Economics writing I like

Political economics and possibilism

A 1971 essay by Albert Hirschman on the absence of politics in economists’ analysis:

Economists continue to identify scientific progress with the elimination of ‘exogenous’ forces from their constructs… Speculation about connections between economics and politics becomes much more profitable when one focuses not on the roughest outline, but on the finer features of the economic landscape. This can of course best be done by the economist who knows about them; the trouble is that his professional interests do not ordinarily lie in this direction. At the same time, the political scientist who has the motivation to look for such connections lacks the familiarity with economic concepts and relationships that is required. Hence the field is happily left to a few mavericks like myself.

Economics with a Moral Compass? Welfare Economics: Past, Present, and Future

A conversation between Amartya Sen, Angus Deaton, and Tim Besley. Video link here .

Deaton: “There was a lot of thriving discussion between economics and philosophy. Welfare economics seemed to have some chance of coming back, but if you look at where we are now, most economic departments—including top departments—have no teaching of welfare economics. That subject has just completely vanished. On the other hand, you’ve got practical philosophers who are doing economics without knowing any economics, which can be problematic—sometimes even a disaster. Economists have this sort of bastard idea of welfare economics, or of human well-being, which is not thought out at all. Are you disappointed in this? When you started out, it looked like there would be a different future. What happened, and what needs to be done now to get us back in a better place?”

Sen: “I think economists tend to ignore philosophy in general, but the idea of welfare in particular. I think the best article on that sad neglect is Tony Atkinson’s The Strange Disappearance of Welfare Economics.”

Deaton: “Pleading to bring it back. It’s one of the last pieces he wrote, and it bemoans the loss of any sort of philosophical sophistication. Most economists wouldn’t know what utilitarianism meant. Even elementary stuff has just vanished. Certainly he was bemoaning that.”

How should we measure racial discrimination?

An essay by Lily Hu on the pitfalls of causal inference tools for identifying discrimination:

“But the dominant methodology rests on logic that does not work. No amount of meticulous experimental set-up and statistical practice can rescue quantitative social scientists from needing to make assumptions that amount to substantive claims about what race as a social category is and consequently what racial discrimination as a distinctive moral and legal wrong is. Any distinction between “direct” and “indirect” causal effects of race is inherently ambiguous, unless it is accompanied by answers to such basic theoretical and normative questions. This error of ambiguity lies at the core of causal interpretations of racial discrimination. Causal methods naturalize the distinction between direct (and thus discriminatory) effects of race and indirect (and thus legitimate) effects of race, creating what looks like a successful way to bootstrap formal statistical or experimental methods into substantive moral and political judgments. Showing how these approaches perform this remarkable sleight of hand will allow us to better see when social scientific methods are—and are not—well-suited to answer our most urgent questions about injustice.”