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Does economics need more prophets? Thematic summer book recommendations

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New ideas for polar geoengineering reminded me of my favorite book for understanding arguments about environmental solutions: The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann. Gigantic underwater curtains to protect glaciers from warm water is a classic Wizard solution to the problems of rapid ice-sheet melting and sea level rise. Wizards believe human technological ingenuity can best solve problems.

Prophets, on the other hand, hate the idea of geoengineering, whether polar or solar. Since climate change and sea level rise are caused by past technological advancements, the idea that we can solve these problems with more technology exemplifies the colloquial definition of insanity (“doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”). Instead of geoengineering, prophets argue for fewer people consuming and emitting less.

Mann exemplifies Wizards with the agronomist Norman Borlaug and Prophets with the environmentalist William Vogt. Borlaug’s hypothesis was that increasing the productivity of maize and other crops would allow more food to be grown on less land, reducing hunger and the total land under cultivation at the same time. Vogt believed Borlaug was only making environmental problems worse by enabling the human population to continue to grow.  

Historical and contemporary debates regarding solutions to environmental problems partly reflect the personalities of those involved. Wizards are optimistic and excited about the future; in a Big Five sense, they score highly on extraversion and openness to experience. Prophets worry more, scoring highly on neuroticism. They are cognizant of the long history of unintended consequences from environmental interventions. Befitting their name, Prophets also have a strong moral sense of what is “natural” (for example, consider opposition to GMO foods).

In the rest of this post, I’d like to apply the Wizard and Prophet framework to four other recent books I enjoyed, and speculate about the framework’s relevance for the economics profession.

Technological ratcheting

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky asks whether Wizard-style interventions ever end. For example, spraying aerosols to reflect sunlight would presumably reduce realized temperatures compared to the counterfactual temperatures that would have occurred given factors such as the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If the moral hazard of geoengineering allows the stock of greenhouse gases to continue to increase, then more and more solar geoengineering is required to maintain temperatures at a constant level.  

My favorite case from Kolbert’s book concerns carp (fish), which were purposefully introduced to the United States in the 1960s. One reason for their introduction was as a solution to water pollution. Instead of using herbicides to remove weeds from their catfish ponds, farmers introduced carp to eat the weeds. Within 10 years, carp had escaped into the Mississippi River, outcompeting native fish species and subsequently spreading across most of the Midwestern United States. Now, the US Army Corps of Engineers is spending $1.2 billion to expand underwater electric barriers to prevent carp from entering and devastating Great Lakes ecosystems.

This technological ratcheting favors Wizards. Because environmental problems and interventions increase in scale with each iteration of the cycle, at some point only Wizardry is big and fast enough to make a difference. Human ingenuity may be limitless, and the more people there are the more ideas we can think of. But the Prophets’ vision of a smaller humanity, in total population and ecological burden per person, at least has a clear endpoint.

Wizards and Prophets in Economics

Now I’d like to consider whether the Wizard and Prophet framework has broader relevance to the economics profession. For my examples, and in the spirit of more book recommendations for your summer reading list, my Wizard is John von Neumann and my Prophet is John Maynard Keynes.

Von Neumann did many things other than economics, like speculating about geoengineering, but with Oskar Morgenstern he created the utility-maximization framework that most economists still use today. As Benjamín Labatut writes in The MANIAC, von Neumann’s rational agent matches his personality and the early computer he built (the MANIAC of the title). This mathematization of economics pushed our profession toward Wizardry, as Wizards and Prophets are party shaped by their methods.

Keynes was a skilled mathematician like von Neumann, but as Zachary D. Carter writes in The Price of Peace, Keynes’ love for the arts broadened his contributions beyond technical ones. Keynes was a Wizard sometimes and a Prophet at other times. It is difficult to do both responsibly, and important to communicate clearly and honestly which style one is embodying in a particular paper. Keynes’ “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” is a clear instance of prophecy. The article imagines an abundant future, reached through Wizard-style innovation. But in this future, our challenge is not continued innovation; rather, improving our moral sensibilities through music and poetry so that we gain the wisdom to rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Both men contributed to the prominent place of economics in public policy. But today I think economics leans strongly Wizard. Our emphasis on positive rather than normative analysis pushes us toward Wizard-style technical fixes over Prophecy. It’s more politically comfortable to dispassionately diagnose a problem, or suggest a redesign of incentives in a particular setting, than to tell people what to do in the manner of a Prophet. And Prophecy is not easy to publish in academic journals. In our current age of populism, which aligns more closely with Prophecy than Wizardry, I wonder if our reluctance to employ moral language and Prophet-style rhetoric has contributed to the diminished influence of economics in public policy debates over the last decade (see: recent developments in industrial policy and trade barriers). Prophecy can be more persuasive than Wizardry.

I’ve tried to be hard on Wizards in this post because I imagine most readers will lean Wizard like me. Keynes’ prophecy against an overly punitive Treaty of Versailles proved tragically prescient. But many Prophets and prophecies are inaccurate or damaging. Keynes was an anti-Semite and an elitist, and his prejudices sometimes entered his writing. William Vogt’s prophecies of ecological collapse from “overpopulation” have thankfully not come to pass, and these kinds of arguments have had racist foundations and coercive implications.

I’ll close with a final book recommendation: King by Jonathan Eig. Martin Luther King Jr. viewed himself as a literal prophet, compelled by God, to deliver his message, regardless of the consequences for himself or his family. King’s moral clarity and purpose enabled him to ultimately exert huge influence in the United States. What we do as economists is of course quite different from King’s work. But we are studying big problems, and working to solve them with the moral urgency that King brought, is, at least for me, motivating and inspiring. 

Gabriel Englander

Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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