Introducing Stirring the Pot

During the fall of 2014 Mainers were embroiled in a debate over bear hunting practices. I remember one biologist’s response to a commentator’s question about hunting ethics. She responded, and I paraphrase, we can argue about ethics until we are blue in the face, but that’s not going to get us anywhere. For her, the issue was about science. Ethics were aspects of human concern that could not be discussed productively.

My training as an economist is supposed to make me comfortable with that position. Many economists see themselves as social scientists. They are seeking to understand economic laws by applying the scientific method. Furthermore, they see themselves as objective, dispassionate observers who can be trusted to give unbiased analysis of processes central to society’s wellbeing. I am not entirely comfortable with that understanding of economics, as you will see in this blog.

I think it is more realistic, and actually more honest, to consider that everyone has a perspective, what political scientists call a worldview, literally the way in which we each see the world. We process information we get about the people and the world around us based on this worldview, and everyone’s worldview is different. Your perspective reflects your individual values, experiences, and perhaps even your unique genetic inheritance. Economists have worldviews and those affect what we study and how we study them, even though we use the scientific method to do that work.

Objectivity requires that there both be a reality to be discovered and that we can see that reality clearly. Differences in world view will always mean that each of us will see that reality differently, sometimes a lot differently. A stroke victim will often experience a slump in one side of his or her face. So looking at that person’ profile from the left will give you a very different image of that person’s wellbeing than looking from the right. Same person, different perspective, different understanding of the reality of that person’s life. Perspective matters, which is true in the process of trying to solve society’s problems.

This does not mean that because we have different worldviews that we cannot engage in productive discussions about public issues. Our values and the perspectives that they create are not always rigid, we can learn from each other even about ethics and values. Granted, openness to other perspectives may well be a part of worldview of some people and not of others. In Stirring the Pot I might argue about ethics, hopefully without blue faces. More often I am going to try to present different perspectives. I am not going to shy away from exploring value differences. This is not to convince you that my values are superior to yours; rather it is to show that values matter in some fundamentally important and practical matters. How should we raise funds to repair highways? Should we have more park lands in the North Maine Woods, and who gets a say in that decision? What’s the best way to deal with human-induced climate change or does income inequality matter in economic policy? These questions are all about values and the different way we think about them.

I am also going to draw on what I have learned from the study of economics, whether or not we consider that to be a science. There are some ways in which economists understand human behavior that help us in discussing important public issues. For example, we observe a phenomenon we call rent seeking behavior. This is when an individual, organization, or corporation uses public processes to favor private interests. Imagine that I convinced my Maine State Legislator that new bloggers are good for society and should be encouraged by granting them a special state income tax credit. This is rent seeking behavior by me. This, along with a corollary concept of regulatory capture, is a powerful way of understanding a lot of what we see in public policy. Another example is the phenomenon that behavioral economists term status quo bias, the tendency of humans to favor what they have over what they might acquire.

So, values mattered when it came to voting on bear hunting practices. For the biologist, her worldview was that wildlife is about scientific management. For others, it was about various ethics of hunting. And others wanted to maintain tradition, they were comfortable with the status quo. Still others wanted the State’s laws on hunting to preserve their business opportunities. We are not going to all have the same worldview, but we can understand each other’s perspectives a little better. That understanding will be a primary goal of Stirring the Pot.

I care deeply about Maine and its people, so Stirring the Pot will mostly be about Maine. I care about the natural environment, a concern that affected my teaching and research at UMaine. The kind of economics I practiced was “ecological” economics, a subdiscipline concerned with the natural limits within which human society functions. And I am a bit of a contrarian, so the plan here is to stir things up. The best Maine stews are well stirred and have diverse ingredients. So too the best ways to make our lives and our beautiful place on this planet better.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.