EYE ON THE PIE: Values, economics go hand in hand

“Why,” I asked myself, “do I write so much about politics when my interests are in economics?”

“That’s easy,” I answered myself. “As an economist, I am interested in the decisions that determine who gets what. Many of those decisions are made by politicians. They decide which roads are repaired, whose children get a good education, who gets good medical attention, and who gets mediocre services. They decide who pays how much in taxes, thereby deciding how much we have left to spend at Wal-Mart or Macy’s.”

“So my interests are in the allocation of scarce resources?” I inquired of myself.

“Right,” I affirmed, endorsing my ego. “And what is the most scarce resource in the world?”

“That’s easy,” I said. “It’s the capacity for humans to learn. There are many people on earth, but for a variety of reasons, they cannot learn. So many are hungry and do not have the energy to learn. Others do not have the time to learn because they are either occupied in the demands of life lived in poverty or they choose to live lives of continuing ignorance. Hence, the capacity we have to learn is not utilized adequately.”

“I’m a snob,” I told myself. “I think people who spend most of their time watching TV or otherwise engaged in recreation are wasting their capabilities.”

“I’m sorry, but I cannot accept the indolence of adolescence, the lack of intensity in our mature population, nor the pathetic resignation of the pensioner,” I replied to my self-criticism.

“Then what kind of world would I have, if I had more influence?” I demanded.

“Given the opportunity,” I said, “I would see that people who showed a willingness to learn were given the opportunity to do so. I would encourage employers to reward those who make an effort and succeed in increasing their knowledge and skills. Degrees earned and courses taken would count, but expanding experience would also be of great consequence.

“Note, I say, expanding experience, not repetitive experience. Doing the same thing over and over may make one better at a given task, but the world requires people who can face new tasks. I would want employers to hire and promote people who use their learning capacity and their ability to transform learning into productivity.”

“So am I saying that the goodies in life ought to go to those who learn things and apply that learning?” I asked.

“I’m not sure it is that easy,” I replied. “We still have to make choices about what is learned and how it is applied. Ideally, in the marketplace, those who satisfy the wishes of consumers are rewarded. Ideally, through political choice, we determine how our collective wants are satisfied. But the world does not operate in an ideal fashion. Not every virtuous cause is advanced.”

“What am I saying now?” I said.

“I don’t feel the learning needed in our society is related to occupations as much as to values. Not values of the fanatics who advocate restricting the behavior of others, but the values of liberty and choice based on a decent education in the humanities,” I answered.

“Then we’re back at the beginning,” I proclaimed. “The humanities include moral philosophy, which is the foundation of both economics and politics.”

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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