Thursday, May 25, 2023

What is the alternative?

 Mary Chapin Carpenter - "Another Home"

In part, I wrote Losing to be as helpful as possible to as many people as possible. In the chapter "Three tips for you but not my enemies (you know who you are,)" #2 is "Always ask, 'What is the alternative?'"

This came up on an episode of EconTalk I heard a few days ago - the guest said that 'What is the alternative?' could be the best one-line summary of economics. (I had never thought of it that way, but it is interesting that we've taught E to "Always ask, 'What is the alternative?'" since they were old enough to understand. Now they have a Ph.D. in economics.)

However, many (generally white male) economists are exceedingly annoying in their arrogance and lack of connection to the real world. Humans are not rational animals; we're rationalizing animals. Setting a policy that makes sense in some theory - e.g., abolish the FDA and let anyone take whatever they want - would be a nightmare in the real world. Please read The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century to see what the libertarian economists' world would be like. 

This is particularly frustrating - and dangerous - when economists who are involved in policy believe that everyone else is an idiot. The EconTalk guest mentioned above went off on a rant against closing schools during the pandemic, calling it "quack medicine."

Now that is arrogant enough, but it is also deeply ignorant. Going into the teeth of covid, the "Spanish" flu of 1918 was the best model we had. That experience clearly showed that cities that closed their schools did better. This isn't hidden knowledge; Michael Lewis goes into it in The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

Of course, covid-19 is not the 1918 flu. And it might be that closing schools was not the right course in this case - maybe. Maybe. In retrospect, knowing what we know now (and being alive and safe on this side).

But to talk like it was obvious that we shouldn't close schools, when the main data set we had said we should close schools, is so unbelievably pretentious, so hubristic as to be scary, and, of course, harmful.

This isn't to say we can't improve public policy with better cost/benefit analyses, taking into account tradeoffs and incentives. But I really get the sense that some economists are more interested in mocking others than helping others.

I'd really appreciate it if you'd please share this blog. Thanks!

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