Economics as Begging the Question

I mean “begging the question” in the original sense, of constructing a complex but ultimately circular argument that depends on the result you intend to to prove, not the unfortunate sense that it inevitably developed in casual speech of “begging for, or raising another question”.

I think great swaths of economics are based on question-begging. In pursuing the blogospheric take on Tierney vs. Holdren, I came across this amazing essay by Dave Roth on a blog called Geryon: Obama’s science advisor and the theory of sustainability. (See also follow-up articles Response on Holdren and Tierney and The Holdren Pick on the same blog, the latter by co-author “Bosie”.)

For a more defensible quote, consider this from the latter:

I did not intend to question the ability of Holdren to be a useful and competent science adviser. I know nothing about his views other than in the Erhlich-Simon wager, so perhaps it is unfair to judge him on the basis of this incident.

Note, however, that Holdren can continue to maintain something (that we can run out of natural resources like oil) that is provably wrong on economics but that this does not make people question his fitness as a science adviser, while Larry Summers statements on genetics and intelligence (which may be wrong but are not universally agreed to be wrong) disqualified him in the eyes of many from being an economics adviser. I find this double standard interesting.

Now this sounds reasonable at first blush. I don’t propose to open the Summers can of worms here, but it is interesting that the claim is not just that “we are running out of oil” is taken as false nor even that the claim “we CAN run out of oil” is taken to be false, but that it is taken to be provably false ON ECONOMIC GROUNDS.

This is perfectly silly, isn’t it? Whether there is or isn’t an essentially infinite supply of a consumable resource is not a question that can be settled by economics, any more than the orbit of Jupiter can be settled by a plant taxonomist. If there is a result in economics (to the exclusion of geology) that shows that “it is impossible to run out of oil”, that result is false, and must be based on false reasoning or false assumptions.

Now let’s go back to the original article:

Now, of course, I might disagree with (to take just one example) the psychologist’s conclusions about what we should do in response to the agreed-upon fact that x percentage of child abusers were abused themselves. That is to say that it is generally considered acceptable for me to disagree with an expert on the ultimate implications of basic facts and theories in the sciences (such as, e.g., the best policy for preventing child abuse), but it is not considered acceptable (i.e., worthy of an educated, intelligent person) to disagree with them on what the basic facts and theories are.

When a biologist explains the theory of evolution, provides evidence for the theory, and then shows that the whole framework of biology is based on this theory, only a deeply unscientific person would dispute it. We might still fairly dispute whether this theory means that there is no god (for example) — so we could disagree on secondary matters — but on the primary matter itself there is no real tolerance for disagreement (and there shouldn’t be either).

And this rule holds for basically every hard and soft science I can think of except for one, and that one is economics. For some reason, it is considered completely acceptable for intelligent, educated people not only to disagree with economists on the secondary matters (i.e., the ultimate implications of economic theory and facts) but also on primary matters (i.e., on the facts and basic theory themselves).

People can, and do, routinely claim things like “trade makes everyone worse off,” “the earth will run out of natural resources,” “the rise of China and India will be bad for US standard of living,” and “the global prosperity of today is not sustainable.” All of these things are not only proven wrong by economic theory, but they are demonstrably wrong and can be shown to be demonstrably wrong with all sorts of empirical evidence. But for some reason, it’s entirely legitimate to ignore or disbelieve the most basic tenets of economics in a way that is not permissible in any other field.

Well, I don’t think that’s true at all. Climatology, for one, is constantly questioned as we can attest around here easily enough. Evolutionary biology is constantly called into question by fundamentalists. Even branches of pure physics are sometimes questioned for being unfalsifiable and fanciful. The claim that it should be otherwise
(“there is no real tolerance for disagreement (and there shouldn’t be either)”) is made without justification, and shows a real lack of understanding of human intellectual history. Disciplines really do go off the rails; disciplines really ought to be prepared to defend themselves.

If someone makes the claim that a theory of human resource allocation decisions is sufficient to prove the claim that physical reservoirs of a consumable resource are inexhaustible, they are making a remarkably extravagant, to my ears bizarre claim. I don’t believe them that this is “proven” by economics, and what is more, if it turns out that most economists believe such a thing, it reflects very badly on the credibility of the field as a whole.

The whole Tierney/Holdren thing is great in that it brings the question of the relative credibility of economics vs climatology into focus. I think it’s a very good idea to keep this question in people’s minds.

Roth’s position is easy and at first blush consistent: “trust all experts”. However, I will have no difficulty finding experts on oil recovery who believe that we are closing in on depletion of practically recoverable oil. This contradicts Roth’s claimed economics-based expertise, and thus resolves nothing. We have to determine whose “expertise” actually corresponds to reality.

Interestingly, one can make an economist-style argument by noting that oil companies hire many more seismologists and geologists than they do economists…