Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Problem of Perspective

If you ever happen to find yourself on the campus of Montana Tech, in Butte, and your eyes happen to wander to the east, your gaze will be greeted by a stunning scenic display. Historic gallows frames from the old mining days dot the foreground, while the hillside behind them appears as artistic horizontal bands of orange, red, yellow, and brown. I know of at least one artist who made that hillside the subject of a rather pretty series of oil paintings.

That hillside, of course, is the Berkley Pit: America's biggest superfund site and once known as “the richest hill on earth.” Those beautiful bands of color are the end result of environmental pillaging on an almost unimaginable scale; the lovely hues that paint the terraced hillside come from over a century of mining waste and pollution. The richest hill on earth has become its foulest pit, but from a distance it looks sorta pretty. If you get a little closer, down inside of it, say, the view isn't nearly so pleasant.

This is by way of making a point about perspective, description and knowledge. The perspective from which one views the world has necessary consequences on one's description of the world. One's description of the world dictates which facts about the world one can become aware of, and which facts one cannot (because they fall outside of one's description). Any economist necessarily views the economy from a particular perch within the economic system which s/he is describing. The location of this perch is an over-determining factor in the economist's economic thinking and outlook. It largely determines which phenomena they see as problematic and which as salutary, which problems they consider relatively minor, to be safely ignored, and which need immediate addressing.

Most of those whose occupations consist of describing the economy and its functioning occupy perches that are, at the very least, situated well within the top half of the income distribution. Even relatively low-paid adjunct professors, if not especially affluent, are at least part of the white-collar, professional world. This uniformity of perspective has important effects on economic theory and knowledge. It is as if economists were trying to describe the Berkley Pit, but never venturing any closer to it than the Montana Tech campus. This is not to imply that there is nothing important that one might discover from that perspective, but rather to point out that many important aspects of reality are simply not accessible from that vantage point.

In the same way, economists whose entire experience of the labor market consists of holding one or another academic post, can hardly be expected to have much to contribute to discussions about the low-wage service sector. From behind a desk in the ivory tower the psychological suffering faced by “the working poor” on a daily basis probably doesn't seem like such a big deal. For a tenured academic, it might be difficult to understand the psychic toll that a lifetime of having little-to-no control over one's work takes on a person. There is knowledge about the workings of our economy, vital, relevant knowledge, that is simply “invisible” to most economists because they've only seen the view from the hilltop, not from the valley.

In order to overcome this blindness, economists need to learn to listen to people who occupy other perches in our economy, especially perches below their own. We would have very different economic policy prescriptions if economists spent less time in the tower and more time in the street, examining those things which aren't visible from the faculty lounge.