There is no denying that we economists are hardly everyone’s favorite characters. Our discipline is known as “the dismal science”; we are accused, in a more or less implicit fashion, of supporting the worst excesses of rogue capitalism; some of the most senior and best known members of the profession are known by the media with comic books supervillain nicknames like “Doctor Doom” (Nouriel Roubini) or “The Black Swan” (Nassim Taleb). This does not happen to linguists or astronomers.
Just like science in general, economic science has its share of skeletons in the closet: ideologies that were given a coverage of objectivity; wildly off-the-mark forecasts; policy prescriptions that failed to prevent, and even caused, much suffering and poverty. But just as many were the intellectual victories, the extraordinary inventions, the valuable contributions to human prosperity. I think this dualism is inevitable, because political economy is the offspring of moral philosophy: Adam Smith, that many regard as the father of the discipline, wrote a Theory of moral sentiments that he cared for just as much as for the more famous Wealth of nations. And moral philosophy is no walk in the park: it is a minefield, in which you have to make terrible choices with every step you take. Liberty or equality? Meritocracy or stability? Like Jedi Knights in Star Wars, moral philosophers and their cousins, economists, are always exposed both to the light and the dark side of the Force.
Recently I chanced to read Joseph Stiglitz’s Towards a General Theory of Consumerism: Reflecions on Keynes’s Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (in this book and Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons. Stiglitz deploys standard neoclassical theory like a true master to illuminate a problem we don’t think enough about: why is it that, though they could in principle afford to, modern societies do not choose to work less, exchanging some consumption for leisure time. Among other things, Stiglitz shows how elementary extensions to the standard model lead to reverting its result: for example, in a two-sector model it is not always true that increasing salary in one of them leads to an overall reduction of labour supply. To me, that inspires awe for the power and the flexibility of the model, and not a little embarassment for the unsophisticated way it is often wielded in common political discourse.
Ostrom tells of the efforts of several human communities, from Switzerland to the Philippines, in coordinating to manage common resources like fisheries, forests or irrigation systems. Successes, failures, institution provision through self-organization and reform attempts from outside are analyzed with theoretical rigor, explanatory power, radical thinking and empathy.
Joseph, Elinor, thanks. This is the Light Side economics, the one I wanted to study as a young man and that makes me proud of being somehow related to great thinkers like yourselves. If you organize a parade to affirm the pride of being economists – modeled on the Gay Pride, which seems to have worked well – you can count on me to show up.