Economics, Humanities

Economists and English Majors

Sunday, 20th October 2019

Sure, I’m on board with there being more narrative people around, as this WaPo article suggests. The economists in this story seem to want to have them around for rhetorical reasons, though, that is, to persuade people that certain things about the economy are true. One (cringy) example: “Jamaica’s central bank is employing reggae artists to explain that “high inflation is a wicked ting.””

But there are a couple of problems here, I think. One is that narrative is just being seen as a tool here. And that raises a question – a tool for what purpose? Whose version of the economy do we need a tool to persuade the masses about? Even with the example given – is high inflation always a wicked thing? Maybe. But that assumes a particular understanding of a lot of aspects of culture, politics, etc. I don’t want an economist to just put their view of the world into a narrative I can understand. I want an economist to defend a view, to take contrary evidence into account, and to recognize the consequences of their ideas on real people. A narrative might just convince a poor person that their sacrifice is for the greater good because it keeps the economy stable by keeping all the rich people happy. We’ve already got enough of those stories.

Another problem: narrative knits together disparate elements into a coherent whole. What makes that whole coherent? Several things could, but one of them is if the narrative matches up in some way with narratives we know from the past. Another is if the narrative matches up with our intuitions about how things are in the world – why people do things, what kinds of conditions have to be in place for certain things to happen, what justice looks like, and lots else.

So what’s the problem with this? Well, it is with what makes that narrative plausible. Something matching up to my experience doesn’t make it right in a different domain. I might think it’s a good idea to balance my household budget, but that means nothing about how a nation should conduct its finances – “balancing” a budget isn’t the same if you can print money, and if your debts are to your own citizens. Economic markets aren’t the same thing as the mall or store we go shopping in. Me acting as an individual, trying to realize my goals and dreams, isn’t the same thing as an economic actor in a marketplace – the metaphor of the individual is very problematic at different scales and across different kinds of domains. There are, in other words, lots of ways that narratives could be persuasive but ultimately wrong. And then we’re in a worse position, because now the wrong ideas seem intuitively right, and we get peoples’ emotions behind them.

So, obviously, I’m all for more English and literature majors, and more consideration of narrative. But narrative in itself doesn’t save us, and it can make things worse. We need other humanities, and we need other arts, and we need other social sciences as well. In other words, we need a well rounded education. And it’s not just that economists need to have these people around in order to interpret their ideas to the public. Economists also need to have this range and depth. Why? To forestall the allure of the single model or explanation, which has such a strong pull within the field.
I find myself using economic thinking among humanities people on a regular basis, because it brings a powerful and important perspective that is often lacking among those who haven’t thought about those mechanisms of the social world. I’m often amazed at how little economic understanding (not fiscal or financial, but economic) exists within universities in general – perverse incentives, no concept of the Pareto principle and its consequences, no idea how to price things, no idea of the limits of control or prediction, and the list goes on.

But at the same time, there is also an inordinate comfort in a single story, whether it is alt-right, libertarian, liberal, or some versions of Marxism. That doesn’t mean that middle of the road is best (that’s often a lazy refusal of thought, not a considered opinion). It means that we need the intellectual tools to be able to deal with multiple, incommensurable narratives, that is, narratives that don’t just appeal to our intuitions about what’s right, or boil things down into a single account of the world. And there will need to be more than one tool – sometimes that tool might be a market, but often it won’t.

Reference: Heather Long, “The world’s top economists just made the case for why we still need English majors”

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