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What Could Replace the Economic Style?


Frank Pasquale (@FrankPasquale) is Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, and author of New Laws of Robotics (2020) and The Black Box Society (2015).

This post is part of a symposium on Beth Popp Berman’s Thinking Like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in U.S. Public PolicyRead the rests of the posts here.


In Thinking Like an Economist, sociologist Elizabeth Popp Berman examines an “economic style” of reasoning that has become dominant in certain areas of policy analysis and evaluation (including cost-benefit analysis performed by OIRA, scoring by CBO, and the consumer welfare standard in antitrust). Why, one might wonder, build a book around a diagnosis and critique of an economic style? Why not just call these patterns of policy evaluation “economics,” or “economic”?

One reason is that there are many schools within economics—consider recent debates between “freshwater” and “saltwater” macroeconomists. There are diverse specialized fields of study, including health economics, environmental economics, development economics, and labor economics. Even for those who believe in “one economics,” there are “many recipes” for addressing practical problems (as Dani Rodrik has argued). So a keen observer of economic reasoning in a given area, like governmental decision-making in the case of Thinking Like an Economist, is wise to observe that a particular economic style (here, “a distinctive, microeconomic style of reasoning”) may develop in that milieu, reflecting only some facets of the larger field.

The question then becomes: why call this a “style,” as opposed to a method, theory, approach, or heuristic? Drawing on Ian Hacking’s philosophy of social science, Berman explains that “styles of reasoning are not scientific paradigms, nor are they particular theories or models. Instead, they are collections of orienting concepts, ways of thinking about problems, causal assumptions, and approaches to methodology.” There are Wittengsteinian “family resemblances” among the cost benefit analyses, consumer welfare measures, and budget scoring mentioned above, but no strict adherence to particular theories of value, valuation, or human flourishing. Flexibility and pragmatic bricolage rule. One need not be cognizant of the whole of economics, or its cutting edge, to reason in an economic style. As she observes, “Alain Enthoven, one of Robert McNamara’s whiz kids, wrote in 1963—and others have reaffirmed—[that] ‘the tools of analysis that we use [in policymaking] are the simplest, most fundamental concepts of economic theory [that] most of us learned as sophomores.’”

Like Gregoire Chamayou in The Ungovernable Society, Berman has a great eye for such simultaneously bold (“fundamental concepts”) and self-undermining (“learned as sophomores”) artifacts of the economic style. Our troubling reality is that the simple supply and demand curves and received ideas about minimum wage laws that today’s policymakers learned in, say, an Econ 101 or Ec 10 in the 1990s, may be guiding the highest levels of policymaking in various agencies and Congressional offices today. Meanwhile, those of us in APPEAL and LPE are trying to ensure that today’s law students have some awareness of the complexity and diversity of perspectives in economics itself, and in social science research on commercial life generally. But it will take some time for us to have impact—thus the importance of better understanding the prevalent economic style in U.S. policymaking.

As described by Berman, the economic style prioritizes efficiency (often interpreted as wealth or GDP maximization), competition, and choice over equality, community, racial justice, inclusion of the disabled, worker rights, and many other values. In pursuit of an all-purpose maximand, efficiency may even be construed as an overarching virtue subsuming competition and choice. Efficiency may then be treated as a goal that all in a polity can endorse, with policy aiming to generate general purpose resources like money or GDP that can be utilized to advance any other aim.

Such concern for efficiency uber alles could have anticipated the “currency of egalitarian justice” debate by forcing us to consider, for example, what level of support is due to disadvantaged persons in order to ensure their flourishing (including full participation in society). However, in practice, as Berman shows, the economic style has instead underwritten a troubling tendency to dismiss or undercut social values in the name of austerity, smaller government, or cost-cutting efficiencies. Efficiency replaced egalitarian concerns, rather than reflecting them.

Berman explores tragic consequences of the economic style run amok. For example, Carter-era bureaucrats reasoned in the economic style as they decided that retrofitting the New York City subway to accommodate the disabled was far too costly a project:

In the 1970s people with disabilities gained the right to access federally funded services, notably public transportation, on equal grounds. But within the Carter administration, the economists responsible for reviewing cost-benefit analysis of regulations were particularly upset with the enormous price tag of retrofitting New York City subway stations. In their analysis, the costs of making these stations accessible was too high given the number of people who would be affected. Despite the nominal right to transportation, many of these stations are still not wheelchair-accessible forty-plus years later.

I have seen so many disabled and elderly persons painfully struggling to get up and down stairs as a result—or resorting to what are often underfunded or worse mobility alternatives.

Given such problematic consequences of the economic style’s biased consequentialism, there are at least two ways to respond. One is to try to reform the economic style, or even to improve this manner of reasoning to something closer to a rigorous methodology. For example, advocates could point out the work of Ani Satz on the widespread benefits of universal design, to help us reimagine policy evaluation of implementation of statutes like the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. A subway station with an elevator does not just help persons in wheelchairs; it also assists parents with baby carriages, travelers with heavy luggage, weekend warriors recovering from knee pain, workers carrying their equipment, and so many more persons. It enables more bicyclists and e-bikers to avoid driving. These are “cobenefits” of the principal benefit of accommodating the disabled. They are manifold, and could be valued in numerous ways (for example, avoiding an expensive cab ride to the airport if more subway stations had reliable elevators to accommodate heavy bags that few want to lug down stairs). It is no surprise that one of the Trump Administration’s key goals in policy evaluation was to try to exclude such co-benefits in their estimates of the consequences of regulation, while including them in at least some policy evaluation of deregulation.

But this last example of Trumpian inconsistency suggests another path forward. If, as Berman argues, Republican administrations are far less likely to be consistently constrained by the economic style, then Democratic adoption of even enlightened versions of it may tilt the policy playing field to the right—if only because the relevant cost-benefit analyses take time to calculate and create additional “veto points” to stop action. This suggests that sidestepping—rather than reforming—the economic style, may be the wisest course. Thus, Berman concludes:

[E]ven if one recognizes that rights are rarely absolute in practice, starting with absolute claims is both morally powerful and politically useful. Too often, Democrats who have internalized the economic style begin their negotiations with a stance of “as much as is cost-effective.” In contrast, their conservative counterparts begin with an absolute claim: a government program is an infringement on liberty, for example, and thus should not exist. This puts the former group in a weaker position right out of the gate.

To pursue this approach, reformers will need to sharpen values-based arguments. For example, when public transit is built, this infrastructure should accommodate the disabled as a matter of course. While there may be situations or projects where particular aspects of accommodation are too difficult to achieve, the presumption should be for inclusion.

Following Jerry Kang’s “ Neutrality,” we might call values-based arguments a “deontological style.” There is much to recommend it. Consequentialists will likely never be able to fully trace out the chains of second-, third-, and fourth-order effects of proposed actions. Simply trying to maintain fidelity to certain principles (or certain structures of economic and political life) is much more attractive when the alternative is a mere patina, veneer, or style of policy evaluation, rather than the rigorous prediction of consequences themselves.

Through a master metaphor of “style,” Berman both demystifies and defamiliarizes the dominant economic modes of policy evaluation in agencies like OIRA, CBO, and the Bureau of Economics at the FTC. The demystification is compelling: rather than understanding this economic style as an abstract form of reasoning that developed entirely outside the government, she demonstrates that state and civil society actors co-constituted approaches like formal cost benefit analysis and calculations of consumer welfare in antitrust. The defamiliarization is also illuminating. Rather than thinking of economistic consequentialism as a given, we come to see how it is only one of many ways of reasoning about proper policy outcomes, and how strange and jarring its aporia can be.

So I find much to admire in Berman’s book. My hope is that future research builds on hers to further explore the intersection of morality and aesthetics in the economic style. When is the reduction of value judgments to quantified dollars and cents a mark of objectivity, and when is it mere ornament for decisions taken on other grounds? Or is there always a mixture of such facts, values, and patinas of values in policy evaluation? Once we recognize this mix of aesthetics and morals, or sound and sense, is there a better, more compelling rhetoric of economics or social science more conducive to emancipatory ends? If so, what works best exemplify it? Perhaps Michelle Meagher’s Competition is Killing Us, Matt Desmond’s Evicted, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century are three examples for antitrust, housing, and tax policy (respectively). Identifying and elevating a new cutting edge in policy evaluation will help us build new possibilities for inquiry in the space created by Berman’s skillful deconstruction, defamiliarization, demystification, and deflation of the economic style so pervasive in U.S. policy evaluation.