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Economics and What? A Response to Rob Johnson.

Many economist’s only job is to model reality. This means that they must make certain assumptions to make their models practical. A model airplane that can fly and carry passengers ceases to be a model. Apparently, the modeling nature of economics is lost on one of its most senior practitioners, and critics. Rob Johnson, currently president of the “Institute for New Economic Thinking” and former Chief Economist for the Senate’s Banking Committee. In an article posted on May 14 to Yahoo! Finance, Mr. Johnson claimed that economics had become inhuman. Criticizing economic’s  ideal of objectivity, he claimed that “Without admitting it, or even worse, at times without even knowing it, economists make powerful value judgments about what matters in our society.”

Of course that much is true. Economists often must measure, quantitatively, things that may not be easily measured. And, predictably, they offer up a model to do this. I fail to see how we could expect more of them, given what we have asked them to do. But economics is useful precisely to the extent that it is inhuman. Rather that equivocate on the emotional and philosophical definition of value, economists allow us to compare things in terms everyone understands: money. Estimates of how much people value their own lives prove extremely useful in determining the usefulness of government spending on safety. But that it is an estimate must be emphasized. Economists do not professionally speculate on the “true” value of human life, that’s what all the other humanities are for.

So you can imagine my chagrin when Mr. Johnson shamelessly advertised his own brilliant reformation of the field: the New Economic Thinking’s “Economics and Theology” series, which he saved for the third to last paragraph. What could be more sensible, than to induce collaboration among have those who spend their lives measuring out evidence as precisely as they can, and making some of the most qualified and precise claims of any intellectuals, with those who persuade through fear and blatant appeals to the aptly sheeplike congregation. What could the ancient sophists possibly add to the discussion of economies? Will they propose adding eternal damnation as an opportunity cost for condoms? This is barely jest, for Mr. Johnson claims that “leading theologians… are used to thinking about life’s ultimate concerns.” Nonsense is far too kind a word, pernicious opportunistic pandering is closer to the mark. I hope Mr. Johnson’s series goes off swimmingly, and people talk of it for ages to come. I hope the theocrats catch of whiff of the standard of evidence to which the Queen of the Humanities holds itself.


Johnson, Rob. “Creating an Economics for the 21st Century” Yahoo! Finance. Retrieved 5/14/2013 http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/the-exchange/creating-economics-21st-century-223645471.html