The Dismal Science
Lee Emmerich JamisonMark Twain said that there were..."lies, damned lies, and statistics." Oh, that his wit could have been applied to some of the modern world's notions of the sciences. When I was a student at Centenary College of Louisiana Economics was "the dismal science". "Political Science" was a punch line. Both statements remain true today. Unfortunately society has since been indoctrinated to speaking these course names with a straight face.
These disciplines comprise the waggly end of the scientific dog. Even briefly addressing the perversity of the two of them would require more space than a paper is likely to publish, so for today let us take a glance only at the dismal science. We will leave the abysmal one for another day.
Webster's II New Riverside Desk Dictionary defines economics as "The science dealing with the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities". The worst thing that can happen to a course of study is that it be ill-defined. This fairly accurate description of the courses I took reveals why economics stands with Twain's assessment of statistics as a means of obscuring truth.
It is fun to watch magicians fool our eyes, even when we know they are doing so. They use the psychology of physical emphasis to hide what is really happening until the result is revealed. We then draw the wrong conclusion. A dollar bill is healed, a coin is pulled from our ear. Wow!
By entraining two things we think we understand in the discussion of the economy, namely stuff and money, the dismal science plays a sleight-of-hand with what we really should be seeing; how much of our labor really does something useful.
Imagine that on some island there are three people. Two produce food and clothing and the other is a thief who manages to steal half of the fruits of the others' labor. One of the laborers could reasonably conclude that one could live better by being a thief. Were he to change job descriptions would the standard of living on the island go up or down? Modern economics is deeply confused on this issue. Thievery is, in this example, a high-income job. The statistics would indicate a trending upward. (Wink, wink.)
Our conflicted producer decides he is an "honorable" man and can't abide the idea of becoming a thief. Instead he becomes a chief, which permits him to possess the island's gun, seize half of what the still productive producer makes for himself, and apportion only a third of what remains to the former thief, who has now been relabeled an invalid. That seems fair, does it not? The producer is a "rich" man. He needs to "give back" to the community that made him that way...
This is a cartoon version of the modern world. Those who honorably accomplish nothing live well without working in the dirt. They permit those who labor the privilege of keeping a portion of what they create, claiming all the while to be protecting their effort, while insisting the producer is cruel to expect one who has not worked not to eat. Modern economics sleight-of-hand! Those with a little foresight might be seen to raise a hand in the back of the class and ask a foolish question. "Why produce?"
The political reality of our island example is, of course, that the status quo has two of the three votes. Were the producer to convince the invalid to become a producer the island might live much better, but the chief would be out of a job, and might be forced to- oh, our hearts are all a-flutter- WORK. Naturally he finds very clever ways to vilify the producer in the eyes of the invalid. If the invalid occasionally snatches something out of frustration that the producer has so much more than he has all the better! Why have a chief if bad things don't happen? The invalid's poverty and frustration both serve to provide a rationale for the stability of the status quo.
In this illustration one can see why economics as defined by Webster's Dictionary and my professors is defined improperly. Most of the economic activity, that is to say, most of the activity for which people are provided the work product of the producer, revolves around jockeying for an advantage in a contest over who gets the work product of the producer! Economics should be "The science of the distribution of purposeful human activity". Some will quibble about how to shoehorn productivity, value, or consumption into the definition but I stand by my wording.
The fact of the matter is hard work is hard work. Clever people will find ways to put a patina of glory on a lack of accomplishment and convince society to provide well for them for what they have not done. The I.R.S. does not produce anything. Neither do the people who protect us from the I.R.S. Lawyers argue. The lawyers who protect us from the other lawyers also argue, and we feed them both for the priviledge of having them do that to, and for, us. Bureaucrats pile us over with paperwork, and we feed them for what they make us do.
Interesting island we're on.
The chiefs and kings of the ancient world loved to keep wizards and magicians in their courts. Mark Twain, in his assessment of statistics, was merely taking note of how the tools of the crafts of obfuscation and misdirection had changed by the late 19th century. Little could he have imagined how, in the increased majesty of our modern world, something could have exceeded even statistics for a grandeur of misdirection.
And, gee whiz, that's only the DISMAL science!
Lee Jamison may be reached for comment at email@example.com