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David Brooks on the Cultures of Economics

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There is no pleasure for the pundit quite like the neat, clear-edged dichotomy. I have felt these pleasures myself. But few columnists fall for it quite as regularly as The New York Times' David Brooks, for which it seems to provide a sense of order and clarity in a messy world always hurtling toward chaos. Today Brooks tackles a fascinating theme in economics: the notion of mechanical policies or solutions to what ails us. The irony here is that Brooks' dichotomy, which the Times headlines "Two Cultures" in a glib reference to C.P. Snow's now ancient (and glib) dichotomy between science and the humanities, is as clankingly mechanical as the mechanistic tendencies he claims as the province of dreaded liberal technocrats.

Brooks argues that liberals have a tendency to seek out mechanical answers to complex social and economic questions. "The economy is treated like a big machine; the people in it like rational, utility maximizing cogs. The performance of the economic machine can be predicted with quantitative macroeconomic models." He compares this with what he labels "conservatives," who worry about overspending and who get moralistic (though he uses as "moralistic" the fear of profligacy, which would seem to be as practical as it is moralistic, but no matter) and who appreciate psychological and cultural factors. He thus struggles to create this dichotomy that arrays science, predictability and rigor against uncertainty, complexity and realism.

Oh please. Brooks is absolute correct that this tension exists in economics, he's just laughably wrong about its alignment along a liberal-conservative axis. Mechanical solutions emanate from both the liberal and conservative camps, both in academia and policymaking. True, Democrats right now generally favor stimulus, and their economists will generate all kinds of quantitative evidence about why that's necessary. But Republican economists will do the same, albeit with mechanical solutions like reducing taxes; there's nothing more mechanical than supply-side economics with its simplistic Laffer curve famously first drawn on a napkin. The joke here is that many liberal economists pay fealty to John Maynard Keynes, the master of uncertainty, complexity and psychology -- and an economist conservatives have long loved to hate despite their adherence to certain "Keynesian" policies -- but really follow a different, more dogmatic god. For their part, conservatives have long tended to be attracted to their own favorite mechanical solutions -- the gold standard, monetary aggregates, the efficient market hypothesis -- that take decision-making from fallen mortals and hands it over to some larger, nonhuman process. Recently, we've seen a tendency of economists on the far left adopt a similar approach, if different mechanisms: a return to Glass-Steagall, say, or a break-up-the-banks policy.

What Brooks is referring to is the tendency of economists and (perhaps even more so) policymakers and politicians to see a science where no science exists, to see simplicity in complex systems, and to strip away what makes folks human, to populate their models with what he calls "robots." "They have amputated those things that can't be contained in models, like emotional contagions, cultural particularities and webs of relationships," he writes. This really is awe-inspiring in its selectivity. After all, the conservative free-market Chicago School, led by Milton Friedman, installed the less-than-human homo economicus with its utility-maximizing tendencies in the very heart of the discipline -- essentially defining all men as eternally seeking out their economic self-interest. This "model," with its supporting equations, nudged aside the more subjective, psychologically complex vision of Keynes. And give it credit: This model really took over both wings of economics, helped along by the powerfully self-promotional belief that it was a science, that it could accurately predict and that it was thus the single-most powerful tool in the policymaker's arsenal, left or right. Indeed, the reaction against homo economicus comes mostly from the liberal wing, though not exclusively, in the form of behavioral economics, which tries to smuggle in all the psychological complexity that was stripped out by neo-Keynesian liberals and free-market conservatives.

Perhaps Brooks has been swayed by the Tea Party, which distrusts any attempt at economic rigor, right or left, that doesn't jive with their own predilections. The fact is you don't have to believe that economics is a science not to accept it as an intellectual enterprise that can tell us quite a lot about how an economy operates. In fact, there's a vast amount of overlap shared by both liberals and conservatives that provides a place to start. Yes, there's more to economics than numbers. But even Brooks can't jam this particular insight into the Procrustean bed of a conventional political dichotomy.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal.