Economic Update: The Harm Done by Economists

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This week on Economic Update, Prof. Wolff talks about the unionization drive among minor league professional baseball players, high poverty rates among US families working full-time year round, and the economics of discrimination against pregnant women. In the second half of the show, Wolff interviews Prof. George DeMartino on the harm done by the economics profession and why it denies doing so.


Transcript has been edited for clarity

Welcome friends to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives and those of our children coming down the pike. I'm your host Richard Wolff. In today's program we'll be talking about unionization among professional baseball players, we'll be talking about full-time workers who end up being poor by American standards and we'll talk about the special conditions and positions of pregnant women in the American labor force, because all of those particular issues touch very large questions in our society, which is why we choose them for analysis.

So let's begin with baseball. For those of you who may not know, we have a baseball system here in the United States: 30 teams making up Major League Baseball. But each of those teams maintains what are called Minor League teams. This is where young men and, hopefully in the future at least, young women who are very good at playing baseball get a chance to show just how good they are by playing a regular season against other teams. All of the same apparatus, that's a whole world of Minor League baseball. But those particular players have been ripped off by the capitalists who own and operate Major League Baseball. What do I mean? Well, they are paid very poorly. They are supposed to be so excited about the prospect that if they do well in Minor League Baseball, well, then they will be lifted up into the Major League teams. Now it turns out that the players in the major leagues - those 30 teams - are already unionized. They learned years ago that if they didn't want to be ripped off by the people who hired them and purchased them for playing in the teams they better be unionized. And they have been. And the Union is called the Major League Baseball Players Association - MLBPA. And the interesting thing was this Summer (Summer of 2022) the MLBPA decided to try to organize the Minor League players into a local of their Union, a part of their Union, and thereby do for them what had been successfully done for the Major League Baseball players decades ago.

Here's the interesting thing: number one, this decision is obviously shaped by the spread of unionization across the American landscape; Starbucks, Trader Joe's, Chipotle, Amazon, the story goes on. The unionization bug is everywhere. The people of America, as I have reported, support unions. Better than 70 percent of polls show that. And so it's spreading everywhere. And everybody's thinking about it. So, yeah, of course the Major League Baseball Players Association thought of doing that for the Minor League players. Remember, most of the Major League players were Minor League players before. They understand very well what they had to go through, how they were ripped off, etc.

So here's now the interesting news. How many Minor League players are involved? About five thousand. So this is a big job. In a week and a half this Summer better than half of them signed unionization cards, which is the way you require an employer to hold an election where the prospective members of such a union can vote yes or no, they want it or they don't want it. That is record time, that is extraordinary for any group of workers to be that enthused about a union that in a week and a half you sign up over two and a half thousand of them. Okay, so that's the sign and because it's baseball players and because baseball is a national pastime of the United States it is not only a reflection of the unionization drive, it will itself bring to the thinking of millions of Americans who follow baseball, both Major and Minor, that unionization is really becoming a phenomena of our time on a scale few of us would have anticipated a year or two ago. It's extraordinary. And we've had Chris Smalls on this program talking about the union drive he succeeded in leading at Amazon. But even he wasn't as expansive about where this could go. Although he was clear about what he had achieved and what was possible at Amazon.

My next update has to do with families here in America that work full-time. There's been a recent study, and that's what I'm basing this commentary on. There's been a recent study of what the conditions are of the people who work full-time (full-time 40 hours a week or more,) and are poor. The study was commissioned and performed by the Russell Sage Foundation - very old, very well reputed foundation that studies all kinds of social issues. And they published something called The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. And that's where the report comes from. The article in the report was written by folks at Brandeis University's Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy. So these are very well established old organizations studying this subject. So let me give you a snapshot of what they found. 35 percent of families who work full-time, year-round do not earn enough to cover the basic needs of housing, food and child care. Let me repeat that, over one third of the families in America who work full-time, year-round are poor, to say it simply. Wow! There are not enough jobs. But, even worse, the jobs there are pay so badly that you're poor even though you work full-time, year-round.

Let me give you some of the particular statistics: more than half of full-time working Black and Hispanic families - 52 percent of the black, 59 of the Hispanic - do not earn enough to meet their basic needs. For white and Asian families the percentages are 25 and 23 percent. Here's another example: low-income Hispanic families have extremely limited access to benefits when they work full-time, year-round. More than half - 52 percent - of Hispanic families do not have health insurance at their job. And more than three quarters have no pension. You know what happens if you're a family working full-time with tired parents coming home after a full-time year-round job and you don't earn enough to take care of your family and you have no pension and you have no health insurance? You condemn those innocent children to be as poor as you are. They can't afford the supports, they can't afford the education. It's condemning an enormous portion of your people to endless generations of being at the bottom of the economic pole. And you know what it also teaches us, in case we still need to learn, don't ever think that the reason we have poor people is because they don't work, or they don't want to work, or any of that rationalization. Here's the statistics: poor people are often, in huge numbers, people who work, yeah, full-time, year-round. And you know one of the lessons you give to children? If they're poor, despite their parents working all the time, they're not going to have a lot of respect for jobs, they're not going to look for the kinds of work that their parents never found and that are probably not there for them yet either. Don't make up a program that provides jobs for people. Because the jobs for people have left more than a third of the people working year-round, full-time poor. It's a very important issue.

I come, finally, to pregnant women. Pregnant women are also being studied with a new interest by people who really care. In this case Monash University of Business. The School of Business at Monash University in Australia studied pregnant women and discovered that huge numbers of them suffered job discrimination, get fired when they're pregnant, have their jobs changed when they're pregnant. Or when they come back they have a different job than what they had before. What's going on? Employers have the view that a pregnant woman may be a cost to the business. She may need time off later on to deal with all the problems of child care. I find this extraordinary on two levels. Number one: it forgets that a woman who goes home to give birth and raise children develops all kinds of sensibilities, skills and attitudes doing something as fundamental as raising children that have enormous application in the job. So why not give them a raise? Because they're bringing new skills when they have children, and have to cope and run families, which is usually overwhelmingly a woman's job, even today.

But there's a second irrationality here. Raising children, that's the future of our society, it's a future of our species. This is extremely important work. Why are you punishing people who undertake to do something that society needs and benefits from? Having children, having them raised in a way where they become productive, contribute back to society. I'm talking at a time when the newspapers are full of stories about a labor shortage. Well, that's what birthing helps to solve. We are allowing private employers making private decisions about what's privately profitable to disincentivize young people from having children. We are allowing the private profit of employers to destroy, to block, to damage something we socially need. Which is happy young children in a loving household learning how to become adults. This is a stupid way to organize things, that it hurts these women and it hurts their families and it hurts their society. And, you know, the bigger question here is we shouldn't be allowing employers whose interest in profit to make a decision that affects the reproduction of our community. That's the fundamental problem here and why I bring it up.

We've come to the end of the first part of today's show. And for those of you who may not know, Economic Update is produced by Democracy at Work, a small donor-funded non-profit media organization celebrating 10 years of producing critical system analyses and a variety of media content. Like the podcast called 'Cities After...' It's hosted by Professor Miguel Robles Duran - where he discusses the future of cities through the lens of daily urban struggles, with the intention of sparking citizens' civic imaginations and inspiring us all to get involved and take action. You can find his show and more at our website democracyatwork.info. Please remember to follow us on social media, especially our newly revamped Instagram channel. And also to be sure to sign up for our mailing list. And, of course, support our work in a variety of ways, all of which you can do at that website. Please stay with us, we will be right back with today's special guest, Professor and author George DeMartino.

RW: Welcome back friends to the second half of today's Economic Update. I am very pleased personally, as well as being the host of the show, to bring to our microphones and our cameras George DeMartino. He's a Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He studies economic theory and policy from an ethical perspective, focusing on the ethical behavior of economists. His book 'The Economist's Oath' and his new book 'The Tragic Science; How Economists Cause Harm Even As They Aspire To Do Good' are criticisms of the economics profession. What could be more timely for you, my audience listening to me week after week? So I thought it would be particularly appropriate to ask him to share his research a bit with us. So first of all thank you very much George. I've known you long enough to use your first name. I'm very appreciative that you've joined us.

GD: Oh, Rick this is such an opportunity. I so appreciate giving me time to talk about these issues that I know you and I both care a lot about.

RW: So let's jump right in. Tell me why you call economics the tragic science. Historically it used to be known as The Dismal Science. You know that and so you must have chosen not to use that word. What's going on that you would use tragic?

GD: There's a tragedy at the heart of economics, it can't be eliminated. The tragedy is this: when economists try to make the world better, when they try to promote social betterment they also cause a lot of damage, serious enduring damage. People die by virtue of what economists do. That's a tragedy and it's a trend. And what makes it worse is it's a tragedy that the profession has done its best to repress over the last 125 years at least, to operate as if it can do good in the world without at the same time devastating lives. It's time for us in economics to say 'no, look we're doing a lot of damage. Even when we get it right, and we almost never get it right, but even when we get it right we are hurting people. And a lot of times not only destroying livelihoods, destroying communities, destroying political efficacy, I mean we are damaging people in so many different ways, people also die.'

RW: Okay, I'm gonna play the role of a skeptic. Give us, if you can, a few examples that you would want to stress to get people to understand the kind of harm you're talking about.

GD: 10 million young men died in Russia. These were extra deaths immediately following liberalization of that economy after shock therapy. What was shock therapy? Shock therapy was this approach to policy reform in the former Soviet Union countries to bring them from some sort of a state managed economy to a free market, freewheeling U.S style economy overnight. The leading lights in our profession - I mean I'll give you the name of Jeffrey Sachs, but he he wasn't the outlier here, he was just representative of the consensus thinking - went to Russia, went to Poland, went all over and argued that these countries had no choice; there is no alternative, the TINA thesis, there was no choice but to do it all at once. To overnight privatize these institutes to corporations, get the state out of the economy. The research has been done since, it indicates that this was devastating - 10 million extra deaths. Now, in percentage terms Rick we're talking larger than the deaths from wars and pandemics. We're talking about a massive loss of life. Did it have to happen? I would argue it didn't have to happen, it was brought about by an immense historical mistake.

A second example: economists, for a very long time, many, many decades, and I'm talking about the leading lights in our profession, the most important ecological economists argued that global warming was really not something that we needed to worry too much about, we didn't need to throw lots of money into slowing down the rate of carbon emissions and the like because the cost wouldn't be so grave. Well, we now know those economists were fundamentally wrong and the costs are immense. Those are just two examples but there are so many more mundane examples. Every time an economist does a cost-benefit analysis and says we should gentrify that poor neighborhood they're doing extraordinary damage, they're destroying the lives of people who are about to lose not just their individual homes but their communities. It happens and this is my point Rick. It's not just a problem of the leading lights in our profession. Everyday economists are contributing to serious harm as they go about trying to promote social betterment.

RW: Tell me, in your mind why don't they admit it? You know, at least, and you give this example too, in the medical profession there's this long history going way back to the Hippocratic Oath that a doctor has to kind of begin by saying don't do harm in what the doctor does. That's at least a tacit admission that there's harm in the air and that doctors are doing it and so you better be super careful before you push a policy, a medication, an operation. This apparently didn't carry over from the medical profession to the economics profession.

GD: Oh, so much to be said here Rick. First, the economics profession is the only profession I'm aware of that resisted any effort to introduce a field of professional ethics where these kinds of issues could be debated. So we have no... In Medicine, of course, there's a long tradition of physicians and ethicists debating what does it mean to be an ethical physician in a world where you can kill the patient. There's a concept called iatrogenic harm/physician-induced harm. In economics we don't have the tradition. We have no professional ethics. There's no place to talk about these things. We don't even have a word to describe economist-induced harm. So in the book I offer one: econogenic harm - economist-induced harm.

But the second point I'll make, and there's much more to be said which I explore in the book, you know the American Economic Association, the most important association in the world for economists, was created in 1885. Why was it created? Because economists wanted more influence in the world. There's this belief that a world in which economists have a lot of influence will be better than a world where economists have less influence. And so the whole movement, starting in 1885 up to today, is to enhance the influence of economists. One way to do that is by presenting the profession as being able to solve all kinds of social problems without inducing all kinds of harms. I think a serious reckoning with the harm that we do in economics it is feared would undermine our authority and our influence. And that is something our profession is desperate to prevent.

RW: You know, George, to intrude just for a moment, I spent my life going through the economics education offered at Harvard, Stanford and Yale. I'm a poster boy for the elite education system of the country. And it was crystal clear to every one of the students in all three of those universities as we sat through our classes, whether we liked the professor or not, that the lowest importance to our professors was teaching us in that room. The second highest was to be publishing a lot and be esteemed by your colleagues. But the highest was to be called to Washington to advise a President or give testimony at Congress. This brought you into... and when they spoke to us their eyes glistened. So I understand exactly with what you say. It's been in a part of my education and everything.

GD: And you know the funny thing is, Rick, when you talk to economists these days they still think they don't have enough influence in the world, they want more. But you know there's a council of economic advisors for the President. There's no council of sociological advisors, there's no council of anthropological advisors. Economics has massively more influence than any other social science. My view is, by the way, that we have far too much influence. Why do I say that? Because we have taken it upon ourselves to be the harm accountants, to decide what policy is going to benefit what people and harm what people. And therefore what policies should we advocate? And which policies should we not advocate? It's a paternalistic ethos where we're the ones that think we should make the decisions. Who's excluded from this conversation? The people whose lives are about to be devastated by the policies that we advocate. The medical profession moved away from paternalism in the 1970s in response to the patient rights movement. So today 'first do no harm' is no longer the dominant ethic. The dominant ethic in medical ethics is the autonomy and integrity of the patient. In economics we're still operating in 19th century ethics, where we know best. This is for me an ethical outrage.

RW: Could it be that there's a connection between what you've just described and the way we organize our enterprises? We have a tiny group of people at the top - the owner, the founder, the employer. Or if it's a corporation a tiny group of people - board of directors - elected by another tiny group of people - the major shareholders, but these tiny groups make enormous decisions, like whether we're hired or fired, whether we earn more or less, whether the factory closes and moves to China etc, etc, etc and we all have to live with but we're excluded. Is there a connection between the particular capitalist way of organizing production and this peculiar economics profession the way you've described it?

GD: There is such a suspicion among elites, and I include economists here, that if you leave decision making up to, I don't know, let's call them ordinary people... this is how they might talk about it: if you leave decision making up to ordinary people you're going to get disastrous results. You're going to get decisions like electing Trump which I would argue it's the opposite. When you exclude ordinary people from the decision-making that affects their lives, and I mean from politics, to the point you're making, which is the enterprise, you get all kinds of alienation, you get deep-seated resentment and alienation. Which creates the circumstances for the flourishing of the Donald Trumps of the world. So you know, Rick, I hold my profession partly responsible for the horrible decisions now being made. We have not cultivated, we've not given people the opportunity to control their own lives, to have a meaningful say in their own lives. And exhibit A in that is the capitalist enterprise where we just presume that those managers with their MBAs, they're the ones that should make the decisions that are going to bear fundamentally not so much on their own lives but on the lives of those generating the wealth for our society in those factories.

RW: In the little bit of time we have left you and I both know, and you alluded to it earlier, that ethics is not a part of the curriculum of most economics graduate programs, there's nothing about it. It reminds me of my discovery that philosophy, namely the enormous literature about what the truth is or isn't, what a theory is or isn't, the enormous contributions of Hegel around the notion of contradiction, all of that was irrelevant to graduate education and economics. And I thought it was a terrible loss. Is it more or less you're telling us that the same applies to ethics, which is a branch of philosophy, or at least was?

GD: Exactly right. I'm sorry I don't know how to convey how strongly I agree with what you just had to say. Exactly right, there's a notion that in economics that the only ethical question that's worth discussing is conflict of interest. So if you're being funded by, I don't know, a financial firm to do research you should put a little footnote in saying funding for this came from this bank or whatever. But of course that's not even... that's an ethical question but the big ethical questions are the ones you and I have just been discussing - the massive influence that economists have in the world that can lead to massive harm. And, again, I don't just mean an economic policy might cause someone to lose their job temporarily, I mean the destruction of lives, the destruction of communities. That's what professional ethics and economics should be about. We don't have that field. Which means, to conclude, that the typical 24 year old economist coming out of an elite program that gets a job at the World Bank has never had five minutes of discussion of the issues you and I are talking about. I think that's outrageous. And I think it's ethically, but I also think it's incredibly dangerous for society.

RW: Everyone please thank George DeMartino with me for bringing this kind of discussion before us, I'm very grateful. I hope you go take a look at his book and learn the argument in some detail. George, thank you very much again for joining us. And to my audience I will conclude, as I always do, that I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Brendan Tait

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About our guest:  George DeMartino is a political economist at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He explores economic theory and policy from an ethical perspective. In recent years he has focused on the ethical behavior of economists. His recent books, including The Economist’s Oath, criticize the economics profession on ethical grounds. And so does his new book, The Tragic Science: How Economists Cause harm (even as they aspire to do good), just published by University of Chicago Press. Before becoming an economists he was a union organizer and community activist in New Haven, CT.

Links: website: georgedemartino.com

New Book: The Tragic Science: How Economists Cause Harm (Even as They Aspire to Do Good) University of Chicago Press. (https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/T/bo177914924.html)


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Showing 1 comment

  • pasqual digesu
    commented 2022-09-28 11:29:45 -0400
    Excellent and above all an honest presentation by professor DeMartino. This is further logic for the importance of state controlled economics, by a state which elevates all the other social science concerns or myriad of social issues to the same or higher level. We not only gentrified poor neighborhoods in America, but all eastern Europe and Russia with the collapse of the berlin wall. Again, our economic philosophy and practice is contaminated with priorities of capitalism, first and foremost, as it grows and becomes priority now in Eurasia. Again, Unsustainability is the new factor which will be realized sooner than later in all our economic science and policies.
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