Monday, June 28, 2010

Is economics a science?

I avoid politics on this blog -- and I'm glad you do too -- not because I don't have political persuasions, but because our public political discourse is quite contentious enough without my adding to it. One of the lovely things about science is that it is all about achieving consensus. There is no right or left science, no red-state/blue-state science. If there is dissension, we devise a crucial experiment that will distinguish between the two theories.

So I will not mention that I have been reading Naomi Klein's explosive critique of global economics, The Shock Doctrine. What I know about economics I could write on the back of a postage stamp, but I know greed when I see it, and whatever the merits of her arguments, greed is on full display.

Economists like to claim that theirs is a scientific discipline, but there is nothing like consensus in Klein's book, and therefore nothing I would recognize as science. There is a huge divergence of principles and applications between the mixed-economy regulators -- who want all boats to rise together -- and the freemarket fundamentalists -- who are happy in a world with a few megayachts and billions of leaky skiffs. For the life of me I can't think of a crucial experiment that would validate one theory or the other, because the criteria of success are so wholly incommensurate.

Some of us have megayachts and some have leaky skiffs, but we all have pretty much the same DNA. Klein's book makes depressing reading, which is why I am reading at the same time Richard Fortey's The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum: Dry Store Room No. 1, an account of what goes on behind the scenes of Natural History Museum in London. Rocks and bugs and dinosaur bones, and the tedious teasing out of consensus. Nobody catapulted to extravagant wealth, nobody left eking a living from dust and table scraps. No shock and awe. No Green Zones and Red Zones. No gated communities and disposable poor. Just men and women motivated more by curiosity than greed, grateful to have a comfortable standard of life, and perhaps feeling a little bit guilty that they have considerably more than most.

More tomorrow on Mr. Fortey.