Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Elizabeth Popp Berman's "Thinking like an Economist"

Elizabeth Popp Berman is associate professor of organizational studies at the University of Michigan and the author of Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Thinking like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in U.S. Public Policy, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Thinking Like an Economist is part of the introduction of chapter 5, which looks at how what I call the "economic style of reasoning" spread into social policy -- in antipoverty efforts and healthcare, among other domains. Page 99 describes how the economic style of reasoning -- a loose way of thinking about policy that centers "efficiency, incentives, and choice" -- came into conflict with the arguments that underpinned the legislation launching the Great Society. As I write, some of those arguments were
grounded in the logic of social insurance -- that is, the idea that universal government programs could be used to protect people against risks associated with old ago, unemployment, and sickness or disability. Others, more recent in origin, emphasized democratic participation or the establishment of new rights, including the right to income, to housing, and to medical care. Still others, emerging from the civil rights movement, sought to ensure racial and gender equality. These values imbued the laws that established a wide range of Great Society programs, even as they ran into resistance from politicians who subscribed to competing American political ideals.
The page goes on to describe how the Great Society facilitated expansion of the economic style of reasoning, despite those conflicts, and discusses how the new experts who came to administer and control the Great Society had effects:
Their influence would prove uneven -- significant in antipoverty policy, expanding in health and housing policy, and initially stymied in education policy. Where they became influential, though, they changed the terms of policy debate. Proposals to politically empower poor Americans, to provide a family allowance to all households with children (as did the U.K. and Canada), or to establish national health insurance started to seem inefficient or irrelevant, while proposals that emphasized cost-sharing, means-testing, and 'institution-building for competition' increasingly seemed natural. The commitments to universality, rights, and equality had been sidelined by an emphasis on efficiency, incentives, and choice.
Page 99 does sum up the core themes of the book quite well -- while the book as a whole covers policy domains from antitrust to transportation regulation, the story it tells is fundamentally about a tension between a new, superficially neutral way of thinking about policy problems, the values embedded within it, and how they conflicted with -- and often squeezed out -- competing values -- in ways that had lasting consequences for policy, and especially for Democrats.
Visit Elizabeth Popp Berman's website.

The Page 99 Test: Creating the Market University.

--Marshal Zeringue