The Problem of Value - Economics as a Moral Science

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Review of Books Foundation held a conference about economics. The title of the conference was “What’s Wrong with the Economy and with Economics?” The conference featured academics and public intellectuals giving short talks and engaging in debates about modern day macro-economic trends. All the videos from the conference are available on the NYRB site.

I started by watching a panel on The Problem of Value: Economics as a Moral Science. This video features a panel moderated by Itamar Rabinovich, with talks by Greta Brochmann from the University of Oslo, Richard Sennett of NYU and Jeremy Waldron also of NYU. Each speaker gave a short talk on their interpretation of the place of “value” in economic analysis. They all had different takes on the topic, but each I enjoyed.

I liked Brochmann’s talk the best because it presented the most concise and comprehensive review of Scandinavian welfare societies I’ve ever come across. She had a great model to present about how the Scandinavian model came to be. What values from its past it incorporated, how it is being challenged in modern day Norway, Sweden, etc and the onset of immigration and their new relationship with the EU. Her approach to this question was much more tactical and micro-econ based, but I think it made the strongest case for the inclusion of moralistic frameworks in econ policy by the state. Econ is often characterized as a faceless, emotionless, humanity-less science - but if framed properly it can be undeniably human, touching every part of the human experience in modern society.

Richard Sennett’s talk was also interesting but for a different reason. He focused on the effect of new economic forces on young people’s valuation and formation of a career and life. This is a particularly pertinent topic for me, at the start of my career. And although I agree with him that things are very different now than they have been ever before (for new members of the workforce), I didn’t come away with some new understanding of how economics was going to help address these changes.

I look forward to checking out some of the other panels in the next few days.