Popularity Does Not Equal Superiority


Economist Justin Wolfers wrote a short piece last Friday that used database searches to demonstrate the well-known idea that economics is the most dominant social science around. Using two databases that allowed him to examine how often the names of social science disciplines were mentioned in the New York Times and in congressional records, he found that economics was pretty easily the one cited most often. The article included an interesting chart that plotted the rise to glory of economics after The Great Depression, and even showed how interest in the study of economics seems to wane in times of low unemployment.

Although the smug use of the word “fortunately” before stating that the popularity of economics bounced back due to the 2008 global recession struck a bit of a nerve with me, that is not why I am writing this. Instead, my issue is the fact that Wolfers barely tried to explain why economics has become the main mouthpiece for the social sciences over the past century. Outside of basic supply and demand and using one sociologist’s opinion on why nobody gives a damn about his area of study, Wolfers’ explanation seemed to barely scratch the surface of the question. Additionally, the tone of the article painted this development of turning strictly to economics as a positive, taking popularity to be a sign of superiority. But, if we really think about it, is this development a good one? Are we really better off using what is essentially an economics-only perspective to shape our society and guide our daily lives? And, of course, just how did we get here?

I have a few ideas.

First, is employing something like a cost-benefit analysis to every aspect of our life always the right choice? Another recent article that came out on the same day shares a lot of the same concerns that I have in this matter. Allowing “rational” (I’m using parentheses because I should really be using the term “pseudo-rational”) economic, market-based thoughts to control our decisions in areas like dating, health care, education, etc. can cause us to put cost-effectiveness above our humanity. Take health care as an example from the second linked article:

“In February, a major healthcare institute hit the headlines with the suggestion that statins (anti-cholesterol drugs) should be prescribed to the majority of men over 50 and women over 60, on the grounds that it is more cost-effective to flood the nation with drugs than deal with a tsunami of heart-related health care issues. This may be true but it obscures some more pressing questions: should we eat less, eat better, spend more time out of the office, and be subjected to less stress? Is there something fundamentally wrong with the organization of our society of which heart disease is just a side-effect?”

Does that sound like a society that we really want to live in? One that has us prescribe drugs rather than make healthy lifestyle changes to improve the overall quality of life for everyone?

Or how about education? This has always been a pet peeve of mine. More and more we are flooded with the idea of getting the biggest bang for our buck when it comes to what we study in college. There are a ridiculous number of articles out there that rank the best majors to study based on their future earning potential. Students in this case become consumers, the university essentially becomes a shopping mall, and the commodity being sold is an education. And once students become convinced they are a consumer, when they have large amounts of money on the line, they believe they need to make the more “rational”, cost-effective choice — not necessarily the one that will make them happy — in order to survive. And — ignoring for the moment the argument that I would make, that education should be a universal right and not an economic privilege — is a system that uses monetary pressure to coerce students (i.e. outrageous tuition costs paired with gigantic student loan debt) into picking a major that will hopefully make them more money, rather than picking one that will actually make them happy, a good one?

This type of hyper-economic thinking has seeped into every portion of our lives, despite appearing to have quite a few negatives attached to it. So why has it become so popular?

Some economists would like to attribute this to the superior analysis and tools that their profession can offer up in any litany of situations. That’s of course the easy answer to fall back on. I would imagine that most social scientists think their field of study offers the best frame of reference through which to view the world. And because of their huge platform, I would also imagine that is why I seem to come across more articles from economists thinking this is the case. Even so, just because something is popular, that does not make it superior. It just means that a lot of people tend to hold those beliefs.

So, again, how did so many people come to hold these beliefs?

Well, you would think a pretty obvious answer to that question is that economic thinking is what has been engrained in our society. These economic thoughts have not been limited to just the economic realm, but they have made their way into our everyday lingo and thought processes, especially since the development of neoliberal capitalism in the late 1970s. The current system puts the market at the center of life. Rather than having markets serve as one of the many things that people participate in on the side, under capitalism, markets are now at the center of everything we do. Success, under this system, is defined in terms of dollars. Personal attainment is measured by salary, societal prosperity is measured by the number of goods produced, and decisions are made by looking at the return on investment that will come from them. We are often told to “sell ourselves” when go to interview for a job, and we even refer to the amount of friends one has, as “social capital.” Money and profit is not the ultimate decider of happiness, but this is the myth we are taught as children and it is what is reinforced when we are adults and go to work on a daily basis. When you hear it all your life, it can be hard to train yourself to think differently.

Because we are taught to view the world in terms of costs and benefits, return on investment, and simply learn to talk about the world in market-based terms, it should not come as a surprise that economics is the dominant voice of the social sciences. This is what people have learned, so it should not be hard to imagine that more people gravitate to that type of view on any issue, whether that is actual economic policy or choosing a life partner. This is what people know, and when someone writes or advocates for an economic perspective in relation to a particular issue, it makes sense to people.

And why is economics — particularly the current orthodox, neoliberal, brand of economics — so popular with politicians in the United States (and Western Europe)? That’s because this brand of economics is strictly “rational”, and refuses to allow politicians to see their citizens as human beings. Instead, they are just data points. It allows the government to forget about humanity, and allows them to focus on profit motives. Even if politicians wanted to see their citizens as human beings, the current system would not allow them to do so; at least not for long. The instant a politician started putting human happiness and quality of life over cost effectiveness they would lose all their corporate campaign donors. Politicians represent corporate interests much more than they represent those of the everyday citizen because business has the money, and that is what rules this particular brand of societal organization.

So, yet again, I ask: is this really what we want? I am not advocating for the elimination of the economic discipline. Instead, I’m advocating for a more inclusive social science; one that doesn’t view the world through such a narrow frame of reference. Just about anything in this world can become a net negative if taken to such an extreme and economics is no different. So if you find yourself thinking strictly in terms of cost-effectiveness, try looking at the world in a different light. You may be amazed to realize that human beings aren’t robots, but are extremely intricate beings. The human brain may be a super computer, but it also allows us to feel complex emotions that don’t always fit into that “rational” paradigm. And by trying to squeeze everything into that paradigm, we miss out on understanding so much of the beauty (and, of course, the suffering) that is life.


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