Welcome to the WEA conference on Economics in Society: The Ethical Dimension. On behalf of everyone involved in putting the conference together I would like to thank all our contributors, as well as all those who submitted papers we had no room to include. The amount of thought represented here is very extensive and is testimony to the issue and to its need for a proper airing. I am especially pleased to see we have a number of contributions from outside the economics profession itself. That fresh perspective is much needed and much appreciated. I am also sure our authors are keen to hear from the WEA community – this kind of discussion was one of the reasons that prompted us to form the WEA a few months back.
There is much to debate and comment upon. It is not too late to register in order to comment, so please go ahead and join in.
This is the first group of papers for discussion. We propose to begin publishing comments on 12th March.You are welcome to post comments before then; we currently propose to hold them in a queue until the 12th, to allow time to read the papers. If the number of comments mounts, or if we are assailed by a clamour of requests to open the discussion we may reconsider – the merit of an online conference format is flexibility.
Stuart Birks No ethical issues in economics?
George De Martino Professional Economic Ethics:Why Heterodox Economists Should Care
Here are the second group of papers for the conference. Instructions the same as for the last group.
Should economics have an ethical content?
- Manuel Couret Branco: Economics for human rights
- Victoria Chick Economics and the Good Life: Keynes and Schumacher
- Angelo Fusari Economics and Society. Freedom-creativity and social justice
- Christian Kellermann, Sebastian Dullien, and Hansjörg Herr A Decent Capitalism for a Good Society
- Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid and Martín Puchet Anyul, Ethics and macroeconomics
- Avner Offer A Warrant for Pain: Market Liberalism c. 1970-2010
- Elena Sapir Ethics in Economics and the Geoeconomy as a Synthetic Approach
Here is the third group of papers for the conference. Instructions the same as for the last two groups.
Howard Aylesworth: Human – Nature
Geoff Davies: Bad Theory, Bad Practice: Bad Ethics
Gerald Gutenschwager: Is Economics a Value Free Science?
Karey Harrison: Ontological Commitments of Ethics and Economics
Arun G. Mukhopadhyay: Corruption of Economics, Growth Fetishism, and Maldevelopment
Alice Puyana: On Ethics and Economics
The theory and practice of ethics: Fourth and final group of papers for the conference and notice of an additional paper
Here is the fourth group of papers for the conference. In addition, please note that an additional paper (which was previously accepted but was finalised unavoidably late) will shortly be added to group 2 ‘Should Economics have an Ethical Content?’
The theory and practice of ethics
I came across an article on the Real-World Economics Blog that is highly relevant to our discussion. I want to draw your attention to it in order to stimulate more conversation. The article referenced hits home on exactly the point being discussed here. Namely: is the relationship between an economist and society ethically charged, such that advice that “fails” can be considered unethical and thus demanding of some measure of sanction?
The recent crisis has punctured the veil behind which economists have typically hidden themselves. They have been content to theorize and subsequently advise, but have sought to avoid responsibility for the consequences of that advice. Instead they claim academic freedom and continue to teach and theorize undaunted by the empirical record being piled up around them.
Does this matter?
Should economists care?
Should economics be regulated?
Or, perhaps more provocatively, how is it that tenured professors can promulgate a theory dependent upon labor mobility, flexible wages, and other elements of free markets without the stain of hypocrisy?
Austerity policies: what is the ethical dimension?
Several papers in this group and in the conference in general touch on the issue of the ethics of policy prescriptions that result in unemployment, house repossessions, cuts in the provision of health care and education and similar unpleasant outcomes. Couret Branco considers the conflict between the UN Human Rights legislation and policies leading to unemployment and insecurity. A couple of papers (Fusari; Moreno-Brid and Puchet Anyul) touch on the possible analogy between economics and the medical profession whose ethical code prohibits medics from doing harm. Is the analogy justified? Can we really think of asking economists to stick to the rule: ‘do no harm’?
Before tackling this question I want to take the opportunity offered by a recent short piece by Paul Krugman in the NYT: A Brief Note on Macroeconomics and Ethics, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/08/a-brief-note-on-macroeconomics-and-ethics/
Krugman mentions differences in policy prescription between himself and Ken Rogoff but he states that though one of them must be giving bad advice, he respects Rogoff’s position as being in good faith. What bothers Krugman is that much of the policy debate is not in good faith but affected by political and professional games: and this is ‘really a sin’. Now, I take the liberty of plotting Krugman’s view on economic policy advice in the following matrix:
Ex-post policy evaluation
|Personal motivations behind policy recommendations||Genuine conviction: ‘good faith’||
|Political professional games: ‘bad faith’||
Whether the policy recommendations are the result of good or bad faith, ex-post they can still be’ correct’ or ‘wrong’. So where is the ethical problem? Well according to Krugman it is in the fact that the advice is given either in good or in bad faith. But who decides whether someone is in bad faith? Moreover, policy advisers could be in bad faith and yet their policies may turn out to be correct ex-post. What I am trying to say is that the good/bad faith categories will not get us very far in the ethical game. Neither would the correct/wrong categories. A policy could be great for the financial sector people, yet bad for those operating in the manufacturing sector; would such a policy be considered correct or wrong?
We have a problem. To begin unravelling it in the hope of finding a solution, let us clarify some differences between recommendations related to economic policy and those related to medical treatment. In medical practice – as far as I know – ‘do no harm’ is a call for the doctors not to harm the patient they are treating. There are not many cases in which the treatment of a patient results in harm for another person: taking organs from one to give to another is such a case. However, in economics, policy intervention results, in most cases in some groups of people gaining while others lose in relative if not absolute terms. It is not difficult to sell a policy to the wider public by stressing the gains and keeping quite about the losers. This is where ethical behaviour may come in. Whatever the personal motivations in suggesting a specific policy, what is important is that the proponent of the policy should present an analysis of the distributive effects of the policy.
Distribution issues in economics have had a Cinderella role for decades. They should come back at the forefront of analysis particularly in relation to the assessment of the impact of macroeconomic policies on distribution. The analysis of the impact of specific policies on classes/groups/stakeholders including present versus future generations should be a key element in the assessment of policies. We need transparency on the distributional impact of policies – who will gain who will lose – and all explained in a language clear enough for the wider public – the electorate – to understand the implications. I here propose that we make transparency and clarity on the distributional impact of policies one of our profession’ ethical aims. If we could achieve that, then there would be no need to bother about the individual motivation of policy advisers: the political and interest groups behind the advice would come out from the analysis of the distributional impact. And, yes, I do know that the research on the distributional impact might not be that solid. However, this is where pluralism may come in: different economists can take up the challenge and argue about how to assess the impact and what the actual outcomes are.
Welcome to the first online conference of the World Economic Association, on ‘Economics in Society: the Ethical Dimension’. The papers will be posted in four groups; each group contains papers dealing with a related topic or topics. These groups are listed below, and you will find the abstracts, along with instructions on how to take part in the conference, here: List of papers and abstracts for the WEA ethics conference 2012, updated March 8 (note this has changed since March 5th to incorporate minor corrections and an additional paper)
- To take part you will need to register. Click on the button to the right of this post. If you are already registered, you won’t see the button. In that case, don’t worry about this step.
- We will post the papers in groups, starting tonight. To allow time to read them, we propose that the discussion should begin on March 12th. You can post comments before then, but we propose to hold them until the start of the discussion. We may start earlier if a lot of comments begin piling up, but the general idea is to allow time to absorb what’s being said – there are 24 papers in all, which is a lot to read.
- To leave a comment, find the post containing the paper or group of papers that you’d like to comment on. Underneath you will find the comment form. Click on this, and submit your comment.
- Comments will be moderated to ensure they are neither illegal nor hateful, and that they are relevant. Spam will be deleted, usually automatically. There will be a delay, therefore, between when you make your post and when it appears. We will try to make this delay as short as possible.
- The purpose of the conference is to discuss the papers and the issues they raise. This is a new venture and to some extent experimental: we suggest you treat it somewhat like a normal conference – for example, address questions to the authors, comment on or critique what the papers say, respond to other commentators, and work together to help clarify what is at stake. The WEA is committed to pluralism, which means you should recognise the legitimacy of views that differ from yours, even though you can of course express your disagreement as you see fit. So try to be courteous and respectful to others taking part, even if you disagree with them.