1979. Need for governance trumps the needs of economics.

provocation # 139, Must economics support governance?

“The economy is broken and the politics to fix it is broken. So what do we do?”

Economics, appearing to be independent, is an instrument of governance. It is probably best seen as a sign of legitimacy for the governance we have and probably has to appear to be supportive of that governance.

Economics has to be the “normal  science”, to use Kuhn’s vocabulary , the science that fills in rather than expands outward, not  revolution in thought but making facts fit the accepted paradigm: capitalism, private property, corporations, individualism, law to protect property, journalism to help accelerate the flow of products and services, Keynesian wars that stimulate he economy.

Very few economics papers (less true of books) start with any mention of a serious problem to be solved. Inequality is the one that most likely breaks into the text. But there the efforts are to shift the resulting inequality but not to deal with underlying causes. But even with inequality it is usually a bloodless sweatless reference without any description of human consequences. Nothing like the opening  chapters of Richard Russo’s memoir, Elsewhere,  describing the impact on the human lives of the decline of industrial Pennsylvania where he grew up, nor Umair Haque’s Why America is the World’s First Poor Rich Country – Eudaimonia and Co, nor the New Yorker’s “How George Orwell Predicted the Challenge of Writing Today” in a society of all lies and schizophrenia.

The New Yorker · by Masha Gessen · June 10, 2018

Perhaps the reality is that governance is crucial for society. We just have to have it. This means thinking through elites and the  how are they chosen, how rewarded, how kept enough under control that they don’t rip out the wealth and destroy the society. But all societies seem to require an underclass and miserable working and living conditions for a significant part of society to create the wealth to motivate the elites. 

If this is true then it follows that the task of economics is to help the elites govern in which case we need to understand the world from their point of view. We hope we can do better towards creating a more humane society, the kind that Smith, Keynes and many others hoped would emerge from the further evolution of society. Can we do it? Or maybe we just should stay out of the way. These are very uncomfortable thoughts. Provocations, not conclusions.

 

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