Utah State University Koch Scholars Blog

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Utah State University Koch Scholars Blog

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Log into Canvas for this week’s prompt and other resources on this week’s readings. The schedule on the left is current for spring semester 2013, I am looking forward to our first session!

Amoral Economics

In his section “Can Homo Economicus be Christian?”  There is an interesting statement on the study of economics and how it relates to the human condition.  Mr. Heyne says, “It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth.”   This seems to highlight the larger issue of science vs. emotion that is present in human lives but particularly powerful in economics.  While scientifically something may be true, that does not mean either humans like it, or they feel that it is right.  This is very evidenced in our discussions on Wednesday evenings.

For example I will choose myself.  Many times at our evening discussions I have been emotional on a subject, particularly the environment.  One evening as discussing things; Dr. Simmons brought up facts about things like recycling and water treatment that did not fit my emotional understanding and desire to protect the environment.  Though his facts were scientific they were inconvenient to my argument which I felt morally responsible for defending.  Therefore I disregarded them.

I think this semester has been wonderful in its attempts to remove previous emotions from our analysis in economics.  Koch scholars has attempted to help us make logical arguments about economics and has suggested that when economics is logical it will encourage limited government control over the free-market economy.  Removing emotion at times, especially when discussing health care and immigration, seems wrong.  Fortunately the author answers the reason for doing so.  He says, “Not that any political economist was ever so absurd to suppose that mankind are really thus constituted, but because this is the mode to which science must necessarily proceed.”    While I still am not convinced about economics as a science ( 🙂 ). I do believe that to move forward with economics we must be willing to put our emotions on hold and evaluate only the causes and effects of economic policies.  In doing so we may appear to be slightly amoral but in the scientific realm that is necessary for advancement.

It’s been a glorious semester

Wow, first, I must acknowledge the journey we’ve all taken this semester. What an amazing opportunity it has been to be able to discuss important ideas  and test the limits of my own knowledge with you all.

My prejudice toward economic thought pre-Koch Scholars was colored by a lack of any previous experiences reading or thinking about economics, and if I was asked to re-treat my views on some of the basic economic theories and ideas we examined this semester, I would say this: Economics (generally speaking) is a tool, a lens through which to view the world and human interaction. There are many of these such lenses: politics, sociology and psychology, for example. Like all lenses, economics is certain to have flaws. I do not acknowledge any “ruling paradigm”. Neither politics nor economics is superior, or free of shortcomings. My ability to recognize intellectual paradigms for what they are, what they are not,  and in which contexts they are most useful has changed the most as a result of my time in Koch Scholars, and for that I am truly grateful.

Are Economists Basically Immoral?

I like something Heyne said early on in the book: “’In principle’ (that strange phrase economists invoke when they do not know how to do what they nonetheless believe can somehow be done.” This one sentence seems to encompass my entire view on economics now at the end of the semester. Honestly, it sums up my world views in general. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m something of a pessimist. I know things go on in the world, and I’m sure there are ways to change them, but I also know that there’s nothing I’m going to do about them and no one else ever gets the job done completely “right” either. “In principle” economists can forgo their personal emotions and look on situations amorally, but that is not the way humans work. We’re all individuals, and every single choice we make will affect infinitely many other people. Sometimes that thought scares me a bit since it puts more weight on my hasty, immature decisions. Then I remember how many other people there are in the world, and how they are also making plenty of their own decisions every day. So I’ve decided that while it’s all great fun analyzing and criticizing governance and economics, it doesn’t mean anything in the end. I feel like I’ve become a better thinker, and maybe that’s the most desirable outcome in the end because I have no intentions of becoming politically involved. Ever. I just enjoy thinking about what could be and wondering how it could be done while assuming it will never happen.

Are Economists Basically Immortal?

This whole semester I’ve looked at the spine of this book thinking it read, “Are Economists Basically Immortal?”, which is wrong I’ve learned, but added to more thought that I’ll add in a second. The main thing that I’ve learned from this reading and from Koch Scholars as a whole is that as Paul Heyne puts it in his Smithian section, “no one is in control.” (pg. 96) We go about our days doing things that satisfy our own needs and make choices based on that. The government does the same self serving actions, but they have no more control over the market than the average consumer. They can try to control it, but the economy is so much more complex than a car to steer. If it were something that could be restrained or collaborated to meet individual needs, that would have happened ages ago. Before Koch Scholars I was under the impression the economy was able to be fixed by the government. “All we need is more legislation on bad things,” I thought; but now I’m beginning to understand it better. No amount of parentalism will do much good. There will always be a need for objective economists like Paul Heyne who see through the heated, emotional debates and fallacies to “get the point”. As Chris Fawson explained at the beginning, economics is a study of human interaction, which is a field that continues as long as there are humans. And as other books have illustrated we have no reason to think that mankind won’t exist for a long time. The Christians and the Jews will continue their loan and trade disputes and government will be in a balance with free market for a very long time. As we’ve integrated historical references, from the Bible to other records, those economic principles can be seen throughout the ages. Are economists immoral? I’d say definitely not, though the immortal thing may have some potential.

The Two-Sided Coin

I will admit that I struggled with the assertion on page 33 that “responsible, ethical behavior will often require an exclusive preoccupation with the technical task at hand.” In other terms, he asserts that it is out of self-interest rather than selfishness “to ignore completely, not even to think about, the welfare of others” (33). Steven R. Covey in his famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People emphasizes the value and importance of interdependence over independence. While Paul Heyne appears to believe that complete self-interest is of greater economic value than a “daydreaming” obsession with the welfare of others, I would venture to suggest that an even greater, transcendent standard of living exists. While the “narrow pursuit of private purposes” may have “no necessary connection with greed, materialism, or a lack of concern for others” (p. 31), pure self-interest may not produce results to the contrary either.

In the prisoner’s dilemma, we learn that acting for the benefit of others often yields the consequence we desire for ourselves, while the reverse approach may produce unwanted results. Paul Heyne asserts, “Every sensible economist knows that the wants of individuals are the product of socialization and that people’s socialization sometimes serves them badly” (p. 26). Perhaps part of this “socialization” yields ignorance that there is something beyond the rewards self-interest.

While these philosophies may sound appealing, I will admit that their application is quite an arduous challenge. To paraphrase Amy’s point from earlier in the semester, “What’s the use of all these attractive economic theories if we are unable to implement them in society?” I suppose the greatest lesson I have learned through Koch Scholars is that economics is a two-sided coin –both the theoretical education and practical implementation is necessary in order to be effective.

Are Economists Basically Immoral?

I like the idea of separating dogma, emotional ties, and ideologies from that of economics.  But I don’t think it’s as simple as that.  It’s too intertwined and I am skeptical that people will embrace rationality and logic, because to those clinging to their ideologies are convinced they are behaving rationally and logically.  I like Heyne’s quote on 105 on how he’d like economy to be understood: “…’the economy’ is the concept (!) of a social system tied together by the processes of supply and demand…”  I appreciate the simplicity and practicality of understanding the economy that way.  But we’re human; we’re passionate, dumb, and illogical.  We’re going to make some pretty outrageous decisions which will give future economists, scientists, and sociologists a hell of a time trying to figure it out.  While I don’t think it’s possible to fully rid ourselves of our moral convictions, I do agree with Heyne that it’s worth a shot.

I appreciate the understanding that not everyone is the same.  There are no perfect anecdotes, remedies, or solutions and economists recognize that.  My crash course into economics through Koch Scholars has certainly highlighted a few things 1st, I know nothing and 2nd it’s gonna be okay, we’ve got some pretty intellectual people out there.  As long as we keep seeking out truths: market or moral, I think we’re in a pretty good place to move forward.

Are Economists Basically Immoral?

My undergraduate thesis advisor gave one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received over the last three and a half years of college towards the end of my sophomore year. I was trying to focus my broad interests into a workable thesis subject and struggling to articulate the majority of my thoughts. I had developed the nasty habit of waving my tied tongue off by saying, “I know what I mean, I just can’t say it.” The first time that I tried to pass off my incoherence on Dr. Davies using that line, he responded, “If you can’t say what you mean, then you don’t really know what you think.” That tidbit has been rattling around in my brain for a long time now, and I think that, out of all the advice people have bestowed upon me over the years that one has helped me the most. Now, instead of waving off confusion, I try to analyze it. Why do I believe what I believe? What body of evidence do I have? What type of logic am I using? How can I share these beliefs in a meaningful way?

I still have a long way to go, and I doubt that I’ll ever reach the “end.” We will probably never come up with answers to all our questions, but if we work hard enough, we can try to find answers to the ones that matter the most. This is why scholarly pursuits have become such an important facet of my life: skepticism, self-awareness, and the ability to analyze information are key components to finding solutions and answering questions to tough problems. Koch Scholars has been key in setting a foundation for these skills. I definitely came into this program with preconceived notions about certain ideologies and, though I probably will never be a fully-fledged libertarian or anarcho-capitalist, have come away with a new outlook. For one, I have a greater patience to listen to new ideas—I once read that educated minds should be able to consider different viewpoints without necessarily accepting them. This is key for my intellectual ventures because, even if I don’t agree with what is being said, the ability to analyze perspectives gives breadth and depth to my own knowledge and re-establishes my reasons for why I believe what I believe. I can then go forth and share my ideas and solutions with people all over the world. I want the ability to be an analytical communicator to be a hallmark of whatever contributions I make to society. And this foundation is better than just taking away mere economic thinking, discourses, theories, and essays—the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

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