Economy

EYE ON THE PIE: Economics and intelligent design

November 14, 2005

It felt strange sitting before an interim committee of the Indiana General Assembly. The questions were coming quickly and with a decided passion.

"Mr. Marcus," Rep. Rottweiler demanded, "did you teach economics at Indiana University between 1970 and 2003?" "Yes," I confirmed. "During that time, did you teach the socalled 'Law of Demand'?" he boomed. "If you mean did I teach that when the price falls, more will be taken, other factors being held constant, yes, I did teach that as an introductory concept," I said. "Interesting," he said, smiling. "Where did you get this 'law'? Is it in the Indiana Code? Can I find it in the Book of Leviticus?" I stammered, "It's not that kind of law. It's an established part of economic theory confirmed by everyday observations." "So, a fundamental concept of economics is based on observations," Rottweiler bellowed. "What causes those observed events to be as they are?" I tried to think up a reply consistent with the dignity and intelligence of the General Assembly. "If we keep all other prices the same, and we keep income the same, most folks would rather have more pork chops than fewer. Now, if the price of pork chops sold at the State Fair is reduced, the number of pork chops sold will increase," I said. "The answer is not responsive to the question," said Sen. Dubai. "We will accept your statement as true. We want to know, 'Why is it true?'"

"Exactly," Rottweiler said. "How did this come about?"

"It just seems to be human nature," I said, shrugging, unwilling to go into the theory of marginal utility. "If you raise prices, people will buy less of the thing with the new higher price and buy more of other things. It works wherever prices are flexible and people are free to choose what they buy."

"So," he showed some teeth, "you taught students at the state university that a great truth has no origin, no starting point, that it's just something that exists."

"Yes," I said. "A great truth is something that allows us to understand many observations by organizing them into patterns we call theories. Great theorists (like Albert Einstein) may develop their theories before the observations can be made. Most economists are not great theorists. Like Adam Smith, they use what they observe and develop theories from those observations."

"Did you teach your students alternative economic theories?" Rottweiler asked.

Suddenly I noticed an attorney sitting by my side, but his head was turned away.

Rottweiler pursued the point. "Mr. Marcus, did you teach students the role of intelligent design in economics?"

My attorney now was looking at me but I could not understand his expression.

"Are you prepared to say there is no role for intelligent design in economics?" Dubai asked.

Rottweiler continued. "Does the stock market make some rich and ruin others without intelligent design? Do people lose their jobs, go on unemployment, and see a decline in their living standards without intelligent design?

"Don't you believe that the American economy is the strongest in the world because we have embraced the design of a being that rewards virtue and punishes evil? Don't you believe that students need to understand the principles behind economic systems? Is your brand of economics the only one that should be taught?"

I wanted to answer but my attorney was sniffing the air as if to give me some signal.

"Mr. Marcus," Dubai said, "What reservations do you have about teaching intelligent design in economics classes?"

I said, "How could intelligent design be disproved? Science and scientific thought require that theories be capable of being proven and being disproved. With intelligent design, whatever happens is the result of the designer's intent or incompetence.

"If the market falls 1,500 points and the pensions of millions are wiped out, was the intelligent designer responsible? If gas prices rise and many are hurt, while a few make great gains, was it a consequence of the designer's plan? If soybean prices rise, was it the drought, or some intelligent design working as it should or gone astray?

"Reliance on the unprovable leads to a cessation of thinking and an end to inquiry because everything as yet unknown goes back to an intelligent, but not necessarily benign, design."

Both Rottweiler and Dubai were about to speak when I realized my attorney was the dachshund on my bed and I had been having a nightmare.



Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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