Economics: The Psychologically Naïve Science

08/09/2012 10:31 am ET | Updated Oct 09, 2012

I admire Paul Krugman. I really do.

Having won the Nobel Prize in Economics, Krugman is not only a great economist, but he is a wonderful and witty writer. His many columns in The New York Times and books (for his latest, see, End This Depression Now, ISBN 978-0-393-08877-9) are a testimony to his ability to explain arcane topics in terms that the layperson can understand. To accept his ideas is another matter.

For instance, why do Republicans violently oppose any form of a government stimulus even though that's precisely what The Great Depression supposedly taught us in order to get the national economy working again? Yes to be sure, any stimulus big enough to do the job will in the short run add substantially to the deficit (even this is debatable), but in Krugman's pithy words, "The time to save water is not when your house is on fire." The time to pay down debt is when the economy is doing well, not when it's strapped.

Again, why the nasty and fierce opposition to such ideas? That they are somewhat counterintuitive is only part of the answer. The deeper answer lies outside of economics.
If the government can successfully attack the recession -- what Krugman rightly calls a "minor depression" -- then when the recession is over, government will be empowered to attack a host of never-ending societal problems. According to Republicans, this not only breeds greater dependency on government, but it eventually unleashes greater restrictions on business and hence on our "freedoms." Worst of all, it would cause billionaires to pay more in income tax for the "greater good of society." And this in turn means giving support to those who are viewed as "freeloaders and undeserving."

Consider another. Why do those at the very bottom rungs of society often oppose, again in the most violent terms, government health care? Because, if one accepts such aid, then one finally has to admit that one is indeed at the very bottom. And that is far too painful to do.

Irrational? Perhaps.

Notice that we have been steadily moving from the land of so-called "rational economics" into the lands of politics, psychology, and sociology.

Now Krugman is very good in acknowledging that the acceptance of his and the ideas of other leading economists is more often than not a matter of politics than it is of economics. Still, unfortunately like the great body of economists, Krugman is not good in acknowledging that, no matter what the field of human endeavor, all of our ideas rest on a foundation of deep psychological and sociological assumptions and predispositions.

This is precisely why I not only view economics as the "dismal science," but as one of the many "psychologically naïve sciences." This is also why in my many previous op-eds I have stressed in particular the role of psychoanalysis in helping us to understand political behavior. Yes, to its credit, economics has finally developed "behavioral economics." But, one, it took far too long to do it, and two, the type of psychology that behavioral economics sweeps in is still not deep enough to account for the seemingly irrational complexities of human behavior.

I don't know how to get the very poor and the very rich to change their attitudes and behavior. But, one thing I do know: If we Liberals and Progressives want all of us to change, then we'll have to learn to tell more compelling stories that appeal to our hearts and emotions, not just our brains.

Ian I. Mitroff is a crisis expert and social philosopher. He is an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. His most recent book is Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes, Stanford, 2011. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book with Murat Alpaslan, A Prefect Mess: Why Everything Is A Mess And How To Cope With It, University of Pennsylvania Press. His PhD is in Engineering Science and the Philosophy of Social Systems Science from UC Berkeley.