Sometimes I think as a society we have been trained to look at our collective problems through a pinhole-sized aperture.
I look at the cost of health care, compared to our poor record – among 11 high-income countries, the US health care system ranks last in performance, even though we spend the most – and I know that there has to be a better way to keep our country healthy.
I look at the $1.7 trillion in student debt and think there must be a way to get back to the status quo of my time in college when four years of tuition at the University of Illinois cost less than $10,000.
I look at the fact that the Child Tax Credit, which was enacted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and lifted millions of children out of poverty, has now been scuttled due to debates over effectiveness and who “deserves” the help, and I 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 studies at the University of Michigan and author of the new book, “Thinking like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in US Public Policy,” I have a better understanding of why these things are so difficult. Berman argues that our most powerful institutions have been imbued with what she calls the “style of economic reasoning,” and this lens has capped a larger discussion about how to think about these societal challenges.
The “style of economic reasoning” is not just about using the tools of a particular discipline to examine a problem, but rather an entire worldview that is fundamentally rooted in valuing “efficiency” above all else. Those who adopt the economic style believe that efficiency is a neutral trait, a measure no different from a leader, but Berman argues that efficiency is itself a value, and often a value that contradicts the real wishes of the citizens.
For example, many believe that everyone has a basic right to health care, a moral claim that does not invoke ‘efficiency’. However, when the economic style is applied to the management of a health care system, the moral claim is discarded in favor of competition and markets. Those who adopt the economy style have an unwavering faith that these mechanisms create the best outcomes for most people.
But that’s obviously not true. As the economy style grew in influence from the 1960s, perhaps peaking in the 1990s and remaining dominant today, we saw growing inequality in the United States.
The economic style is bipartisan in the sense that both Republicans and centrist Democrats wholeheartedly embrace it, though we also see it often abandoned by Republicans (and some Democrats) when it comes to things like defense spending. , where markets and efficiency do not seem to come into play.
Or tax cuts for the rich, which will forever be in the Republican playbook.
Some voices that would like to examine issues of fairness and morality as we examine politics around things like inequality, antitrust issues and the environment are starting to make noise, but the economic style still dominates. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a center Democrat, just passed up the last chance for legislation that would retain some sort of child tax credit due to concerns about “cost.” Classic economy style thought.
Berman makes no specific policy recommendations, but the scope of his book is clear to me.
It is normal to believe that there is value beyond markets and competition, and while efficiency can be a useful goal in many cases, sometimes we should embrace deeper values around fairness. , and dare I say it, good and bad.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities”.
Biblioracle book recommendations
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you read
1. “The Lady in the Lake” by Raymond Chandler
2. “Farewell, my beautiful” by Raymond Chandler
3. “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler
4. “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiel Hammett
5. “Blood Harvest” by Dashiel Hammett
— Mark V., Chicago
Mark says these are all re-reads that he comes back to over and over again. I’ll try to give him a contemporary writer working in the same vein of hard-boiled detective he may not know, Charlie Huston, with the first book in his Henry Thompson series, “Caught Stealing.”
1. “Vampires in Lemongrass” by Karen Russel
2. “Lost and Wanted” by Nell Freudenberger
3. “Writers and Lovers” by Lily King
4. “Circe” by Madeline Miller
5. “It Ends With Us” by Colleen Hoover
—Lisa P., Glenview
I just finished reading Alison Espach’s “Notes on Your Sudden Demise” and thought it was great, the kind of book that makes you not want to start another book for a few days so you can just savor it. ‘experience. I think this will hit home for Lisa.
1. “Land of the Cloudy Cuckoo” by Anthony Doerr
2. “The Young Girls” 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
It’s a bit challenging, with a good range of topics and genres. I need a good story that gives Mandy something to chew on that also maybe has a unique storytelling voice that appeals to you. I’m going with “The Sellout” by Paul Beatty.