Sunday, February 05, 2006

The dismal science and its dismal results

It is no accident that economists begin their study of history at precisely the moment that the world discovered fossil fuels and began a century and a half of unprecedented expansion. And because economists begin their history there (everything else is pre-modern, and thus irrelevant), they have bought into Fukuyama's notion that we are at "the end of history." They believe fundamentally that growth capitalism has proven itself to be always and forever the way. And because of *that,* there are no economists in power in America who believe anything else.

I think it is easy not to realize how shocking that last fact is. But in no other academic field are the theoretical and intellectual boundaries so narrow and limited by a set of assumptions that the holders dare not question. Economists, because of the necessity of telling American politicians what they want to hear, have traded their scholarly integrity for power. Instead of allowing the ideas to lead them to the results, they have assumed a result, and spend their time debating the details. This is not only foolish, it is bad scholarship - bad by the standards of the science they'd like to claim they belong to, but bad even in my own, unscientific discipline. Because if the evidence cannot take you where it is going, if you presuppose your results, you have failed to be a scholar. We all make assumptions - but scholarship assumes a true freedom of inquiry, where others, with different assumptions, will critique one's premises. That does not exist meaningfully in American economics - tenure, book contracts, money, institute fellowships - these don't go to anyone who does not buy the party line.

There are critiques coming from outside, from Europe and south America, where the commitment to free markets is also more freely questioned. But I fear it may be too late for American economics. As a new leader takes over the Fed, we'll see where the economy is headed, and whether it can withstand rising interest rates alongside rising energy prices and the popping of the housing bubble. But the true problem may be that no American questions the concept that we have to keep growing, keep getting bigger, keep making and having more. But outside, in the rest of the world, people are questioning that. The rising socialist governments of South America, for example, are at least using a rhetoric of prioritizing the general welfare of its people, improving the status of everyone, rather than allowing the rich to profit as they may. Whether they can do it or not is another question. But at least they are asking the right questions - asking, for example, whether their resources should serve the world economy or their own, and asking whether it is more important to have a large middle class, or for everyone to have food. And everyone recognizes that those are choices - that the myth, so firmly held here, that everyone can have everything, is just that - a myth.

In this nation of immigrants, the rhetoric has always been that we want our children to have more than we did. But for those of us in the middle class, we are thinking about this wrong. What can we give them that we didn't have? A tv in every room? More, more expensive cars? Bigger houses than the enormous ones we already have? We can already see the moral consequences of trying to give more to those who already have inestimable wealth - greed, obesity, lack of appreciation, lack of principle. But we might be able to give our children something immeasurably greater - we might be able to give them something that we who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s had - something that they are in danger of losing. That is, greenspace, undeveloped land, places with reasonably clean air. Enough food. Shelter. Time to play. Warm clothes. Love. But even that is in danger because of the eternal capitalist rhetoric of more, more, more.

Sharon

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