Sometimes I think we as a society have been trained to look at our collective problems through a hole the size of a hole.
I look at the cost of health care relative to our poor results – of the 11 high-income countries, the US health care system is in last place in terms of performance, even though we spend the most – and know that there has to be a better way to keep our country healthy.
I look at the $1.7 trillion in student loans and believe there must be a way to return to the status quo of my time in college, when four years of college tuition at the University of Illinois cost less than $10,000.
I look at the fact that the child tax credit, which was introduced during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and lifted millions of children out of poverty, has now been sunk over debates about efficiency and who “deserves” the aid, and ask you wonder why it’s so hard to do the right thing for people who need a helping hand.
Thanks to Elizabeth Popp Berman, professor of organizational science at the University of Michigan and author of the new book Thinking like an Economist: How Efficiency Replace Equality in US Public Policy, I better understand why these things are so difficult. Berman argues that our most powerful institutions are imbued with what she calls the “economic reasoning style,” and this lens has closed a broader discussion of how we should think about these societal challenges.
The “economic style of reasoning” is not just using the tools of a particular discipline to investigate a problem, but is instead an entire worldview fundamentally rooted in valuing “efficiency” above all else. Those who embrace the economic style believe that efficiency is a neutral property, a yardstick no different from a ruler, but Berman argues that efficiency itself is a value, and often a value that is at odds with the real desires of the citizen. .
For example, many believe that everyone has a fundamental right to health care, a moral claim that does not rely on “efficiency.” However, when the economic style is applied to the management of a health care system, the moral claim is set aside in favor of competition and markets. Those who embrace the economic style have an unshakable faith that these mechanisms will yield the best results for most people.
But this is clearly not true. As economic style grew in influence from the 1960s onward, perhaps peaking in the 1990s, and remains dominant today, we have seen increasing inequality in the United States.
Its economic style is twofold in the sense that Republicans and centrist Democrats alike embrace it wholeheartedly, although we see it often let down by Republicans (and some Democrats) as well when it comes to things like defense spending, where markets and efficiency don’t seem to work. come into play.
Or tax cuts for the rich, which will forever be in the Republican script.
Some voices who want to think about issues of justice and morality as we examine policies around issues like inequality, antitrust issues and the environment are starting to make some noise, but economics style still dominates. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat, has just forfeited the last chance for legislation that would retain some sort of child tax credit over concerns about “costs.” Classic economic style thinking.
Berman makes no specific policy recommendations, but the thrust of her book is clear to me.
It’s okay to believe there’s more value than markets and competition, and while efficiency can be a useful goal in many cases, sometimes we need to embrace deeper values around fairness, and dare I say it, right and wrong.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read
1. “The Lady in the Lake” by Raymond Chandler
2. “Goodbye, My Love” by Raymond Chandler
3. “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler
4. “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett
5. “Blood Harvest” by Dashiell Hammett
— Mark V., Chicago
Mark indicates that these are all rereads that he comes back to time and time again. I’m going to have a go at giving him a contemporary writer working in the same hard-boiled detective vein he may not know, Charlie Huston, with the first book in his Henry Thompson series, “Caught Stealing.”
1. “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell
2. “Lost and Wanted” by Nell Freudenberger
3. “Writers and Lovers” by Lily King
4. “Circle” by Madeline Miller
5. “It Ends With Us” by Colleen Hoover
— Lisa P., Glenview
I just read “Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance” by Alison Espach and loved it, the kind of book that will make you not want to start another book for a few days so you can just enjoy the experience. I think it will hit Lisa.
1. “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doerr
2. “The Virgins” by Alex Michaelides
3. “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” by Kiese Laymon
4. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt
5. “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng
— Mandy T., New York City
This is a bit of a tough one, with quite a range of topics and genres. I need a good story that gives Mandy something to sink her teeth into and maybe also has a unique storytelling voice that draws you in. I’m going for “The Sellout” by Paul Beatty.