Some Preliminary Thoughts

Against Efficiency

Welcome to the second post of Some Preliminary Thoughts! (Slightly delayed, but look for me again—in shorter form—next Monday!)

It was so nice to hear from so many of you after last week's post 💚. I'm so privileged to have such kind, thoughtful, and curious friends & family, and I love that this is helping me keep in touch with you all.

I've been thinking a lot about the problems with optimizing and efficiency this week, so in honor of that, today's recipe is a languorous lasagna that will take a whole afternoon (though much of that is passive simmering and baking). But the effort it takes only adds to the enjoyment.

The book:

Berman, Elizabeth Popp. Thinking like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in U.S. Public Policy. Princeton University Press, 2022.

Thinking like an Economist

This was part of my list on "The Political Economy of the Social Sciences"; this week, I read a bunch of histories of econ; stay tuned for histories of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and behavior genetics!

Thinking like an Economist is an eminently readable book—so readable that I almost feel guilty abstracting it, because you can and should just read it yourself! It's about far more than how efficiency replaced equality: Berman traces how an economic style of thinking has led US public policy to value efficiency over almost any other value. This is much to the detriment of our political life.

The book begins by tracing how, after WWII, economists from Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the RAND corporation (an Air Force-funded private research organization that was very influential during the early Cold War) found their way into the halls of power by arguing that economics principles could be leveraged to make everything more efficient. The US Federal government was expanding to unprecedented size, with Cold War military spending and Johnson's Great Society reforms giving the Feds a bigger role in military and civilian planning alike. Their offer was hard to refuse: who wouldn't want to optimize airlifts into blockaded Berlin, or run the War on Poverty, without breaking the bank?

The danger is this: every time a public policy decision becomes about making the most efficient choice, the implication is that there's an empirically correct choice, so this is a decision that can be tackled by the experts, safely removed from public deliberation. This sets up a false dichotomy, between our values and how we achieve them, between our ends and our means. The economic style of thinking Berman writes about is supposed to be value-neutral: elected officials choose the values, and economists choose how to optimize them. But in practice, efficiency is itself a value, and it hides other, implicit decisions.

Co-opting consumer welfare

One example Berman cites is antitrust policy. If monopolies are a political problem, as they were seen before WWII, then coercively breaking up big companies just for being too big makes sense. But as lawyers, legislators, and regulators adopted the economic style of thought, they came to see US antitrust laws as more about protecting low prices–an easily quantifiable measure of "consumer welfare"–than anything else. And academic economists started publishing research claiming that mergers would keep prices low through economies of scale. So mergers accelerated, and now markets from air travel and e-commerce to eggs and telecommunications are relentlessly consolidated. In some cases, this means companies can raise prices with virtual impunity. In others, prices remain (relatively) low, but service suffers: think about your internet provider's customer service, or the junkification of Amazon (see below).

For the economists supporting the loosening of antitrust enforcement, the free market (like all markets) was supposed to increase efficiency, and they presented supposedly value-neutral arguments for letting companies merge. But this focus on efficiency excluded other values: equality, but also community connections (as Wal-Mart guts Main Streets around the country), fair governance (as monopolists use their profits for political power)... the list goes on.

The apotheosis of this style of thinking, for Berman, is Obamacare: the market mechanism is supposed to be more efficient, but it still leaves millions of people uninsured and millions more frustrated with expensive plans. The book probably went to press before the Inflation Reduction Act was passed, but the Biden administration policy agenda, with its market-based mechanisms for fighting climate change, is exactly the policy she predicts the Biden administration would pursue.

A partisan asymmetry

It's not a coincidence these are capstone agenda items for Democratic presidents. Berman notes that Democrats seem to have adopted the economic style of thought far more wholeheartedly than Republicans. Democrats embrace market-based climate policy, health policy, and welfare reform in the name of efficiency. But when Republicans want to reduce abortion, they don't institute a cap-and-trade scheme to increase the costs of abortion, they ban it.

That's not a value I agree with, but it doesn't pretend to be value neutral. I think our democracy would be healthier if we argued on the level of values, rather than trying to put everything in terms of economic costs and benefits.

Other stuff I liked this week

Why Amazon is increasingly full of junk—The "efficiency" mindset that equates consumer welfare with cheap crap probably has a lot to do with why Amazon was allowed to become so monopolistic in the first place, and now we're reaping what we sowed.

New Marina story just dropped!—optimizing the efficiency of egg production rather than examining our assumptions about protein systematically (beans, wheat gluten, and even potatoes are often cheaper per gram protein than even heavily subsidized eggs) has made us vulnerable to price gouging, pollution, and epidemics, in addition to propping up a industry that's nightmarish for all involved.

How Effective Altruists Ignored Risk (specifically, the risks of optimizing without humility)—This was one of the first pieces Marina assigned at Vox, and it's a great study in how a goal that sounds good (why wouldn't you want your altruism to be effective?) can all-too-easily descend into optimizing for the wrong things (like ranking other members of your movement by IQ to decide who gets career opportunities).

The finale of Derry Girls—an extremely watchable and touching show about growing up while Living Through Historyтм. Between that and the fashion choices, the titular Girls could almost be COVID-era zoomers.

@mbolotnikova tweets: "My husband is in the next room literally sobbing at the derry girls finale 🥲"

It's me, I'm the crying husband

The Recipe: Vegan Lasagna

(I'm mostly going to link to external recipes, otherwise this will become some sort of caricature of a recipe blog where you have to read a discourse about the history of economics before getting to the recipe. But this recipe has changed a bit in its transmission, and I'm proud of it, so here goes!)

When we traveled to Alberta for my Nana's funeral this summer, I was touched at the effort her sister's family went to in order to ensure we had a delicious vegan meal. This lasagna comes from friend of the family Ani, with my mom, Marina, and I each adding our own twists.

lasagna

Sauce

For these canned tomato products, don't worry if your can(s) are an ounce or two off in either direction:

Other ingredients

lasagna

Directions

  1. In a large pot, cook the meat, onion, and garlic over medium heat until browned.
  2. Stir in the spices (fennel, pepper, & pepper flakes) to allow to toast for one minute. Then add the tomato paste, basil, and oregano, stirring until the paste begins to darken as it caramelizes
  3. Add the crushed tomatoes & tomato sauce, plus the water, sugar, and salt to taste. Simmer, covered, for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. After about an hour of simmering, make a "flax egg" by mixing the flax meal with 3 Tbsp warm water in a small bowl. Prepare the almond ricotta, then combine it with the flax egg.
  5. Preheat oven to 375 ˚F (190 ˚C)
  6. Assemble in the following order, from bottom to top:
  1. Bake, covered in foil, for 25 minutes (use cooking spray or distance to keep the cheese from sticking to the foil). Bake uncovered for another 25 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes before serving.

For a cheaper and healthier alternative, replace the plant-based meat with 1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts and 1 cup red lentils. Soak the lentils in water for 30–60 minutes before cooking. Add the walnuts to the pot while sauteing the onions and garlic so they can toast a bit, and add the lentils with the canned tomatoes.


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