Daniel Little’s post about objectivity in media reporting has me thinking about the positive vs normative question in economics. The claim often made by neoclassical economists, when talking breathlessly about profit and utility maximization in the name of efficiency, is that these are positive goals. In other words, we can use GDP as an objective measure of economic well-being because, well, everyone would agree that more is better.
Or would they?
This is where things become tricky. Perhaps the existence of GDP as a primary economic indicator is a normative condition, where the values of certain decision-makers have seeped into the chosen measures.
This is not a new idea, obviously. I’m wondering, though, if an honest economics requires a new standard for discourse. In other words, a code of conduct whereby economists put all their cards on the table and honestly put forth the biases of where they are coming from.
Regarding journalism, Little writes,
In order to arrive at such an account, the honest reporter needs to exercise critical good sense about the sources and the interests that the conveyors of the information have: the biases of the government, the press, and the parties as they provide evidence and interpretation of the events. And we want this account to be as free as possible of the interfering influences of bias and political interest. We want an honest and comprehensive synthesis, not a one-sided spin.
Economics is not journalism. When discussing a hot-button issue, such as a minimum wage, you could argue that the neoclassical argument be presented alongside a feminist argument. But what about the Marxian argument? Or the institutionalist argument? Things begin to get crowded quickly. The easy way out seems to be just presenting the two most common views and the premises used to arrive there, but that entails a normative judgment as well, i.e. that the two most common views deserve the most airing.
I don’t have any answers on this issue. A good first step would be for everyone to stop pretending they are objective, state their premises clearly upfront, and move forward mindful that their premises are not the only ones possible.