Economics Makes You Mean

We’ve been poring over the latest economic data, and find them unsatisfactory. The number of jobs created in March was half of what was expected and the worst in 15 months, estimates for the previous two months were revised downward to bring the annual rate to the levels of two years ago, the unemployment rate stayed at a desultory 5.5 percent only because people continue joining the record of number of idled workers who are outside the labor force and are therefore not counted, retails sales fell, manufacturing activity slowed, wages declined, and the Federal Reserve Board’s revised estimate for first quarter growth is a mere 0.1 percent annualized rate. This strikes us as just awful, but perhaps that just because we’ve made an informal study of economics and are therefore greedy anti-social types who cheat, lie, steal, and hate the poor.
That’s the suspicion, at any rate, of Occidental College’s sociology professor Lisa Wade, who recently wrote that “Yep. Economics majors are more anti-social than non-econ majors. And taking econ classes also makes people more anti-social than they were before. It turns out, there’s quite a bit of research on this, nicely summarized here. Econ majors are less likely to share, less generous to the needy, and more likely to cheat, lie and steal.” We’re disinclined to take seriously any work of scholarship that begins with “yep,” especially when it ends with a such an obviously inane conclusion, but Wade is a sociology professor, and at a college where President Barack Obama once matriculated, and there is a certain circular logic to her argument, so maybe she’s on to something and we’re just too blinded by greed to see.
As proof that people who understand economics are greedy, Wade cites an experiment by two economists, oddly enough, who found that economic majors at the University Washington were less likely than other students to contribute to a “left-leaning public interest group” and a “non-partisan group that lobbies to reduce tuition rates.” An alternative explanation for this might be that people who study economics are more likely to believe that a “left-leaning public interest group” is likely to do more harm than good for the needy, and that the supposedly non-partisan group lobbying to reduce tuition rates hopes to accomplish that by sticking taxpayers with the bill rather than kicking out all the unnecessary administrators and compliance officers and phony-baloney sociology professors who have been driving up the cost of a college education, and that their reluctance to donate is therefore motivated by altruism rather than greed, but that kind of thinking isn’t going to get a modern academic tenured. The economists also conducted experiments with students asked to play the “prisoner’s dilemma” and other role-playing games that involve a choice between the communal good and self-interest, and were unsurprised to find that those who had studied economics were more likely to choose the latter. To their credit they acknowledge the possibility that the more economically savvy understand that if everyone pursues their own self-interests it will result in a greater communal good, but of course they are too kind and selfless to countenance such crazy talk.
The rest of the “quite a bit of research” Wade cites is another sociologist who argues that economics majors simply aren’t exposed to all of the “conflicting pro-social views” being offered in political science, philosophy, and of course sociology classes. Presumably these other disciplines have found a refutation of the laws of supply and demand and the rest of soul-deadening science found in the economics classes, and once an economics major has been sufficiently indoctrinated by the rest of the faculty he will come to see that their preferred ideas work better after all.
“It’s an issue of grave seriousness,” Wade warns in her final paragraph, “as the criminal and immoral behavior of our financial leaders is exactly what triggered a Great Recession once … and could again.” She’s referring to the financial meltdown of 2008, of course, which was caused by all the bad mortgage loans that banks had extended to borrowers with bad credit histories, which was encouraged and often mandated by government policies that were supposed to bring fairness and equality and social justice and all those good things to a heartless economic system that preferred not to loan money to borrowers with bad credit histories, just as efforts to bring fairness and equality and social justice and all those good things have so often proved counter-productive, but we only say that because we have a rudimentary understanding of economics, and are therefore bad people. The kinder, gentler approach might prove disastrous, but what are results compared to good intentions?

— Bud Norman