Thursday, May 15, 2008

More on the differences between left and right economists

This time from GWU economist Richard Green:

I like economics a lot. Every time a new issue of The Quarterly Journal of Economics (my favorite journal right now--AER is a strong second)comes out, I am very excited.

Yet I am a liberal. I think incentives are important (I support Welfare Reform and School Choice), but I also think that all working people should be able to live at a reasonably decent living standard (so I also support a generous EITC and minimum wage), and that we as a society as a whole should provide all manner of social insurance, including Social Security and universal health care. I therefore find myself disappointed when smart people like Kenneth Rogoff and Anne Krueger support McCain's economic policies--particularly since I took a class in graduate school from Rogoff and had the same dissertation adviser as Krueger.

But while I learned a lot from Rogoff, it struck me when I was a student that there was a fundamental difference between us (beyond the fact that he is an order of magnitude smarter than I), a difference that hit home when he lectured on his political business cycle work. While I think economics helps give us powerful insights into how humans behave, I think he believes that economics by itself explains how humans behave. And while I think that random shocks (such as being born smart, or in the United States) are at least as important as individual effort in determining our fate in life, I think he believes the converse.

We as a society do want to encourage effort, because it leaves us all better off. But as the recent natural disasters in Burma, China, and, yes, New Orleans have shown, we never will have anything like complete control of our lives. Those of us who have gotten good draws should have some empathy for those that haven't.

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