Repugnance Revisited, or: Are Economists Really ‘Evil’?

Patricia Cohen has an article in today’s Times about a recent American Enterprise Institute panel on the notion of repugnance and how it affects markets. In other words, why are some behaviors considered repugnant while others are acceptable, and how and why do such demarcations change over time?

Three of the panel’s five participants — Arthur Brooks, Sally Satel, and Al Roth — may be familiar to readers of this blog. And when we wrote a Times column a while back about whether there should be a free market for human organs, it was Roth’s thinking about repugnance that framed our argument.

I find the idea of shifting repugnance fascinating. My favorite example is life insurance: long ago, it was considered morbid to place a bet that allowed you to profit if a loved one died; now it is uncommon to not do so.

But as interesting as I find the subject, it was something else in Cohen’s article that caught my eye:

Economists are asking the wrong question, [Paul] Bloom, [a professor of psychology at Yale] said at the panel. They assume that “everything is subject to market pricing unless proven otherwise.”

“The problem is not that economists are unreasonable people, it’s that they’re evil people,” he said. “They work in a different moral universe. The burden of proof is on someone who wants to include” a transaction in the marketplace.

Economists are “evil people”? I assume Bloom was kidding, although there was no indication in Cohen’s article. Honestly, I’m not sure what he meant, or what she meant. Perhaps the general public does see economists as “evil” — since they analyze the world so coldly, since they seem willing to put a price on anything.

But if so, I would argue that the reason to regard economists as “evil” is in fact the very reason to regard them as valuable. Although there are noteworthy exceptions, economists are among the few groups of people who in this day and age will analyze an issue (whether it’s organ transplantation, political corruption, or sexual preferences), as the Times itself likes to put it, “without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”

If that’s evil, count me in.

Addendum: Shortly after this post was published, I received the following helpful e-mail from Paul Bloom:

Hi Stephen,

I just read your entry on the Freakonomics blog, and thought I should send a quick reply.

Yes, my remark about evil economists was a joke. This was perfectly clear at the talk and it’s clear if you watch the video, but not from the NYTimes article, unfortunately. After I make the remark and people laugh, I then say “To put it more fairly …,” and go on to make the point that economists tend to reason consequentially, and are less sensitive to other considerations such as taboo, disgust status quo bias, and so on. I actually think that economists are right to do so in general, and I’ve argued in particular that disgust is useless as a guide for moral behavior. So, no, I don’t think you’re evil!

Best,

–pb

Thanks, Paul, for the clarification. And allow me to remind everyone that my defense of economists was not as self-serving as it may seem, since I am not now, nor have I ever been, an economist.

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COMMENTS: 38


  1. mgroves says:

    I don’t think economists are evil, but rather highlight that the world is imperfect, and sometimes the optimal way to do something conflicts with a “fair” way to do something. Economics aren’t taught as widely as reading or math, so I guess that a lot of people just can’t handle the cold, hard truth.

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  2. sw says:

    Its a scary world we live in when preferring reason over bias is considered evil.

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  3. boudu says:

    My two cents:

    There are ‘evil’ people in each profession, but ‘evil’ economists are notorious for making propaganda to keep the status-quo in the world and stop progress. That’s why the “everything is subject to market pricing unless proven otherwise” philosophy means.

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  4. Jeff Stier says:

    What is repugnant, is NOT having a market for organs.

    As I wrote in the New York Post,
    Unless you’re lucky enough to have a relative or some other highly motivated and altruistic donor, there is no legal way to improve your chances in the painfully slow race against death.

    http://www.nypost.com/seven/08062007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/ending_black_market_for_organs_opedcolumnists_jeff_stier.htm

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  5. Will says:

    “Good” people rarely improve society. It’s “good” people who, outraged about substandard housing for poor people, pass laws requiring various amenities that drive up housing prices that leave more people homeless.

    “Good” people like former candidate Edwards sue the pants off doctors, resulting in higher healthcare costs that hurt the people he claims to want to help.

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  6. Michael says:

    I agree completely, but economists do not have a monopoly on objectivity, and sometimes their obeisance to their models skews their perspective. Empiricism ftw lol.

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  7. Andy says:

    While I think calling economists “evil” is over the top, I have to post my disagreement with the following statement:

    “…economists are among the few groups of people who in this day and age will analyze an issue (whether it’s organ transplantation, political corruption, or sexual preferences), as the Times itself likes to put it, ‘without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.’”

    It’s farcical to make this claim, to pretend at some mythical standard of objectivity. Dubner qualifies it by admitting that there are “noteworthy exceptions,” which in my opinion compounds this mirage of the impartial economist. Every person is an exception; if this were not so, economists would have nothing to argue about at cocktail parties.

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  8. Chris H. says:

    One of my students told me once: being an economist means never having to say you were wrong.

    I’m always perplexed by why economists aren’t more self-policing. For instance, when you see bogus arguments from the industry-supported economists on any given issue, why don’t others and academics respond to correct their “theories.”

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  9. Matt says:

    It’s not that economists are evil, it’s that they understand the difference between “immoral” and “amoral.”

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  10. Allen Varney says:

    Well, Will, “good” people also gave us laws mandating clean air and clean water, and regulating child labor.

    Economists aren’t so much “evil” as amoral and conditioned to unsustainable outlooks. For instance, company accountants seldom make provision for the long-term consequences of deforestation and other unsustainable practices. The accountants don’t have to, because economists regard natural resources as consumables. This short-sightedness
    leads to demonstrably negative global effects that can easily be called “evil.”

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  11. Paul S. says:

    Well maybe not “evil” but certainly sociopathic in a lot of eyes. (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sociopath)

    As Levitt’s previous post re: Hannah Montana demonstrates, some problems have dimensions that are poorly quantified; for those problems, material solutions will, minimally, “feel” incomplete. I like to toy with the idea that non-material solution sets (examples: religion, art, ethics) represent historical attempts to fill the gaps left by rigid empiricism. In ye goode olde days the “gaps” greatly outsized the data, thus the primacy of God, tribe, ritual and family. But pity the poor ideationalists who, like the Red Queen, must run faster and faster simply to stand still: empiricism unrelentingly fills in gaps.

    I guess there’s a secondary question which is actually more important than “what things should/should not be quantified?” (because, given sufficient time, any thing *can* be quantified). Namely: “which solution sets should represent the first resort: material or ideational?” This might be the difference between “liberal” and “conservative” (in the classical senses).

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  12. David Peterson says:

    It seems to me that implied in her article there’s an idea that there is some collective “we” that should make the decision as to whether or not to put a price on something. This is opposed to leaving the decision up to individual actors.

    And whether or not she likes it or not, everything does have a price. The question is whether or not it’s monetized or in the case of an organ market, paid with human lives.

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  13. Justin James says:

    Economists are not evil. Free market economists who beleive that anything and everything should be allowed to be bought and sold (which is not all free market economists, I must add) provide justification for evil. I have heard way too many people use FME (and it’s associated pal, economical “survival of the fittest”) as an academic gloss on top of some twisted version of what’s right and wrong. The conflict is that FME does not disallow itself to be used this way, it is simply the logical outcome of FME when carried to the extreme.

    Granted, any theory of economics can be treated like this. The Marxist theories have proven themselves quite pliable in justifying all sorts of horrors. But FME, as the “hot theory” of the last few decades, is just begging to be painted as “evil”.

    J.Ja

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  14. Otto says:

    Ignoring the “good vs. evil” debate for a moment, doesn’t the hesitation towards selling organs (or starting an organ market) stem from the perverse economic incentives that are created by doing so? And do not economic arguments begin to break down when it comes applying them to the value of life? To wit, one of the underpinnings of economics as a social science is that individuals act rationally…how rational can you expect parents to be when bidding for the sole kideny that will save their daughter’s life (for example)? Also, the potential for unscrupulous individuals to exploit the system is real and dangerous.

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  15. bkp says:

    Psychologists are not “evil” for understanding bad behavior, but economists are for understanding the truth, that most “evil” is a rational outgrowth, and is not actually irrational. So of course we are a threat to psychologists.

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  16. gator80 says:

    The following is all on the assumption Bloom was not joking:

    Bloom suffers from at least one of the following: lack of understanding of economics, arrogance, faulty logic. Probably all three now that I think about it.

    Economists work in a different moral universe? How is that different from saying, “I am moral. If you do not see things the same way I do you must be immoral.”

    I would argue Bloom is more likely the immoral one. Good economics has consistently been shown to improve living standards. Bad economics dooms individuals to poverty. I’m not saying economists all agree or that they are always right. Like scientists and doctors there is debate and ongoing study as their disciplines evolves. But somehow taking a position which, if carried to its extreme, would deny the opportunities that arise from good economic thinking, hurts people and is therefore immoral.

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  17. Ben says:

    @Allan

    I think that all depends, there are plenty of economists who have proven that things like deforestation and unsustainable use of natural resources are not economically efficient.

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  18. Brad says:

    My one cent (let’s not overvalue this) is that economists are just very often socially awkward individuals. As a result they/we tend to underappreciate the intangible social and psychological costs implicit in decision making.

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  19. Phil Steinmeyer says:

    I agree with Andy that the claim that “…economists are among the few groups of people who in this day and age will analyze an issue (whether it’s organ transplantation, political corruption, or sexual preferences), as the Times itself likes to put it, ‘without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.’” is a joke.

    Further, the claim that “my defense of economists was not as self-serving as it may seem, since I am not now, nor have I ever been, an economist.” misses the point, as Dubner has earned fame and presumably some measure of fortune through collaboration with an economist on a book whose very name was a play on the word “economics”.

    Economists are not heroic. They are trained to use one set of tools on various problems. Sometimes those tools fit the problem well and reveal interesting insights. Other times, the tools miss key issues (such as with the Hannah Montana story, tongue in cheek though it may have been). In fact, the Hannah Montana story was an excellent example of how economics can go astray. An accurate analysis would have addressed issues of the true value of those two tickets (with ~5 minutes left before the show, the value was probably NOT what it would have been an hour earlier), what was the goals of attending the show in the first place (happiness for the daughter, bonding for the father), the effect of downgrading those tickets on those goals, the various costs and risks associated with trying to sell the tickets and so on. Instead, the story (again, tongue in cheek) performed an overly simplistic analysis and reached a conclusion that went against common sense for most readers. In that case, I think the readers were right, because they WERE including rough approximations of the other variables in their mental models.

    Economics tends to look at issues in terms of perhaps 1 to 3 variables that may or may not have 1 particular effect. But these models are often too simplistic, ignoring numerous other causes and secondary effects.

    In short, economists need to step down from the pedestal and recognize that their profession, as commonly practiced, has limitations. It can contribute to useful discussion on a variety of topics, but it is not the end-all be-all.

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  20. Lee says:

    Mr. Steinmeyer: It seems to me that you’ve just made a series of economic arguments explaining why the analysis in the Hannah Montana tickets post was insufficient. Fine, and agreed, but the fact that a given economist didn’t sufficiently flush out an argument in a blog post, or the fact that others may intuitively evaluate economic arguments rather than vocalizing them piece by piece, does not constitute a critique of economics. The existence of complexity and the problems of confounding variables do not diminish the value of economic reasoning, they simply call for greater rigor. After all, what would be the alternatives?

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  21. gator80 says:

    Thanks for the clarification by Prof Bloom.

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  22. Otto says:

    Actually, one might argue that the Hannah Montana anecdote was indeed amendable to an economics argument, only that the father was not employing his craft very well. He was ignorning the immeasurable value of making his daughter happy (or inversely, of making her very unhappy*) when doing his calculations.
    *Future therapy payments alone would probably erase any profit that he made.

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  23. banal says:

    Economists are not evil, they are just trying to be objective about reality. However, they are somewhat inconsiderate.

    This is because they do not appreciate that by attempting to fit reality into models that they can analyze, they sometimes arrive at results that they do not appreciate are wrong until unexpected outcomes make it obvious.

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  24. bill says:

    “My favorite example is life insurance: long ago, it was considered morbid to place a bet that allowed you to profit if a loved one died; now it is uncommon to not do so.”

    I think ‘compensate’ would be a better term here, as it is attempting to offset a loss.

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  25. Phil Steinmeyer says:

    Lee – I agree that a better economic analysis of the Hannah Montana tickets could have been made. And again, I assume what was presented was somewhat tongue in cheek.

    But it actually reminded me of a lot of economic discussions that one sees – narrowly focused on one cause and one effect, without necessarily being convincing as to the cause, and ignoring secondary effects that potentially dwarf the effect that is the core of the study.

    Once you do start looking at things more broadly, then you’re touching back into (depending on the issue) psychology, medicine, history, religion, philosophy, politics or whatnot.

    So that’s why I object to Dubner’s assertion that economics essentially exists on a higher plane than many other fields. Frankly, it’s naive, IMO.

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  26. El Christador says:

    Even if economists are not evil for the proposed reason, it does not exclude the possibility that they are still evil on other grounds.

    That is, rebutting one assertion of evil does not prove non-evilness.

    I merely observe this.

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  27. PlainJane says:

    Well obviously I don’t think economists are evil (as a group, just some of the ones I know ha!) because I married one!

    But there is a genuine issue about the role of market-centred research. It is very valuable and no one should make moral or value-based policy judgments without that information. But it does have difficulty in factoring those things into price. That’s not (as I understand it) because economics things that those things are not important but they amount to “tastes” for which there is no accounting.

    The best of all worlds is to be aware of our biases, understand our moral arguments and the non-market paradigm they’re in – and KNOW THE COSTS… then you can decide if you’re REALLY that moral after all.

    If economists were not a useful part of moral debates then you’d have some people saying we should not do all sorts of things because of all kinds of scruples. But when they know just how huge the costs of not doing it – they find they’re not so moral after all.

    It is not that everything has an ex ante price that’s easy to fix in a market, obviously some things don’t. But they have some kind of price – you know what that price is when someone who has been saying “no” suddenly says “yes” to it.

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  28. Hansen Wenger says:

    Economics truly is the dismal science. It has laws which are uncertain and mutable, it has to take account of ideology and emotion but then deny their influence, it swears rationality but is often subjective, and its efforts in analysing myopically are as doomed to irrelevance as are its efforts in analysing holistically .

    It is an interesting subject, but too often seems an uncomfortable and unproductive melange. It doesn’t seem to get along with reality.

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  29. Logan says:

    The real tragedy here is that dozens of otherwise rational people have risen to defend against a fairly meaningless term.
    Every time I have heard the word ‘evil’ used in recent years, it was either (a) facetious, or (b) an attempt to bypass an audience’s rational process, making a grab directly for emotion. This is handy if you’re in politics or the religion game, but has little real value.
    The advances in thought that today’s economists have made will still be recognized when all the juvenile mudslinging, with words like ‘evil’, has long sunk into the cyclical mire of history.

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  30. frankenduf says:

    I would say you got reeled in by a Ciceresque rhetorical trap- the longer you voulntarily defend yourself from the frivolous claim, the more it proves your guilt- since your post was fairly long, I’d say there’s a fair amount of guilt/acknowledgement that economists are evil

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  31. David says:

    Perhaps not evil, but certainly irresponsible in ignoring many psychological, social and environmental factors that undermine many of classical economics’ key assumptions…

    As JM Keynes said:
    “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

    But then, he’s a (currently) defunct economist, so what did he know?

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  32. Frank Mirer says:

    It’s not that economists are necessarily evil, although their results may be. It’s that “homo economus,” the maximizer of personal net benefit and the ideal type for market economists, is a sociopath.

    “Homo economus”[I forget from which economist I have appropriated the term]drives community benefit to a minimum. Sellers drive the price down to the point where some can no longer survive. Buyers drive the price up to the point where some can no longer survive. And, in the words of the Boston Patriots, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

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  33. Different Lee says:

    to say economists are among the few groups who will analyze and issue “without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved,” is patently false on its face. Why would economists be more immune to bias than any other group? Dubner admits as much when he uses the “with notable exceptions” qualifier, which is a common pundit device to immunize one from criticism.

    Yes, free trading in organs would lead to perverse incentives. And it succintly explains why our health care system is so messed up. The demand curve for health care is not efficient vis-a-vis society as a whole. To put it another way, a rational individual with a terminal disease would would be willing to pay his entire net worth to live another day. That’s why the country spends so much money on inefficient surgeries and drugs rather than on public health. Public health spending (broadly speaking) would provide society better health care at a lower cost.

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  34. erin m. says:

    To follow up on “Different Lee’s” first point regarding objectivity, I would argue this is exactly the downfall of many economic, biological, etc. arguments. Once the human hand is involved, how could any form of research and analysis be free from bias? It’s simply not possible. humans cannot become God-like creatures free from all influences. Does this mean that the research performed in these disciplines is paralyzed by the inevitable subjectivity of the human actors involved? Of course not, but all analyses must recognize the impossibility of getting at some sort of transcendent larger truth that rests above human bias and they should never tout complete objectivity.

    This being the case, I would argue that sociologists would be a group who studies highly politicized issues often without a facade of objectivity. Instead, many sociologists address these issues from many angles and they include, analyze, and identify many of the biases surrounding them instead of creating some sort of thought experiment where these factors magically disappear. I do not think it is a virtue of economists that many are prone to making super-human claims of scientific objectivity in their work.

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  35. cbb says:

    My problem with economists is twofold:

    1. They don’t take enough things into account, assuming that what they perceive as “rational” is the true definition.

    2. Despite this flaw in their logic/methodology, they seem to think that their findings are the ultimate truth.

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  36. Hans Smith says:

    I’m a student of bioindustry ethics, soon to be a practicioner (I’m a master’s student at the moment). We often strive to frame discussions about difficult issues like free markets for organs around teleology vs. deontology. Teleology is based on increasing the “good” in the world overall (utilitarianism), while deontology is based on rules, duties, laws, etc.

    I think economicsts can be perceived as evil by some because they often value the teleological argument above the deontological argument. As Brad said, economists seem to undervalue the “intangible social and psychological costs implicit in decision making”, but I think this is just a function of trying to publish rigorous arguments that are based on numbers when available.

    There is no doubt that many economists have published papers that argue for the benefits of some new policy, based on calculated financial benefit in the long run. These papers will often include a caveat at the end saying something similar to the effect that “intangible social and psychological costs” should be considered, but haven’t been included in the paper specifically because they are so intangible. Predictably the paper is then referenced in a newspaper article, etc. with no mention of this caveat, just stating, “____ argues that organs should be sold on a free market”, portraying the economist as a heartless individual focusing strictly on the numbers of the situation.

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  37. Morgan Finch says:

    Do you seriously think that economists have no bias? The idea that everything has a monetary cost IS a value judgement.

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  38. Luke Lea says:

    Is economics evil?

    As a positive science, economics is notable for the assumptions it does not make as much as for the assumptions it does. Among the former, economists do not assume that, all else equal, a dollar is worth more to a poor person than a rich one; that the happiness of people in their own society is more important than the happiness of people in other societies; or that the happiness of our posterity is as important as our own.

    What economists do care about is Pareto efficiency: that given some initial distribution of resources, those states are preferred under which it is impossible to make some people better off without making others worse off. In the case of free trade (between the United States and China for instance) it is only necessary that in principle some people could be made better off without making others worse off. The fact that in practice it has made most people in the U.S. worse off than before is no affair of theirs. On the contrary, once a redistribution of resources has occurred as a result free trade, Pareto efficiency requires nothing in the way of rectification.

    All past sins are forgiven. We owe no special consideration to our fellow citizens and no consideration whatsoever to future generations.

    That is an evil philosophy.

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