Sunday, March 8, 2009

"Political Economics"

There is something in the study of economics that's been bothering me for a bit. Now, I don't claim to really know ANYTHING when it comes to economics, nor have I stepped foot in an economics class or opened an economics textbook since high school. Nevertheless, the subject of today's economy has been too pervasive in the media to ignore, and I've been bothered by a few things I've found troubling- not relating to the economy itself, but by how people deal with it.

Now, let me explain something I've learned about physics research. Physicists always know what to expect from an experiment. That isn't to say that they always know the outcome, since that would make the experiment useless. Physicists use the accepted laws of physics to predict the outcome, and when the outcome does not agree with the laws, they know that something is wrong with the theory. Predicting outcomes is no easy task in today's large-scale experiments, but the standards are just as high. Doing so usually requires the use of sophisticated modeling algorithms and lots of computing power.

Let me give you an example: One professor I talked to at Berkeley gave me a sneak peak at some of the software that was developed for one of the projects in development at the LHC called ATLAS. The ATLAS detector is about the size of a mansion, and the laws that govern the interactions between particles are in no way simple. Nevertheless, software that incorporates all these parameters have been developed since long before the actual detector began construction. Through the computer simulations given from this program, my professor was able to show me exactly what we would see from the detectors, with charts, graphs, and everything you might expect from a large scale experiment. She even showed me the bump on a particular graph that would prove the existence of the Higgs boson. These graphs and charts were made a long time ago, and yet to this day they haven't even started colliding particles at the LHC.

No matter how much a certain experiment costs- from a few thousand to several billion- researchers are held to the same rigorous standards. They must show exactly why the experiment will work, and exactly what the experiment will establish (or no funding!).

Now, to see why I'm a little peeved, let me ask this question: What did Obama do to show that his $3/4 trillion stimulus package would work? All I've heard is a few political sound bites- from both sides of the aisle.

I'm not saying I'm against the package. I'd say I'm cautiously optimistic about it (I voted for Obama, after all). I, however, am concerned with the fact that I've never seen a shred of evidence relating to economic policies. I've heard arguments, but evidence is apparently hard to come by.

I'm aware that economics are quite a bit different from physics. It's definitely harder (maybe impossible) to simulate an economy inside a computer; the variables are uncountable, and people as a whole are unpredictable- even in a statistical sense (that's probably what separates us from animals).

However, economics is a real area of study. People get PhDs in the subject. Papers are published on a regular basis. A Nobel Prize is awarded in economics EVERY YEAR for crying out loud!!! I can't imagine that there isn't a shred of evidence out there that supports the conclusions they make. Why don't they let us see it?

The reason why, I think, is that the people who talk to us about the economy aren't economists- They're politicians. The burden of proof no longer exists when good salesmanship will achieve the same end.

This, coincidentaly, is the other thing I don't like about economics: It's impossible to separate it from the politics that drive it. I can't help but draw a parallel between today's economic theories and the phrase "Christian science". No scientific theory is viable if it is influenced by ideas taken from religious beliefs. In the same way, I won't believe in an economic theory if its purpose is to back up someone's politics.

In other words, I won't believe anyone when they say that tax cuts are the key to fixing the economy. It could be true, but I can't shake the feeling that the theory behind it was just drummed up to get a few more votes. I'm sure there are a lot of smart people with PhDs that can show me exactly why tax cuts will fix the economy, but then again, there are probably smart people with PhDs that will show me exactly why they won't.

And here's another thing: If Nobel prizes are awarded in economics every year, why is it that I haven't heard any new economic ideas in the last decade? I'd use a longer time frame, but I don't think I was politically aware enough more than ten years ago to formulate a comparison.

Maybe my views on economics are merely a result of my ignorance. I'm sure there are those who can prove all of the statements in this post wrong, but you know what? I'd rather hear it from Washington. Then maybe I'd think that those losers actually know something.

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