Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Case for Studying Basic Economics

The Case for Studying Basic Economics

By Dr. Bernard James Mauser, Ph.D.

There are obvious difficulties in encouraging others to study economics. I’ve had many students share a common lament: “I just can’t understand all the economic complexities and quickly lose track of what everyone is talking about when they throw around different numbers.” This reminds me of something that Benjamin Disraeli once said, “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” It goes without saying that the numbers encountered in trying to ascertain the health of our economy can be easily manipulated. For example, some may have missed the news stories over the summer that told of how the national debt was inexplicably frozen at a little under 17 trillion for 70 days (the exact number was $16,699,396,000,000.00). We also hear news of the numbers games the feds play by manipulating what it releases as the GDP (gross domestic product). The most recent figure only comes from including intangible items and costs (like royalties) that no country has ever counted. This kind of clear chicanery compounds the reasons many give for thinking the principles of economics are nothing but advanced mathematics, statistics, and correlative charts. The Fed’s current program of Quantitative Easing- given to stabilize the market and ease the worries of investors- is understood by only about a quarter of those polled. How can it ease the worry of people who have no idea of what it is? We may hear competing accounts of the causes of financial booms and busts. Again, the numbers involved, steps to take, intricacies of what is involved, and implications of what is to come seem unfathomable for the average person.

Let us remove this primary barrier. There is a significant problem with thinking of economics in simply mathematical terms. The glaring deficiency is that mathematics can only reveal a small portion of reality. That is to say, not everything is mathematically analyzable. Take, for instance, my last statement about economics (namely, that not everything is mathematically analyzable). There is no mathematical analysis that can be done to discover its truth. In a recent article, Christopher Westley corroborates the testimony of many scholars that recognize that “Science is more than mathematics.”[i] The same type of thinking applies to economics. It doesn’t mean that mathematics cannot play any role in making predictions. But, what it does mean is that there are non-mathematical aspects of economics that can be understood. Some may even argue that it is really these non-mathematical concepts that are primarily important in economics. These may lead us in a ‘common sense’ approach to analyze what is occurring in our society. Indeed, the inability to mathematically determine free-will reveals a glaring deficiency in a purely mathematical approach. Where does this ‘common sense’ reasoning come in to play in the real world of economics?

We must all realize that we have a view of the economy- whether simple or complex. We have opinions about what to do with our money, whether to invest it, how to best invest it, and even an opinion on who would be best at investing it. Before the 1900s there were no ‘professional’ economists. This is a recent innovation.  Perhaps it may encourage us to return to studying basic economics if we realize this.

It is pretty non-controversial to say that our knowledge of economics can impact our lives and the lives of those around us. As many of us have contrary ideas as to which policies are best we can be assured that not all of us are good economic theorists.  Some ideas people believe are true and some are not. How can we discover the basics that will help us discover which approach to economics has 1) the greatest explanatory power, 2) is best for society, and 3) most accurate predictive ability?

For those that have allowed math to hinder them, let me assure you that the basics of economics (and the approach that satisfactorily meets the three criteria) can be easily understood and applied. The most general principle to learn about what a good economist should examine is best summarized by Henry Hazlitt in his work, Economics in One Lesson: “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”[ii]  The majority of problems that occur from having a mistaken economic approach stem from two erroneous ways of thinking about the effects of certain policies. The first error is to only look at immediate consequences; the second is to only look at how a particular group is affected. The aspects ignored in these two errors are long-term consequences and how the entire society is affected by a certain policy. 

Many professional economists- even those in key positions in our government- are guilty of ignoring long-term consequences. Why have those that are professionals developed this bad habit of ignoring the long-term consequences? The primary reason is that they follow the approach of John Maynard Keynes- the father of what is called the Keynesian school of economics. Keynes is famous for having written, “In the long run we are all dead.”[iii] He wrote this to encourage government intervention as a way to fix economic problems versus letting the free-market work itself out over time. It is no wonder those in this tradition are less concerned with the long run.   

Be encouraged that the average person can understand the principles used to make current government policy. These are not mathematical principles, but are philosophical. Some may think this to be an equally horrifying prospect (as if I’ve encouraged them to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire). Keep in mind that referring to the principles as ‘philosophical’ need not mean complex or impossible to understand. The philosophical principles already mentioned- which identify the difference between a good and bad economist-  illustrate that an idea does not have to be impossible to understand to be called philosophical.

Every individual should know basic economics for a very simple reason: economic policies are morally significant.  A little-known fact is that economics until recently in world history was traditionally a discipline that fell into the subcategory of ethics. Adam Smith, who authored of The Wealth of the Nations and is the oft-cited ‘Father of Capitalism’, was a student of moral philosophy under ethicist Francis Hutcheson. His work and that of early economic theorists was seen as a category of moral philosophy. Recognize the significant implications of viewing economics this way. If economic policy is tied to morality, then an individual’s economic approach is morally good or bad. As people that should be concerned with promoting what is good and discouraging what is evil, we should be prepared to evaluate policies and its effects on all the people in a society.

One can, therefore, make a moral case for the superiority of one approach versus another. The ultimate foundation for economics ends up being something beyond economics. It is morality- not math- that determines whether a policy is good or not. For example, the policy that benefits the majority or a special group and punishes the rest is unjust. One can easily recognize that calling a policy unjust is a moral judgment. All people should care about the most important aspect of economics, namely, the long-term effects of policies upon everyone, as it has a moral component. An individual is essentially preparing to make a moral case for one approach versus another in undertaking a study of economics. If we don’t educate ourselves, who will be there to defend our uneducated brethren?

[i] Christopher Westley, “Science is More than Mathematics,” Mises Daily, September 16, 2013.
[ii] Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946): 5.
[iii] John Maynard Keynes, "The Theory of Money and the Foreign Exchanges". A Tract on Monetary Reform. (1924).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Constitution Day and the Second Amendment

 Constitution Day and the Second Amendment

By Dr. Bernard James Mauser, Ph.D.

Today marks the anniversary of Constitution Day in America. One may ask, why have a particular day set aside for the Constitution? There are many ways to answer such a question. Those reasons most relevant to current events hinge on the importance of restoring the rights of the people listed in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers of the U.S. recognized the dangers that a tyrannical government with ever expanding powers posed to individual citizens. For this reason, the Constitution should not only be viewed as explaining the things the federal government is allowed to do, it also informs the citizens of the rights it has that the federal government is not permitted to take away.

Today is not only Constitution Day. It is also the day after a psychotic naval contractor opened fire in a U.S. Naval yard killing 12 and wounding 14. This individual had a long history of mental illness and according to some reports was taking anti-psychotics. There are many grieving the loss of loved ones, including those in the family of the alleged gunman. We are right to mourn with those who mourn.

Let us step back for a second and evaluate how this tragedy will be politicized. There are already some in Congress that are using this event as an excuse for calling for more gun-control legislation. Essentially what this legislation is intended to do is to keep those in America safer. Regardless of where a person falls into the debate about whether or not the proposed legislation does what it is intended to do, there is a major barrier that those in Congress may have to work around (although we can recognize that some simply ignore it). This barrier is… you guessed it- the Constitution!

So, on this Constitution Day, let us review what the Founding Fathers had to say about Americans and their right to bear arms. The text of the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This Amendment is what pro-gun groups constantly try to bring to the forefront in debates with Congress about a person’s gun rights. There is rightly a concern of some trying to alter the public perception of this Amendment by altering the words in textbooks (indeed this very week there were news stories exposing some AP History Books for rewriting the Second Amendment). This perceived barrier between some in the federal government’s desire to take away the firearms of U.S. citizens is not where pro-gun groups should take their stand.

The basis for the Second Amendment goes much deeper than mere Constitutionality. If one concludes that a law is necessarily right or wrong simply because the Constitution says it, then one would not be justified in opposing immoral laws. This is not to say that those in government should not follow the Constitution. On the contrary, we should change immoral laws if they are found in the Constitution. The Constitution is not the ultimate authority for discovering whether or not something is moral. Thus, those that support the Second Amendment should do so on the basis of the moral law supporting it and not simply on the basis of the Constitutionality of it.

There is a long tradition in English common law that established self-defense as a foundational right. As the most effective means of self-defense is a firearm, it would be recognized that the Second Amendment is simply expressing what everyone knew. Consider also the words of a few political philosophers that influenced the Founders. John Locke in “Two Treatises of Government” (1689) writes, “Self-defense is part of the law of nature, nor can it be denied the community, even against the king himself.” Baron de Montesquieu in “The Spirit of the Laws” (1748), “Who does not see that self-defense is a duty superior to every precept?” Sir William Blackstone in his “Commentaries on the Laws of England” (1765) wrote, “Self defense is justly called the primary law of nature, so it is not, neither can it be in fact, taken away by the laws of society.”

Thus, the natural moral law under-girding the Constitution and its provisions should be recognized as the primary way to defend those aspects that are seen as good- including the Second Amendment- and we should not resort to thinking something is necessarily good just because it is Constitutional. Let us be aware that we want everything good to also be Constitutional, and not make the mistake of thinking that everything that is Constitutional is necessarily good.