Thursday, July 11, 2013

I Don’t Know Anything About Economics

Sorry for the long gap between posts. A lot’s been going on recently. Anywho, I’ve started up my linear algebra class, so hopefully I’ll have some interesting things to post about that soon. I’ve already learned techniques that would have made problems in both E&M and multivariable calculus a lot easier to solve. Oh, well.

But on to the meat of this post. Re: economics, it’s not strictly speaking true that I know nothing about it. Like most sciences, I’ve paid enough attention to get a general idea of what it’s about. I even took a semester of economics in high school, but it was taught by a brand new teacher who used to be a banker and for some reason felt the need to confide in us that he didn’t actually have a teaching certificate and we really shouldn’t tell anyone that. Oops.

On the whole, however, my knowledge of the dismal science is quite limited. But economics is a science, however sad and soft it may be. And I think this is an important fact that a lot of people seem to forget, which is where this post is coming from.

You see, I used to have very strong opinions about economics. (Those that know me in real life may wonder about the “used to” there, but I think it’s largely true.) I was raised in a leftish household and with that came mostly leftish politics and economics. My politics, however, took a turn toward the weird after a bit of philosophical revelation ten years ago. But my economics remained mostly leftish for a long time.

Recently, however, that’s begun to change. Now, this isn’t the story of me transforming into a commie-hating libertarian, or even someone who’s moderately right, or even someone who is staunchly in the middle. Rather, this is the story of me deciding that if I don’t actually know anything about economics, I shouldn’t have (strong) opinions about it.

As I said, economics is a science. And in science, there are two kinds of debates you can have: debates where the answer is already known but one side refuses to acknowledge it, and debates where an answer won’t be forthcoming until more data is collected.

For example, there is a “debate” about whether evolution is true. As far as science is concerned, this debate is quite settled and has been for a long time (up to a hundred and fifty years). Some believe the issue is not settled, but their belief is incorrect. That’s not to say their beliefs in general are wrong—just their beliefs about evolution.

And then there’s the second kind of debate, where we just don’t know enough yet. Take cosmology’s dark energy as an example. Dark energy is a proposed mechanism to explain the observed accelerating expansion of the universe, but cosmologists don’t yet know what dark energy really is. There are theories, but no solid evidence. A good cosmologist may prefer one theory over another, and argue its case, but a good cosmologist will also ultimately admit ignorance on the topic. More data is needed before the issue can be settled.

In both of these scenarios, the right answer is not decided upon by the voting public. In the case of evolution, a vote is inappropriate because one answer is obviously correct and the public may vote incorrectly. In the case of dark energy, it’s too early to hold a vote because the answer isn’t known yet. But in both cases, there’s not ever a situation in which the public should be voting on the issue because the public is not informed enough about the topic to make the correct choice (except by accident).

You see where I’m going with this. If economics is a real science that requires years of study to master, then economic questions are either settled (and should simply be policy) or not settled (and should be left to experts to study). Thus, when I vote, I don’t really do it based on economic policy. Philosophically speaking, there are issues that are more important to me, and about which I am more knowledgeable.

Some may see this as cowardice. I’m too wishy-washy to take a stance, too scared of being wrong. But I (surprise!) see it differently. I think one of the most important lessons of science is that it’s okay to say you don’t know, okay to profess ignorance. In the words of Newton, “Hypotheses non fingo.” You don’t have to invent explanations when you can’t see one. You don’t have to come to a conclusion before you have all the data.

In fact, I think admitting ignorance can be seen as a brave act. Belief is hard-wired in humans; it’s what we do naturally. We observe a phenomenon and we attribute a cause to it, no matter how tenuous the connection, because we’re scared of not knowing. Withholding judgment, however, is much harder, and takes care and concentration.

Some may see my lack of an opinion as irresponsible. While many sciences tend toward the academic and lack real-world consequences, economics is, by definition, something we cannot ignore. Resources are scarce and we have to do something about it. By refraining from taking a stance on economic issues, I refrain from solving the problem of allocating scarce resources.

But I think that perspective misses the point, which is that resources are scarce and that’s not going to change any time soon. There’s no solution within economics to the fact of scarcity, only solutions to dealing with it. As far as I’m concerned, the best solution is to eliminate the need for economics completely. With sufficiently advanced technology, we can have practically unlimited resources. We’re nowhere close to that, and in the long run it’s distinctly untrue, but it can be true within the lifetime of our species.

Again, we’ve stumbled on another reason why I’ve decided to study science. It may seem as if I’m a delusional believer in a techno-utopia… and I’m not going to deny that. Getting into why that’s the case would require another post, however, and I think this one is long enough as it is.

So in the meantime I think it’s best to leave economics to the economists and be okay with admitting ignorance.