Introducing Meta-economics

After thinking about it for a while, I’ve decided to create this blog as a place to discuss matters related to economics, its role in political decision-making, the nature of the discipline itself, and its status as a science.  A non-economist but a student of economics and, of course, a participant in the economy, I believe there is a fundamental scientific and intellectual crisis which has helped lead the world economy to its current impasse.

The discipline of economics is roundly criticized by almost everybody who consumes its products and also by many of its practitioners and its reputation, at least,  remains in a chronic state of crisis.  It claims to be a science, yet, like most social sciences, is in a continual process of trying to justify its “scientific-ness” by liberal and often gratuitous use of mathematics and obscure formalisms.  There is a diversity of schools of thought within economics, factions and individual economists that often come up with opposing or disparate conclusions about how to deal with the state of the world.  The financial crisis of 2008 was predicted by some economists but was not by others, who by their acquiescence or positive projections for continued growth of the housing and asset bubble may have helped spur on what became a monumental collapse.  We are currently facing diametrically opposed opinions about current calls for fiscal austerity as a broad diversity of opinions about the responses of governments in the fall of 2008 and in early 2009.  Sorting through the recommendations of economists requires one to learn as much about the discipline as one can because abrupt turns in outlook and contradictory recommendations can come from the same economist and most definitely from a random polling of these academics and professionals.

Despite its many, often publicly acknowledged, failings,  it is hard to get away from the reach of economics as well as its allied disciplines, business accounting and corporate finance.  Together these fields of study and endeavor, with the exception of a few areas of life, are the “master disciplines” of decision-making in our society as well as the intellectual basis for political and even cultural identity for many.    Economic policy or the policy preferences of politicians informed by their personal “brand” of economics determines what government programs get funding.  Economic policy in turn influences a myriad personal and business decisions through tax policy and, in times of economic crisis, economic crisis management.   Economic policy on national and local levels can determine the opportunities people have to realize long-held dreams as well as the state of the physical infrastructure upon which their livelihood depends.  Furthermore we are facing an enormous challenge in transforming our energy system away from dependence on carbon-based energy, with political and business decision-making in this area heavily influenced by economic assumptions and modeling.

This is a place to discuss the nature of economics as a discipline, where it fits in with other areas of life and how it can either be improved or replaced by something that will do its work better.  I am calling this site/blog “meta-economics” to include the epistemology (theory of knowledge) of economics as well as consideration of related disciplines like political science, psychology, philosophy, and relationships with natural science disciplines like physics and biology.  This is an ordinary usage of the prefix “meta” that usually refers to an inclusive abstraction greater than whatever is the word to which it is affixed.  The word “meta-economics” has been used before by, as far as I know, two other writers, but with a somewhat different meaning.  E.F. Schumacher, the advocate for “small is beautiful”, used the term meta-economics as what he prescribed for a humane economics that would support his “small is beautiful” vision.  Gary Lynne, professor of economics at the University of Nebraska, has used the term “Metaeconomics” to describe an economics that includes a consideration of ethical and communitarian concerns as well as narrowly self-interested motivation.

While I am sympathetic to Prof. Lynne’s vision, I am using the term to refer to a different concept that is less a recommendation for my particular vision for how I would like the economy to function.  Milton Friedman, to whose work I am generally not favorably inclined, however made a valuable distinction between “positive economics”, descriptions of what is actually happening or has happened in the economy and “normative economics”, what the writer thinks should happen in the economy according to some ideal.  Often economists, as will any person engaging in persuasive speech, will mix together these two perspectives in order to advance a vision.  I am intending meta-economics to be an inclusive framework that includes what I would prefer to call “descriptive” and “prescriptive” approaches but would attempt to make transparent where the subjective element of economics, either from the point of view of the writer/analyst or from the point of view of the people being written about, is being introduced. In any case, I hope that my “meta-economics” will not be viewed as simply the advancement of my own prescriptions or preferences for the economy but an effort to create a space where something like an economic science or at least a widely agreed-upon economic knowledge framework can emerge.  I do have my own prescriptions and preferences which I will at some point discuss but this is, I hope, not the only use or purpose for the writing on this site/blog.

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About Michael Hoexter
I'm a clean energy marketing and policy strategist and consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

One Response to Introducing Meta-economics

  1. Pingback: The Case for Meta-Economics Pt. 2: Kwak’s Commentary on Thaler « Meta-economics

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