What is even more pernicious is the description of the current structure of global regulations with the simple singular term “Globalism” as if it is a binary proposition- are you for or against Free Trade?

    The structure of global trade is infinitely flexible and variable, and almost entirely constructed.

    There isn’t any reason why there can’t be a global standard for wages and worker safety, there isn’t any reason we can’t engineer a global workers union, there isn’t any reason why the laws and regulations on trade can’t be written by workers and environmental activists.

    • postmodulator

      Sure. These are to a large degree, larger than too many are willing to acknowledge, choices that we are making. We can make different choices.

      The intellectual underpinnings of right-wing economics moved, at some point during my lifetime, from “Free trade and laissez-faire are the best way to achieve our goals” to “free trade and laissez-faire are themselves the goals to which other goals are subordinate.” If you ask for some kind of justification of this, all they can manage is that Stalinism sucked.

      • LWA

        The framing of debate which allows it to also be a binary between socialism and capitalism is also a failure.
        The famous Scandinavian countries are very comfortable with private ownership of land and capital. They just modulate it differently than we do.
        But more than that, they willingly make choices about priorities, differently than we do.

        Cradle to grave social welfare systems aren’t magically cheap there. They have just worked very hard to develop a culture that respects and honors that as a priority.

        It might be too much to say that data is socially constructed, but it is true that economics is not comparable to physics, i.e., studying laws of nature that exist independent of human action.

        Economics is really the study of human behavior, which itself is malleable by culture.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      Trade is not zero sum, but at the same time enriching Bangladeshis via trade is likely reduce income earned by Mississippians. That’s not a contradiction. I absolutely believe that free trade reduces the rate of growth of income in the United States, but “zero sum” would literally mean that each dollar given to population A must result in a reduction of one dollar given to population B — the gain of A is offset by an identical loss to B. I don’t think the data supports that conclusion at all. The populations of China, India, etc., have clearly been enriched over the past 30 by far more than the populations of the developed world have been impoverished.

      • Bill Murray

        but saying “The populations of China, India, etc., have clearly been enriched over the past 30 by far more than the populations of the developed world have been impoverished.” elides the difference between the population as a whole and the poor/workers in those countries. Your statement can be true and the working classes could be worse off in both China and Mississippi

  • Linnaeus

    One of the drawbacks of being on Pacific Time is that you miss blogsplosions about social constructivism. Speaking of which, I should bust out my Jan Golinski….

    • Time zones are, like, just your opinion, man.

      • Linnaeus

        Timekeeping and time standardization is actually a good example of social construction. But I digress.

        • I deny any possibility that railroads are social entities.

          • Linnaeus

            Positivist.

            • Are you sure?

              • Linnaeus

                Yes. Based on my understanding of the social construction of positivism…whoa!

                • Lee Rudolph

                  The positivists keep comin’ but the train’s done gone!

        • trashdog

          Woot. I’m about to start Revolutions in Time by DS Landes, and earlier this year I read Empires of Time by Aveni. Do you have any other suggestions?

          • Linnaeus

            Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time is quite good.

            • trashdog

              Thanks!

    • Emma in Sydney

      You should try Australian Eastern Summer Time. I wake up to a thousand comments, and I need to get to work!

      • Linnaeus

        I’d never get anything done, so you’re obviously handling that better than I would.

    • Philip

      2+ hours a day on a train helps

  • Linnaeus

    But seriously, since everyone else seems to have weighed in on this hot take, I might as well do so.

    Re economics as a science, I’ll reiterate what I wrote in the previous thread on Theroux: I see Erik, and those who hold similar opinions, as reacting to the conscious cultivation of an image of economics as characterized by a particular rigor and certainty that we do not see in other humanistic and social science fields, i.e., it is the closest social science to a “real” science and that is made evident in “laws” of economics, mathematized language, and so forth.

    One problem that I have here is that I think Erik, perhaps unintentionally, comes perilously close to Ernest Rutherford’s dictum that “all science is either physics or stamp collecting” but just from a different angle than Rutherford did. This is connected to the question of social constructivism. There is value in understanding the social construction of knowledge, but “data is nothing more than socially constructed numbers choosing to serve our own ideological notions” doesn’t really get us very far and is not really a fair summary of the existing STS literature that address such questions.

    And as others have pointed out, an extension of Erik’s position leads to an extreme skepticism about our ability to really know anything, and I just don’t buy that. We can talk about the rhetoric of calling something a science vs. not a science and the implied intellectual hierarchy there. We can talk about the prior assumptions and cultural context of any field of study. But I don’t think that either of those conversations requires that we accept that this means that any given field is just all crap.

    So I would ask Erik, respectfully, to reconsider some of what he’s written here.

  • hylen

    Nobel Prize in Economics: The real story.

    • Vance Maverick

      I used to be a free-marketeer, but ever since I learned the Economics Nobel isn’t real, I’m outraged by the Mont Pelerin society meeting in Viña del Mar.

  • pseudalicious

    Keep on keepin’ on, Erik. Your posts are good and you should feel good.

    One criticism:

    as free market fundamentalists (again, a group that makes ISIS look rational

    Whoah there, buddy. Let’s not use actual real-life rapists as props for hyperbolic comedy. /humorless feminazi

    That said, again: haters gonna hate, etc. You’re doing good work.

    • DrDick

      In fairness to Erik, what the “free market fundamentalists” are doing is not that much difference (see Rana Plaza, Bhopal, Foxcon, ad nauseum).

      • Origami Isopod

        Yeah…. I think when you’re talking about that level of grotesque carnage, ISIS is a very fair comparison.

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