April 15, 2016
Recent discussions of international trade – specifically around the UK steel industry, and Bernie Sanders’ recent trade proposals – made me want to articulate some extremely basic points about international trade. I’m going to distinguish three different arguments about international trade, painted here with the broadest of possible brush strokes.
1) The traditional liberal gains-from-trade argument. Efficiency gains from the division of labour, and from comparative advantage, mean that international trade can produce greater overall social wealth and welfare than the same resources would generate if nation states did not trade. In this respect, international trade brings benefits to everyone.
2) The third-worldist critique of international trade. From this perspective, international trade is a mechanism for extracting wealth from the world’s poorest and least powerful nations, and channeling that wealth to the world’s richest and most powerful nations. This is the case in both the historical colonial domination of the periphery by the core, and contemporary neo-colonial relationships. In this respect, international trade benefits the core at the expense of the periphery.
3) The labour-aristocracy critique of international trade. From this perspective, international trade weakens the bargaining power of labour in the core, by outsourcing jobs and production to the periphery. In this respect, international trade brings benefits to countries in the periphery, at the expense of workers in the core.
All three of these arguments are common. In my opinion, all of them capture important dimensions of the international trade. That is to say, in my opinion, it’s a mistake to deny any of the following: 1) international trade can bring aggregate economic benefits via specialisation and the division of labour; 2) international trade can extract the resources of the periphery to the benefit of the core; 3) international trade can outsource production and diminish workers’ bargaining power in the core, to the benefit of the periphery.
The question, then, in my opinion, is where and when these different elements of international trade occur. This is clearly a complicated empirical question – and much more complicated than the above typology suggests. Still, I think that debates over international trade would benefit if all parties made the specific case for their emphasis, among these three perspectives – and for the consequences of their preferred policies on all three of the dimensions listed above.
October 29, 2013
The recent Nobel Prize  in economics has prompted a fair bit of commentary/discussion along the lines of ‘is economics a science’? I thought I’d add to that commentary. The extremes of the commonly articulated positions are roughly:
“Of course it is – and a stronger, more manful, more mathematical science than your [puny / relativistic / fraudulent / etc.] [psychology / sociology / history / etc.]”
“Of course it isn’t – it’s a series of barely coherent apologies for the interests of the powerful, detached from any reference to or understanding of the suffering inflicted upon billions by the policies it advocates and sophistically excuses”
With of course a range of other positions too.
The former of the two positions above is articulated principally by economists; the latter principally by left critics of economics. I’m in many respects on the left  – but I’m also in training to become an economist. Where does that place me? [Well – not to build up suspense: I think economics is indeed a science (that’s why I think it’s worth doing economics). But the longer version follows.]
Prior question: what does it mean for something to be a science? As a first pass, I take a disciplinary research-space to be a science if:
1) The object it studies is a real phenomenon that can actually be empirically studied.  (So astrology doesn’t count – because the relationships between celestial objects and human personality is not a real phenomenon; but astronomy does count, because celestial objects are real things.) (What’s actually real is of course itself a scientific question – but so it goes; there’s no paradox there – just the usual Neurath’s Boat principle of there being no discursive ‘outside’.)
2) There exists a set of established norms and research practices for testing claims about these objects against empirical evidence – for an endeavour to be scientific, claims must be vulnerable to rejection in the light of empirical findings.
3) There’s a discursive space, for researchers, within which those norms for testing claims against evidence can themselves be debated, contested and transformed.
Science is therefore a communal endeavour – it can’t exist outside of a community of research. Science relies on the collection of evidence; the positing of claims on the basis of and for testing by evidence; and the collective ongoing assessment of the evidence, the claims, the methodological connections between the two, and the norms governing the whole endeavour, within a community of researchers.
This definition of science does not require the following things:
– That practitioners of scientific inquiry be particularly rational. All else being equal it’s better for practitioners to be reasonable and informed than not, but the ‘rationality’ of the system resides principally in the possibilities made available by the overall institutions of the system, rather than in the virtues of individual researchers. (It is necessary, though, for a sufficiently large number of members of the community to be committed to reproducing those broad institutional practices enumerated above, that the practices are indeed reproduced.)
– That scientific claims be correct. The whole point of the scientific endeavour is that claims (including both empirical claims and the methodological claims that inform empirical claims) are open to revision.
– That members of a research community be capable of predicting the future behaviour of the phenomena studied. Some phenomena are amenable to this, in the current state of knowledge; others are not. It is not a requirement of science that predictions of future events be created, only that evidence (including evidence generated by future events) be capable of modifying our claims.
– Relatedly, that ‘general laws’ be discovered. Science can study unique specificity just as scientifically as it can study general principles; one is not more sciencey than the other.
– That there be broad consensus on most major topics within the research community. One hopes that warranted consensus can be established, but an important part of the mechanism from which it might emerge is disagreement.
None of those things just listed need apply for a community to count as a group of scientific researchers.
In these terms, is economics a science?
I think the answer is: clearly yes, economics is a science. There is a real object of study (the economy, however that’s understood). There are established principles for collecting evidence and testing claims against evidence. There are ongoing (quite sophisticated) debates about the methodological principles involved in these tasks. So I think economics is pretty unambiguously a science, and I’m happy to be a member of and participate in that research community of scientific practitioners.
What about the second objection, though? The objection that economics is just serving the interests of the powerful, etc.?
Well – just because a community of research meets all the criteria for science, doesn’t mean that it isn’t full of bullshit – nor does it mean that the kinds of bullshit dominant in a field are in any way accidental. Here, as often, it’s important to distinguish between best practice and actual practice. Best practice is not something that exists independently of actual practice – it is generated in and emerges out of actual practice. But it is also something that actual practice can be judged against – and often judged severely. Like any discursive space, the discursive space of economics is variegated – it contains many voices in dispute. In participating in that discursive space, we add our own voices and evaluate those voices already in contention. The norms of evaluation – and, therefore, the conclusions – that we take away from engagement in that space may be minority views relative to the space overall.
So it’s important to distinguish between the claim that economics is a science, and the claim that economics in general has things right, or is even on the right path. It’s important to have an account of the many things wrong with economics too – which I’ll start to talk about in a future post.
 The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel
 This post articulates my politics I think reasonably well – although I’m losing patience with left positions and figures sufficiently rapidly that, while I don’t think I’m on the classic ‘Trot to neocon’ ideological trajectory here [not least because I was never a Trot, but you know what I mean], it’s hard not to see why some such view would look reasonable, from the outside.
 “What about mathematics?” Well, mathematical objects (whatever their status – as it happens, I have a conventionalist line on the status of mathematical objects, but nothing here relies on that) can’t be empirically studied, so mathematics isn’t a science in this sense. What gives mathematics its objective character (on my account at least) is the degree of consensus that can be (and has been) attained around mathematical norms – math is pretty much unique in this respect. This is what distinguishes mathematics from, say, theology, which also has an object of study of ambiguous status (real? fictional? social? supernatural?) but where the degree of consensus is far lower, even within specific religious communities, let alone between religions.
 “What about the SCIENCE OF BEING that myself and three other graduate students in this Heidegger course are developing?” Sorry – that’s not a science.
 Note, though, that economics is not a more manful or vigorous science than any other social science, even if it involves a lot of math.
August 4, 2013
What about alternatives to the market? Are there better ways to organize the signaling and negotiation associated with the distribution of goods, and the production of goods for distribution? Off the top of my head (again, without spending really any time with the relevant literature, so this is all very preliminary) I can think of three broad alternative categories of economic organization:
1) Economies sufficiently local to not involve large-scale trade. These would have to be very local economies. Such a mode of economic organization is feasible in plenty of locations; but by its very nature it can’t ‘scale’ to mass production and the complex division of labour. Such a mode of economic organization is therefore, I think, simply not capable of producing sufficient resources to sustain a global population in the billions, at a decent standard of living. So this is ruled out.
2) Central planning. This was of course the classical socialist solution: the alternative to the anarchy of the market was the rational planning of a benign centralized bureaucratic organization, deputized to serve the interests of the people. This was, for generations, the main thing that people meant by ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’. The achievement of centrally planned economies, and the failure of those economies to realize the emancipatory hopes invested in them, is obviously the standard, tragic, and in my opinion basically accurate story of the failure of communist ideals in the twentieth century.
Could an alternative approach to centrally planned economies realize those ideals without replicating the failures of the twentieth century planned economies? It seems relatively clear to me (and to most) that the central failure of those communist states was their authoritarianism. In the absence of democratic institutions, those with power are always very likely to use that power for oppressive purposes, with little in the way of checks and balances to prevent this. So could central planning work if it were properly democratic?
I don’t want to rule this out; it’s worth spending time working on what this would be in more concrete practice. But I do have a reflex skepticism on this (characteristic of my time): the concentration of power required for the fully planned administration of an economy seems extremely vulnerable to abuse, even if much stronger democratic checks and balances are built into it than was the case for the twentieth century communist economies. So my impulse is that much more decentralized modes of organization are preferable – but I don’t want to take this for granted.
3) An alternative signaling system to money. It must, one would assume, be possible to devise an alternative way of fulfilling the information-transmission function of money, using modern computing: some kind of mechanism that enables the signalling of demand without the use of the ‘effective demand’ communicated by purchases and hypothetically projected future purchases, and (further) without the need to centrally manage the information thus communicated (though the problem of how to signal demand is also of course a problem for central planning). I know that there are proposals of this kind out there, but I haven’t actually read up on them; I ought to.
Given that (2) and (3) above both seem at the very least worthy of serious consideration, I don’t think it’s at all obvious that ‘market socialism’ is the best candidate when considering how to build more emancipatory economic institutions. I want to give more thought to the above. But for now I’m still going to take ‘market socialism’ as the leading contender for a credible realisable emancipatory economic system, when reading and thinking more about all this.