Wonking Up The Wrong Tree


Election years tend not to make history for groundbreaking developments in intellectual discourse. The propaganda war fought over low information voters crowds out higher order discussions in an overall dumbing down of the national conversation. But if 2012 is mentioned in the intellectual histories of tomorrow, it is likely to be remembered as the Year of the Wonk. Unlike the SuperPAC’s hatchet men, the wonk deals in hard facts, digging into the technical details of his subject. The wonk knows how to cut through the bluster to get at the data beneath.

Several factors combined to raise the profile of the wonk last year, not least the popularity of Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog and the candidacy of Paul Ryan, along with the ongoing fad for “fact- checking” political rhetoric and the controversy surrounding Nate Silver’s (now vindicated) poll-reading technique. The widespread enthusiasm for all things wonkish is perhaps what Silver would call “the signal hidden in the noise.” There seems to be a strong collective yearning for an unusually capable nerd to swoop in and take all the uncertainty out of our sociopolitical landscape armed with nothing but a calculator and a no-nonsense attitude. Laplace’s Demon could have run as a viable third-party candidate. Indeed, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, this quest for certainty through the quantifiable has captured an entire generation (see “The Empirical Kids,” March 28, 2013).

Of course, policy wonks are limited to commenting on economic issues, which they assume consist purely of number-crunching and do not involve the kinds of moral and ethical questions that burden the so-called social issues. A side effect of this division between soft and hard issues is the tendency to leave the former in the hands of the masses and to entrust the latter to an ever-shrinking number of people who “know what they’re doing,” an elite cadre of technocrats. Jason Stanley investigates this divide in a recent article on The New York Times’s philosophy blog, The Stone.

In “Philosopher Kings and Fiscal Cliffs,” Stanley compares the contemporary situation to Plato’s argument that public policy must be left in especially expert hands. He writes, “In the arena of contemporary fiscal policy… the analogy between someone competent to engage in decision making and a physician seems apt. It is natural to think that competent judgment… requires expert training in economics akin to a physician’s training in medicine.” Stanley works his way toward a provocative discussion of the term “fiscal cliff,” which he suggests may have been coined by Ben Bernanke (wonk extraordinaire) with the intention of tricking the public into opposing the ordinarily popular policy of deficit reduction.

Stanley’s thesis is that the technical complexity of economic reality may require experts to deploy the occasional “noble lie” as a compromise between scientific government and the democratic process. His conclusion is cautious, however. He writes, “The fact that our experts may need to rely on intentionally misleading vocabulary to sway us to act in an emergency is understandable. There are nevertheless clear dangers in continuing to exploit the public’s confusion about fiscal policy when it is useful, and using rhetoric and propaganda to steer public opinion when it is not.”

If for no other reason than its negative implications for the democratic tradition, Stanley’s conceptual framing of economics deserves scrutiny. Is economics really a hard science of a technical nature? Are its premises and conclusions truly value-neutral? A recent essay entitled “The Economics of Splitting Wood by Hand,” which appeared on Front Porch Republic, provides a thicker interpretation of economics and illustrates some of the hidden premises and latent value-judgments in mainstream wonkery. Author John Cuddeback writes about his practice of heating his home with a wood stove and splitting all his firewood by hand, discussing how he has frequently considered whether he should purchase a machine that could do this work for him. He also relates a conversation in which a wonkish individual objected to his practice, saying, “What you’re doing is not economical… Since you are a professional and your time is worth more per hour, you would be better off to pay someone else to do it for you.”

Cuddeback writes, “It seems that here I have bumped up against an unquestioned, at time unconscious, assumption of many in our society: that money can be used as the most reliable standard for measuring and comparing activities.” But he goes on to point out that this economic heuristic, the conflation of value with price, leads to what, from a humanistic standpoint, are patent absurdities: “If on the practical level ‘economical’ means arranging one’s affairs to maximize the earning and utilization of money with a minimum of work-input… I fear that raising my own children would not be very economical… [W]here do we stop?” As a counter-proposal, he offers Aristotle’s position that economics “attends more to men than to the acquisition of inanimate things, and to human excellence more than to the excellence of property which we call wealth.” Therefore, though splitting wood by hand may not be “economical” in the thin sense of “tending to increase one’s net worth,” it may be quite “economical” in the thick sense of “representing an arrangement of worldly affairs tending to foster human excellence.”

Cuddeback’s essay both reveals a hidden assumption of most economic discourse and demonstrates that it fails to adequately account for the complexity of human existence. Moreover, this hidden assumption is of the nature of a value- judgment, which undermines the claim that the “dismal science” is a value- neutral field of inquiry. In the exercise of their technical knowledge, the wonks assume both that only material goods count for economic purposes and that consumption (or buying power) is an adequate indicator of economic health. As a field, then, contemporary economics is reductionistic, materialistic, and consumeristic. And none of these features can rightly be called morally neutral. In fact, at their core, they define a rough anthropology, an account of human needs and human nature. What could be more ethically significant than that?

If our theory of economics is not morally neutral, if wonks have a latent ethics undergirding their facts and formulas, is the popular model on the side of good or evil? It goes practically without saying that our theory will influence the policies we implement and that those policies will affect our behavior in ways both intended and unintended. Tracing the effects a step further, acting in particular ways will tend to shape us into a certain kind of people, and it seems likely that the type of person the theory presupposes will be the type the policy tends to create. Therefore, theory becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If our economics is freighted with reductionism, materialism, and consumerism, Homo economicus will exhibit those traits as well.

Because ignoring the ethical dimensions of our economic issues will not only fail to address the fullness of our humanity but actually create perverse incentives that tend to deform the human person, we cannot rely on a purely technical approach to economic theory. Our metaphysical problems do not admit of mathematical solutions. The familiar resort to hard numbers and bottom-line wonkery will only worsen our situation by perpetuating illusions about the nature of our troubles.


“The Empirical Kids” by David Brooks, New York Times

“Philosopher Kings and Fiscal Cliffs” by Jason Stanley, New York Times

“The Economics of Splitting Wood by Hand” by John Cuddeback, Front Porch Republic 

The Editors

The Fare Forward editorial team consists in Peter Blair, Andrew Schuman, Charlie Clark, Sarah Clark, Jake Meador, and Emily DeBaun, whose bios can be found under their own names.