Have We Won the Empirical Debate About Economic Policy/What issue can and can’t be debated to a consensus


In any debate about governmental and economic policy its seems to me three elements are involved.  The first two can be discussed conceptually to a consensus resolution and third can’t.  Discussion of redistribution of income illustrates how that issue is coming to issue that can’t be resolved.

Of the three elements the first is there a problem?  For example is the distribution of wealth or income becoming more unequal?   Is this true even if non-cash income is counted?  Many issue about measurement will arise.  But at least conceptually these question should be resolvable.  These are simply questions of what are the facts, though often times these can be disputed for a long time.  If there global climate change would be a similar question.

The second element is how to address the problem.  Also what side effects of policies will arise?  If you redistribute income or try to will you be able to do so?  Is likely instead that tax avoidance, evasion and reduced work effort will defeat the attempt.  Is cap and trade or carbon tax a better approach to reducing green house gases.  I believe that people of can in good faith ultimately resolve this kind of question thought spirited but ration debate and discussion.

The third element is apart of the facts, and means to reach certain ends, what ends do we want?   Do we want a more equal distribution of wealth and income is that necessarily desirable?  People will disagree about this and I think it a philosophical issue that can’t be resolved even by discussion in good faith.  It just boils down being able to picture different societies and which one more people will support.

Matthew Yglesias:

Yglesias » Pity For The Rich: You can tell something’s happening in the economic policy debate when you start reading more things like AEI’s Arthur Brooks explaining that it would simply be unfair to raise taxes on the rich. Harvard economics professor and former Council of Economics Advisor chairman Greg Mankiw has said the same thing. And of course Representative Paul Ryan is both a fan of Books and a fan of the works of Ayn Rand. Which is just to say that we used to have a debate in which the left said redistributive taxation might be a good idea and then the right replied that it might sound good, but actually the consequences would be bad. Lower taxes on the rich would lead to more growth and faster increase in incomes.

Now that idea seems to be so unsupportable that the talking point is switched. It’s not that higher taxes on our Galtian Overlords would backfire and make us worse off. It’s just that it would be immoral of us to ask them to pay more taxes even if doing so would, in fact, improve overall human welfare.

If that sounds remotely plausible to you, you might have a lucrative career ahead of you working as an apologist for said Galtian Overlords. If not, then congratulations for possessing a modicum of common sense.

Have We Won the Empirical Debate About Economic Policy
J. Bradford DeLong
Sat, 23 Apr 2011 17:05:51 GMT

I agree that redistributive policy in the past have been dismissed on the grounds of their unintended consequences such as reduced work effort, not on the grounds that egalitarian goals were undesirable.   That seems to be changing as redistribution is opposed as having undesirable, even immoral goals.  The policy disagreement is moving from the first two elements to the third, and as such isn’t subject to any kind of resolution based on a technocratic agreement on facts or mean.

Brad DeLong is often worth a read, but I think is intellectually dishonest in that he treat all policy disputes as subject to technocratic resolution.  That’s not true.

As I said an issue’s facts and means to ends can be resolved as technical or empirical question.  However I don’t think we can demonstrate what ends as a society we want to pursue in a technocratic way.  DeLong ignores this fact, and shouldn’t claim be able dismiss those who disagree with the grounds of science when its his preferences in fact.

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