Monday, February 9, 2009

The Economy: It's Science, Stupid!

A saying made famous in the War Room of President Clinton’s 1992 campaign was the oft-quoted “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” It’s not entirely clear who first coined the phrase – I’ve heard both James Carville and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned as possible authors – but there’s no doubt of its inherent wisdom. It’s as true today as it was in 1992 and given the rate at which our economy continues to worsen it ought to become a mantra repeated dutifully by every member of our society who has any possible contribution to make to economic recovery.

In all the recent talk about the economy – in all the Senate debates, press conference, Sunday news shows – it has become equally clear that Democrats and Republicans – at least with respect to the current economic crisis – are divided along the lines of evidence-based versus ideology-driven policy. President Obama promised during the campaign and his inaugural address to restore science to its rightful place. Without scientific evidence and critical thinking we will see further deterioration of this society and our ability to positively impact the rest of the world. Ideology-driven policies are subject to biases, prejudices, exclusion and raw emotions, like fear.

The wide ranging effects of ideology-driven policy in this country have never been more apparent than in the monumental clean up necessitated by eight years of presidential malpractice at the hands of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Right now, in the face of evidence that 1) an economic stimulus package is absolutely essential to turn the tide of the economic downturn and 2) spending is an inherent part of stimulus, Republicans continue to argue for government to keep its hands free of intervening in the economic wows. If anything, Republicans want tax cuts – particularly for corporations and business people at the upper income levels – a practice that helped to catapult this country into the precarious situation at present. Indeed a test vote in the Senate today got the votes that will be needed to pass a stimulus package but only three Republicans had the moral courage to cross the proverbial aisle and join in support with their Demographic colleagues.

When Obama says “I won’t return to the failed theories of the past eight years.” he is implying that his administration’s approach to macroeconomics is based on empirical data. We have, in other words, scientific evidence – reliable data – that a spending approach/stimulus package will promote economic recovery. Harvard economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has discussed the importance of economic stimulus for weeks now. Indeed his most recent column in the New York Times expresses his fear that the stimulus – now delayed by Republicans and perhaps watered down in ill-considered attempts at compromise – will be too little, too late.

The economic system, together with its inexorable ties to subsistence practices and the physical environment, is arguably the most basic foundation upon which society rests. The integration of the environment, subsistence, and economic exchange and their impacts on other aspects of society are well documented among anthropologists. Theoretical orientations including cultural materialism, cultural ecology, political economy and political ecology all reinforce the key position of the economy in other aspects of society.

Anthropologists also recognize, however, that different components of society change at different rates, creating a cultural lag. And, American society demonstrates a cultural lag between science and empirical thinking on the one hand, and an ideology that’s lagged far behind – an ideology closely akin to magical thinking, on the other. And so, for example, in the face of overwhelming evidence for climate change and global warming, there are those who deny it and attempt to argue against it. And, as Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday approaches – and in light of the tens of thousands of fossils, DNA studies and comparative anatomical investigations that have taken place since Origin of Species was published in 1859 – we still find individuals who will argue vociferously that human beings were created in their present form some 10.000 years ago. Understanding and interpreting data that informs us about our economic crisis presents a similar challenge in today’s world.

Scientists should be actively engaged in responsibly representing and explaining the results of empirical investigations. I’ve always believed that anthropologists have a tremendous responsibility in this regard. We who have inherited hundreds of years of empirical studies focused on our own species (and our close relatives the living primates) – we who devote our own legacies to the further study of humankind – must contribute to resolving the complex and dire problems of the contemporary world.

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