Positive or normative?

Matt Yglesias did a recent post with this headline:

The Positive/Normative Distinction In Economics Is Nonsense But It Doesn’t Really Matter

And then concludes with the following:

At the same time, even though the strong distinction between positive and normative economics doesn’t hold up, rough-and-ready versions of it do hold up. Like you and I might disagree on the normative claim that “the Height of Buildings Act in DC should be repealed” while still hoping to agree on the positive conclusion that “repealing the Height of Buildings Act would increase the square footage of leasable office space in downtown DC.” I think both of those claims are correct, but one is an economic analysis and the other is an analysis plus a lot of other things.

I actually don’t have any big problem with this post, but I think the headline is very misleading.  The paragraph I just quoted is exactly how most economists think about the positive normative/distinction.  Matt Yglesias seems like a pragmatist.  I don’t see why a pragmatist would regard this distinction as “nonsense.”

Presumably Yglesias is referring to the fact that most economists aren’t very good philosophers.  I agree, and I’d add that Yglesias knows far more philosophy than I do.  So let’s try to figure out what triggered his revulsion at the philosophical naivete of economists.  I can imagine two problems:

1.  There is the post-modern view that the facts/values distinction is meaningless.  They believe the statement “murder is wrong” is true or not true in exactly the same way as the statement “the Earth is round” is true or not true.  Post-moderns would say (if I’m not mistaken) that both are widely regarded as true.  Or you could say they are both “beliefs.”

2.  The more interesting issue, and the one I think Yglesias is getting at in the bulk of his post, is that our language is saturated with implications of value, even if from a strictly logical perspective there is no necessary value implication.  A while back I discussed a wonderful example by the experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe, who pointed out that (in experiments) whether a person thinks of an action by a corporate CEO as “intentional” depends heavily on whether the impact is positive or negative.  Even a seemingly value-neutral word like “intention,” which I always thought meant “wanted to cause to happen” is actually embedded with hidden value judgments.

At a fairly young age I realized that I looked at the world differently from most people.  For instance, I learned that I was able to look at some issues in a more dispassionate way, to get past the framing issues.  I see this ability in many other bloggers (and commenters) as well.  For example, I see the following two questions as being logically distinct:

1.  Was the US bombing of Hiroshima a terrorist act?  (Intended to terrorize the Japanese into surrendering.)

2.  Was the bombing of Hiroshima justified?

I actually don’t have strong views on these two questions, and will skip any comments that try to bait me into a debate.  But where I differ from most people I meet is that I don’t think answering “yes” to the first question has any implications for the second question.  But the term “terrorism” is obviously fraught with all sorts of value judgments, at least as used in ordinary conversation.

In economics:

1.  I don’t think calling markets “efficient” has any implications on whether we need tighter regulation of risk-taking due to moral hazard.

2.  I don’t think that arguing France has a 10% “natural” rate of unemployment has any bearing on whether the French government should try to do labor market policy reforms to lower their unemployment rate below 10%.

But I do understand the connotations of “efficient” and “natural.”

Tyler Cowen’s book convinced me that my ability to see through framing effects and get to the heart of the positive/normative distinction is an example of the autistic cognitive profile.

My hunch is that this cognitive profile has advantages and disadvantages:

1.  In personal life it might be a disadvantage, giving one less ability to connect with others, leading to misunderstandings when communicating, making one seem cold and impersonal.

2.  In public policy debates this cognitive approach might be an advantage; allowing one to construct public policies that are more humane and compassionate than existing polices, for example by allowing the sale of kidneys, or legalizing drugs.

To summarize, I don’t know the answer to this positive question:

Is there really a philosophically rigorous distinction between positive and normative?

But I do think I know the answer to this normative question:

Should we try to clearly delineate the difference between positive and normative questions?

And that answer is “yes.”

PS.  Is claiming that the world is better off because of a young father’s death (for abstract social welfare reasons) an example of the autistic cognitive profile?  I.e. the ability to see past the emotional considerations?  Or a sign the speaker lacks the common touch to connect with average people?  Or both?  Just asking.

PPS.  Just to clarify, I’m not claiming to be “autistic” in the sense of mental illness, but rather in the cognitive profile sense discussed in Tyler’s book.  Nothing in this post has any implications for people who actually might be mentally disabled.



53 Responses to “Positive or normative?”

  1. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    3. March 2012 at 07:06

    “But I do think I know the answer to this normative question:

    Should we try to clearly delineate the difference between positive and normative questions?

    And that answer is “yes.””

    I am completely with you. I might add there’s a surprising number of people, of all intellectual shades, who are not really aware that this distinction may be made at all.

  2. Gravatar of Justin Irving Justin Irving
    3. March 2012 at 07:29

    Forgive me for being off topic but I am having a harder time listening to Yglesias after his shameful words on Andrew Breitbarts death:

    [see http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2012/03/02/breitbarts_death_and_the_arms_race_of_invective_113346.html%5D

    I understand that there is The Man and The Ideas, but think it is still important that people know the truth about The Man in this case. One needn’t forswear civility to be pragmatic. Yglesias should be shunned for a year IMHO.

  3. Gravatar of Ian Ian
    3. March 2012 at 07:30

    “I don’t think calling markets “efficient” has any implications on whether we need tighter regulation of risk-taking due to moral hazard.”

    Economics has an unfortunate tendency to take ordinary words and give them a technical but slightly similar meaning. Leads to confusion, especially among the general public.

    Image if physicists had picked “zeal” and “refreshment” for Volts and Amps. Here’s a refreshing wire with lots of zeal for you to hold…

  4. Gravatar of Neal Neal
    3. March 2012 at 08:11

    I understand that there is a clear philosophical distinction between positive and normative claims. I believe Sam Harris raised some eyebrows when he argued that the is-ought distinction was fallacious.

    Perhaps snobbily, the difference between people who can slice past moral connotations to precise meaning and people who can’t is the difference between people who can think clearly and people who can’t.

    @Ian: Check out the different flavors of quark …

  5. Gravatar of DW DW
    3. March 2012 at 08:56

    Only autistics can cut through the BS?

    Seems a strong way of framing that claim.


  6. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    3. March 2012 at 09:12

    As to the cognitive profile disadvantages in one’s personal life: in the words of a recent overplayed TV commercial – “That explains a lot, actually”. Are you the lion with the island of misfit toys?

  7. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    3. March 2012 at 10:24

    Economists have adopted the core of their practices directly from deep and well-exposed fallacies from the philosophical tradition — this has been well documented.

    So, the fact that contemporary economics consists largely of incompetent explanatory strategies and failed pseudo-science can be traced directly to the fact that economists are very much in the first instance philosophers — simply very bad philosophers.

    This is the first step in every failed economic explanation — a bit of very unhelpful and fallacious bit of philosophizing.

  8. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    3. March 2012 at 10:39

    The positive / normative distinction as it was developed in economic science comes from Menger and was explicated best by students of the Menger tradition, e.g. Mises, Hayek, Kirnzer.

    Note well that all of these folks REJECTED the world view which still traps Hillary Putnam’s mental framework — positivism.

    Putnam can’t escape this box — and positivists always got the positive / normative distinction utterly wrong, and Putnam and the rest were always utterly ignorant of the origin and main line of the positive / normative tradition in economics, which comes via Menger and _not_ via Hume or Weber.

    Mengerian/Hayekian science lets us understand causal mechanisms which allow us to explain patterns of undesigned social order. (this is science, not normative values.)

    Mengerian/Hayekian science does not tell us what ends we should value or pursue. (these are normative values, not science.)

    There is your positive / normative distinction.

    Now “” as scientists “” economists can tell you is what means will work and which won’t work “” given your whatever ends or values you wish to achieve.

    The same positive / normative distinction applies to the folks who worked at Los Alamos with when making the A-bomb — the scientists said to General Grove — given your ends and set of possible means, here is what science tells us will work and here is what science tell us won’t work.

    (For more complex issues on how judgment norms change during the advance of science, read this:


  9. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    3. March 2012 at 10:48

    Here’s one key distinction between the MENGER tradition and the Putnam/positivist tradition on the positive vs normative distinction.

    MENGER focuses on the means – ends distinction and sound vs unsound causal explanations.

    Putnam and the positivist tradition focus on words — whether particular words express facts or values.

    And NOTE WELL — the positivists were essentially completely ignorant of the mainline Menger tradition, the tradition which inspired Weber’s discussions, discussions which trailed off into an alternative, larger German philosophy context, one that was different from the Menger economic science context.

    The CORE of the matter when it comes to making sense of the positive / normative distinction is the difference between — Menger, Bohm-Bawerk, Wieser, Schumpeter, Mises, Hayek, Kirzner, Boettke, Horwitz, White, etc. — and the positivists, e.g. Carnap, Reichenbach, Schlick, Nagel, Hempel, Putnam, etc.

    If you can’t explicate this difference, you are incompetent on the topic.

  10. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    3. March 2012 at 10:51

    The difference between the positive and the normative: why some people want to avoid courtrooms at all costs as the normative is MIA. The positive is when people agree they want zoning and regulations that help them. How can they resist for it increases their (literal and figurative) wealth at little to no cost. The normative is that they don’t have to think of who is shut out by the new laws and regulations. Since they don’t have to pay to relocate those who are shut out, they end up paying more for prison populations instead.

  11. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    3. March 2012 at 10:54

    For a different perspective than Yglesias’s;


  12. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    3. March 2012 at 11:54

    Interesting topic.

    I sense devout party partisans are simply unable to see past emotional blinders and encrusted shibboleths.

    The attachment to money–by gold nuts, and currency cultists–strikes me as an emotional, even unhealthily obsessive argument.

    Logically, should not monetary policy be that which results in the highest sustained level of real GDP growth (regardless of the structural impediments of government) ?

    Then does it matter if such a “best’ monetary policy results in inflation, deflation or the putative panacea of zero inflation? So inflation result seems worth shrinking long-term real output.

    If 6 percent inflation resulted in highest long-term growth (and see China, btw) should not we advocate for 6 percent inflation?

    But then, I am autistic–so Scott says. But then, I really don’t care what Scott of anyone else says. 🙂

  13. Gravatar of Liberal Roman Liberal Roman
    3. March 2012 at 12:24

    I think most people in the world see things from an aesthetic perspective. The limit on heights of buildings in DC seems like a good idea from an aesthetic perspective to some. To some, building a giant fence along the US-Mexican idea is a good idea from an aesthetic perspective. To others, for the same aesthetic reason, it is a bad idea.

    The utilitarian prescriptive takes a backseat to most people and most people must fight past their aesthetic biases to get at the utilitarian effect of public policy. To those with an autistic cognitive profile, this is perhaps easier. But my guess is, even those people, if they are not armed with any economic knowledge, would seem to side with “common sense” solutions which are actually not solutions at all.

    I think immersing yourself for almost four years in Yglesias/Krugman/Sumner/Cowen is really the only way to get past your biases. At least, that’s what it took for me.

  14. Gravatar of Matthew Yglesias Matthew Yglesias
    3. March 2012 at 13:10

    As a fellow pragmatist, I like your formulation that we should try to separate normative from positive questions. That, to me, captures precisely what’s wrong with both the way this is presented in intro economics textbooks and what’s wrong with efforts to debunk the distinction with great fanfare.

    The point is that the distinction, where it exists, is a product of deliberate human effort. The problem facing a writer or a teacher isn’t the need to correctly identify which is the positive question and which is the normative question. Rather, it’s a pragmatic problem of using language in a helpful way. You “don’t think calling markets ‘efficient’ has any implications on whether we need tighter regulation of risk-taking due to moral hazard” but you also recognize that to many listeners the rhetoric of “efficiency” has a strong normative valence that may end up confusing the issue. The goal should be (depending on the context) to deploy a vocabulary that gets the response you want out of the audience.

  15. Gravatar of Rajat Rajat
    3. March 2012 at 13:42

    Surely a lot depends on the context in which the question arises. A question asked in an economics class demands a more careful response than a question asked in a more casual setting. If, Scott, you were asked by a student in class whether France should undertake labour market reforms, you might say something like “I don’t know” or “that requires a value judgment”. If you were asked to appear as a talking head on a TV show or you were asked this question by someone sitting next to you at a dinner party, you might be more inclined to say, “yes, because their regulations are tighter than most countries and as a result their unemployment rate is higher, so some liberalisation would probably help”.

    BTW, in your first example, I assume you mean ‘informationally efficient’. A market can’t be efficient in the pareto sense if imperfections like information asymmetries mean that there is moral hazard.

  16. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    3. March 2012 at 15:03

    I spent many successful years at national / international debate, and during that time chased down rawls, goldberg, and paglia looking for feet to sit at, things to steal, etc.

    Philosophically, the conversations were deeper years later at The Well – the participants were smarter, and weren’t paid for their biases, which has a FAR GREATER EFFECT on framing effects than “autistic cognitive profile.”

    Which is a load of shit.

    Logic is easy. It is math. Being emotionally clouded is a neural and chemical reaction – frankly Scott is plenty logical, but his value system is merely average.

    I just posted that link about 50% of economists working for government.

    THAT IS the core reason for Keynesian theory having any real weight in today’s economic discussion.

    Truly GETTING OUTSIDE that construct is impossible for anyone whose pay check comes from the government.

    Economics is about Entrepreneurs, Capital, and Customers – by the time you start worrying about: labor, regulation, money supply, taxes, etc. You are focusing on the parasite, not the host.

    Advertising is more important to economics than money supply.


    On the topic, there is a clear should / ought distinction, there are a couple interesting issues where should and ought cross over.

    But language and meaning are to philosophy what advertising is to economics – important, but not as important the basics – individual / state, property rights, liberty.


    On Matty, Justin, don’t worry!

    I’ve adopted the personae of Matty’s dead mom, Margaret Joskow (www.margaretjoskow.com) @margaretjoskow

    I’m not much for blogging, but bots, traffic, and surliness I understand quite well.

    Matty’s mom will have plenty to say about her son’s work.

    When Matty summarily apologizes for his comment on Breitbart, I’ll give him back his dead mom’s legacy.

    Until that time, those that knew Margaret Joskow are going to be far more offended than I am right now.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. March 2012 at 17:02

    mbk, I agree.

    Justin, I’ll let my post speak for itself.

    Ian, Yes, I see your point. “Investment” is another ambiguous word.

    Neal, Yes, the quark flavors do seem kind of odd, but then I don’t know much about the field.

    DW, He means autistic in a good way. 🙂

    Becky, Perhaps, but I missed that reference. Pop culture isn’t my strong suit.

    Greg, You said:

    “Mengerian/Hayekian science lets us understand causal mechanisms which allow us to explain patterns of undesigned social order. (this is science, not normative values.)

    Mengerian/Hayekian science does not tell us what ends we should value or pursue. (these are normative values, not science.)”

    You are claiming Hume would disagree with that? I thought that was also Hume’s view.

    You said;

    “If you can’t explicate this difference, you are incompetent on the topic.”

    Guilty as charged.

    Patrick, I have to admit that I didn’t know who he was. I’m in a cocoon.

    Ben, Yes, money has all sorts of connotations; Hard money, stable money, etc.

    Liberal Roman, I think you are right about the aesthetics.

    It would be interesting to compare the aesthetic taste of liberals and conservatives.

    Matt, That sounds right to me.

    Rajat, I’m not sure information asymmetries are required for moral hazard. FDIC and TBTF and the GSEs create moral hazard.

    Yes, the EMH merely means informationally efficient, not efficient in the sense of pareto-optimal resource allocation.

    Otherwise I agree with your comment.

    Morgan, Do two wrongs make a right? Or is this cliche what you mean by my average values?

  18. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    3. March 2012 at 18:02

    Absolutely Scott. Avg. values.

    Rights come from personal will. Not govt.

    A single man born unto the world, makes a thing to trade with another for something he wants.

    Then, he spends value to protect his work (security) – he hires just enough big guys to kill anyone who touches his property.

    He and those like him, are in charge. WHY?

    Because they can deliver more good, and are willing to provide more credible threats to create the world the way they want it.

    Capitalism at mass scale is just how little guys get to be in charge of big guys, and it is why govt. is formed.

    Guns at mass scale (in the hands of all property owners) are democratic way of enforcing personal threats… if you do X, I will do Y, so government can’t get too big.

    That’s where economics is born from. Economics is the study of these men’s machinations, and politics comes only when they want to buy some security.

    Money, government, all of that is just a down stream effect of the upstream cause.

    This isn’t ranting, this is EXACTLY what happened when the USSR fell. We have a perfect modern proof of what the foundation looks like, we just SAW IT.


    As to Matty, there is no right or wrong, I’m not going to get into those weeds.

    He offended me.

    In return, I’ll have his dead mom cheer the death of countless other newly dead, parroting Matty’s own words.

    If he doesn’t care that thousands / millions of others are offended by @margaretjoskow, or if he doesn’t care enough to apologize (why he says he sorry doesn’t matter to me) in support of his own personal values, I’m willing to run on those too.

    Maybe I’ll get bored, or come to feel bad for those that are offended.

    Right now though, nope – Drew was important to me, and shitting on Matt’s dead mom feels cathartic.

    Lastly, this is easily a crowd source thing, Margaret Joskow doesn’t have to tweet

    “Conventions around dead people are ridiculous. The world outlook is slightly improved with (XXX) dead”

    At people who are mourning…

    I just think that’s fitting.

  19. Gravatar of Socialist_AK-47 Socialist_AK-47
    3. March 2012 at 18:39

    LOL @ conservatives complaining about the reactions to the death of douchebag Andrew Breitbart.

    Let’s not forget what Breitbart wrote at the passing of Senator Kennedy:

    Andrew Breitbart, a Washington Times columnist who oversees Breitbart.com and BigHollywood.com, tapped into the anti-Kennedy vein in the hours after the senator’s death was announced, posting a series of Twitter messages in which he called Kennedy a “villain,” a “duplicitous bastard” and a “prick.”

    “I’m more than willing to go off decorum to ensure THIS MAN is not beatified,” Breitbart wrote. “Sorry, he destroyed lives. And he knew it.”

  20. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    3. March 2012 at 19:49

    Positive beliefs can pay rent. Normative ones don’t.

  21. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    3. March 2012 at 20:12


    nothing funnier than liberals pretending to have guns. b-e-g-g-a-r ask me for change, that’s the only way you get some. You beg for it… I’m a generous guy.

    TKennedy KILLED a woman. His brother while POTUS forced a 19 year old girl to suck someone off.

    I’m not insiting the dead to be remembered well, am I? no you little dear, I’m not.

    I’m going to take out my aggressions on Matt’s dead mom until denouement: tweet deletion (and apology) or my change of heart.


  22. Gravatar of Socialist_AK-47 Socialist_AK-47
    3. March 2012 at 20:26

    Silly Rabbit, socialists don’t beg…we take. Ask the Romanovs.

  23. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    3. March 2012 at 20:37

    Scott asks,

    “You are claiming Hume would disagree with that? I thought that was also Hume’s view.”

    I’m suggesting that is helpful, more useful to focus on causal mechanism explanation, means – ends thinking, and effective or less effective pursuit of differing ends and value — and it is not helpful to focus on words and statements. Hume’s is / ought distinction focuses on words and statements.

    This matters for a number of reasons, among them because the word and sentence model of explanation and goals and values is incomplete and pathological in all sorts of ways, e.g. I fails to capture their content.

  24. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    3. March 2012 at 20:59

    “You are claiming Hume would disagree with that? I thought that was also Hume’s view.”

    Hume was flagging how people shift in the purposes to which people use language, m ing from telling someone what is the case to what ought to be the case.

    Menger, Mises & Kirzner are doing something else. They are saying, whatever your purposes or ends or values might be, here is what can or cannot be achieved given what we know about the causal conditions and mechanisms capable of producing or not producing x, y, or z. They aren’t ever telling anyone what they ought or ought not to do in any moral sense. They are simply laying out instrumental relations, as a pumper would lay out how to achieve the goal of draining your sink. They are not telling you that you ought to value a clean and empty sink.

    So they are making a different distinction and they are showing the relation between things that Hume fails to explicate.

  25. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    3. March 2012 at 21:13

    Note well that Hume understood that normative structures in human ways of going on together had systematic causal consequences — they gave rise to systematic social order. But this isn’t a relation between sentences or a conflation of types of purposes using sentences. The “is” statement / “ought” statement distinction doesn’t come into play. It fits into Menger’s means – ends structure — if you want a social order of extended social cooperation, you’ll want to raise citizens who will follow basic moral norms, e.g Hume’s negative rules of just conduct.

    The means-ends distinction is implicated, the is-ought distinction is not implicated.

  26. Gravatar of Bonnie Bonnie
    3. March 2012 at 23:11

    How do we know what “humane” is if there isn’t any normative reference? What happens when there’s a trade-off to be discussed and there isn’t a frame around the conversation?

    The debate about NGDP targeting could use some framing, like monetary policy doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. It can grow the pie so everyone can have their shot at a piece, in one form or another, instead of shifting between extremes, arbitrarily picking winners and losers. That’s what seems to be the crux of the debate about what to do with money; with different interests having a tug-o-war instead of trying to reach a balance where the trade-offs among the various interests, via actual effects, are minimal. NGDP level targeting seems to have the potential to meet that need for balance under a variety of circumstances while minimizing the guess work involved in day to day market activity.

  27. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    4. March 2012 at 01:54

    “PS. Is claiming that the world is better off because of a young father’s death (for abstract social welfare reasons) an example of the autistic cognitive profile? I.e. the ability to see past the emotional considerations?”

    I think this is a strange question. AFAICT Yglesias has provided no justification (no transmission mechanism) as to why Breitbart’s death makes the world better off. I would guess it’s because Yglesias thinks Breitbart was some sort of demagogue (I don’t know much about the guy), and that his writings had some sort of unhealthy effect on his readers.

    I can sympathize with that view, since I think there are a lot of demagogue-ish writers out there who have unhealthy effects on their readers. Maureen Dowd? Glenn Beck? But should I conclude that the world would be better off if they died? Holy cow, that seems like a pretty complex counterfactual. My first thought is that the evils of a Dowd or a Beck are really a sort of symptom, and that they really reflect societal deficiencies much larger than themselves. So no, I wouldn’t want to claim that the world would be better off if they died. I can instantly imagine scenarios in which things in their absence could be worse.

    To make a long story short, my belief is that Yglesias has put little effort into analyzing the question of whether the world is better off sans Breitbart, or sans particular Breitbart-like folks, and that rather than his comment reflecting an ability to put emotional things aside, it seems to me like a purely emotional comment – Breitbart must have really gotten on his wick. (Not that I don’t have a high regards for Yglesias in general, he just loses me with this one).

    I liked “Create Your Own Economy” too, and I have similar feelings to Scott and some of the other commenters re the autistic cognitive profile. The part of Cowen’s argument I identified with most is the way “regular” folks tend to make requests or comments in an indirect fashion where the meaning is A but the words say B (I hope I remember this argument correctly) – this has driven me nuts my entire life. (Though actually I suspect sometimes I am just a twit about it).

    But rather than being convinced by Cowen’s argument I thought at best it was just something to consider. Personally, I too credit myself with the “ability to see through framing effects and get to the heart of the positive/normative distinction.” But I think this comes to some extent with “liberaltarian”

  28. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    4. March 2012 at 02:05

    Hmmm, my last comment was sent accidentally – I’ll never know whether I was going to decide to submit that one or not. But I’ll finish that last sentence – I think with “liberaltarian” type views it can seem like you’re either talking to committed lefties who want to shoehorn your positive views into one normative framework or else right-wingers who want to shoehorn your views into a different normative framework. So when discussing politics or economics or society, most of your energy goes into resisting the shoehorning. (This was my general experience when younger, as I got older I learned to just play along and avoid pointless discussions).

  29. Gravatar of Kevin Kevin
    4. March 2012 at 06:53

    I’ve run into this type of thing quite often whenever I discuss random policy topics, always apparently taking the position of the ‘autistic cognitive profile’. When I propose the legalization of organ markets, I get called “robot” by people on the other side of the discussion because I spit out reams of economic arguments and basic statistics on organ wait-lists/relative risks of donation, etc. In effect I say, “Everyone recognizes that the status quo is terrible but basic economics says legalizing organ sales would give sick people organs and poor people money. Ergo, we should support legalized organ markets, unless anyone has some compelling reason why not.”

    After I start ruling out objections as logically absurd or inconsistent, only one keeps being brought up – allowing organ sales “looks bad”. And at that point, my mind is boggled. Needless to day, I’ve managed to convince only one person, who was already pretty libertarian to begin with.

  30. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    4. March 2012 at 06:55

    portly, Matty will have plenty of time to think on it. perhaps he also hates his dead mother.


    Guys, seriously, asking WHY is uninteresting.

    It just assumes there is going to be some state, and some technocrats that dis-passionately figure it out.

    Those are bad assumptions. BAD. Negative assumptions.

    Assume no state, and only animal passions of the worst kind able to be played out by independent actors.

    Things get better.

    Decisions are made at smallest level. Credible personal threats are all that matter.

    “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy.”

    When you run around saying idiot shit like this:

    “You “don’t think calling markets ‘efficient’ has any implications on whether we need tighter regulation of risk-taking due to moral hazard” but you also recognize that to many listeners the rhetoric of “efficiency” has a strong normative valence that may end up confusing the issue. The goal should be (depending on the context) to deploy a vocabulary that gets the response you want out of the audience.”

    Using my correct example above:

    Matty is attempting to make ADVERTISING the most important part of ECONOMICS.

    No definitional debate – no twist of language / meaning discussion can can around the more basic problems of politics of economics:

    Certain human beings are the most productive and most innovative at producing goods other humans want.

    And those people will win the end BE THE BOSS.

    And along the way there will be advertising.

    Socrates, who I personally do no think existed, was put on trial for making the weaker argument the stronger.

    Which is rhetoric.

    BUT that frame ASSUMES there is:

    1. a weaker argument
    2. a stronger argument

    So, IF there is a W and S argument.

    And you can still win and argue with the W position…

    The very methods that you would deploy (rhetoric) if flipped over, would ALSO enable you to prove which is the S argument.

    So, to know the mind of God truth you simply remove all possible efforts at rhetoric, you state both sides in the most evil and nasty way possible,

    and whichever argument is the least rude, the least smelly of two pieces of shit…

    that’s the TRUTH.

    When you are young and learn to win any argument, hard core debaters at some point have a identity crisis, they get off so hard on the power of making other people feel like idiots, no matter what the subject or side, they literally forget WHAT they believe.

    Where Matty is now using his own brain to think about words like “efficiency”

    when I was 23 I was founding a newsletter with Frank Luntz and Arianna Huffington to do monthly polling on words and phrases with the expressed intent of KNOWING with statistical fact exactly WHO likes to hear the word efficiency.

    And I’m here to tell you, the language and meaning part of philosophy is a yawner…. it is never that important.

    We ought and should have gay marriage. One word two meanings (god and state). Very tough rhetoric problem.

    Real answer is having gay marriage will force the god folks (the smaller lot) to adopt another word or a qualifier.

    The religious version of “civil union” will happen, it will happen to clarify, not to exclude.

    Gays will still feel excluded, but the state will marry people, and the passionate churches will do some other thing that celebrates man / woman under god yuckiness.

    And I use the phrase yuckiness with passion!

  31. Gravatar of vincent vincent
    4. March 2012 at 07:08

    Either it is always wrong to speak ill of the dead, or whatever this person did while alive is allowed to impact one says of them.

    If you justify Breitbart’s comments on Kennedy, then you subscribe to the first opinion.

    Breitbart wasn’t just some random young husband and father, but rather someone dedicated to destroying the lives of people he didn’t agree with. He used any means at his disposal, notably lying, deceiving and stoking racial hatred.

    The very worst thing you could say about Yglesias’ comments was that they were words spoken too soon. The notion that to say anything bad about breitbart should be taboo, as if he was some kind of saint or deep-thinking intellectual, is ludicrous.

  32. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    4. March 2012 at 08:33

    vincent, forget right and wrong. forget taboo.

    There is only force of will.

    I’m not going to argue with you about drew being a higher form than matty (he was), you and I would agree on virtually none of the facts of the case, what can’t you wrap your brain around in this regard?

    If physical beatings were legal, I’d go throttle matty, and take my chances on getting hurt as well, they aren’t so I’m not.

    Just think of Matty’s actions and mine as personal therapy.

    Perhaps this will help you: IF Teddy hadn’t killed a woman, and B still tweeted it, I’d have been offended by Drew and would told him so…

    You can try to make that the point, but it isn’t.

    The point is @MargaretJoskow is going to cheer the deaths of thousands of other people, perhaps offend millions of people and in their anguish they will learn of me and Matt.

    And right now, I’m ok with that. Maybe it will change. Maybe it will end.

    But right now, offending matt and his family and his loved ones is all that really matters to me.

  33. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    4. March 2012 at 10:24

    ‘Why’ is the gold we have buried in the ground for the times society just isn’t functioning well. ‘Why’ is something we clearly don’t need much of as a general rule, whenever cycles continue without serious assistance. But when we need ‘why’, we really need it.

    A new book IMHO seems to suggest how ‘why’ could assist in habits and patterns when they break down, titled The Power of Habit: Why we Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. He suggests that once we develop habits to get us through the day, we don’t have to think about them. Now think of the child who hasn’t done that yet. What do they ask all day long?

    Duhigg speaks of the frustrated animal that becomes depressed when pushing a button which no longer yields a reliable result. In a sense that depression can be likened to what people experience in the present, in that pushing the button of dependable low-risk forms of arbitrage increasingly yields random results. From James Hamilton at Econbrowser, “Duhigg suggests that if you want to change your habits, the key is to become aware of exactly how they work. There is a certain cue that sets the subsequent chain off, and then a confirmation or reward when the loop is completed. He suggests that the way to change a habit…is to become aware of the cue that sets the sequence off and substitute another more constructive routine in place of the old.” ‘Why’ helps us do that.

  34. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. March 2012 at 20:48

    Greg, I don’t understand any of that, but maybe it’s just me.

    Bonnie. I do talk a lot about the non-zero sum nature of monetary policy.

    anon/portly, Interesting comments. I know nothing about Breitbart, but Mickey Kaus says he was a good guy, and that’s good enough for me.

    Kevin, Tell them that life insurance used to be regarding as outrageous. “Betting on the death of a spouse? Disgusting!!”

    Becky, I should probably read that book.

  35. Gravatar of Mark A. Sadowski Mark A. Sadowski
    4. March 2012 at 21:57

    I always stress to my students the difference between positive and normative, And then I always indicate that in order to earn an A they should always agree with me. (Just kidding.)

  36. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    5. March 2012 at 05:32

    I definitely need to read it. In the past (I just realized) nine years of writing / self-education I have kept a section for workshops, should I ever aquire the nerve to do such a thing. The idea of the workshop would be to help people overcome the old habits that not only aren’t working but have led them to devalue their own working and social skills. The ‘whys’ would lead back into the rest of my work.

  37. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    5. March 2012 at 09:16

    “I don’t understand any of that”


  38. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    5. March 2012 at 09:24

    Notice that Hume is talking about using words / statements for different purposes, i.e. 1) to say “what is”; and 2) to tell people “what morally they ought to do, because it is morally right”.

    Here’s Hume,

    “In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not,that expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

    What part of this distinction don’t you understand?

    It’s a distinction between statements and the purposes and uses behind those statements.

    I’m failing to see what is difficult to understand here.


  39. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    5. March 2012 at 16:53


    I have argued for a while that economic preferences tend to be based on feelings rather than evidence. The worst offenders are of course the internet Austrain libertarian argument, who often assign normative values to things that are objective. Like money. Calling dollars fiat is a pejorative, I assume because the cars are so shitty. They often will call money “good” or “bad”. I once had a conversation with this sort who denied it but admitted that he used words like malinvestment. As if he did not know that mal means bad and investment means money. But Internet libertarians are not the only guilty party. I suspect this is the stumbling block that keeps economics from being a real science.

  40. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. March 2012 at 17:27

    Greg, I understand Hume just fine, it’s you I have trouble following. What’s wrong with Hume’s argument?

    Benny, I suppose there is a lot of that out there, but not restricted to any single group.

  41. Gravatar of Alex Richard Alex Richard
    5. March 2012 at 17:38

    You may want to rethink the Hiroshima example, since it doesn’t have the implications you think it does- the “terrorist motivation” camp of historians is the group that tends to agree that the nuking of Hiroshima was justified. (Because, after all what other military justification is there for the attack?) The view that the bombings weren’t justified is most strongly associated with the argument that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attacked to demonstrate the US’s new firepower to the USSR’s leaders.

  42. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. March 2012 at 18:04

    Alex, You said:

    “You may want to rethink the Hiroshima example, since it doesn’t have the implications you think it does- the “terrorist motivation” camp of historians is the group that tends to agree that the nuking of Hiroshima was justified.”

    I’m afraid you are the one who might want to rethink. I said in my post that each question had no implication for the other. So why would you assume the implication I drew from it was wrong? I claimed no implication.

  43. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    5. March 2012 at 22:31

    Scott, how did we get to “there’s something wrong with Hume’s argument”.

    I said or suggested no such thing — not even close. Where do you come up with this stuff?

    I very plainly said that the Menger/Mises account of the instrumental relation between an _explanation_ (on the one hand) and _values/goals_ (on the other hand) which an explanation can tell us best how to achieve (or which can explain to us which goals/values can not be achieved at all, e.g. a money-less, property-less extended division of labor & coordination of changing plans), is DIFFERENT than the contrast between someone telling you what is the case and someone telling you what morally ought to be the case.

    You have yet to explain to me what you don’t get about the means-ends relations between a causal understanding of the mechanisms producing social order and different values or goals; or, what you don’t get about the difference between this relation and the contrast between a person’s statements telling you what is the case, and a person’s statements telling you what morally ought to be the case.

    Another example of means-ends thinking using the explanation / values distinction: Someone may value the greatest number of other people being prosperous, and may say that _if_ the monetary monetarist NGDP targeting model is in fact the best explanation for how a macro-economy can be coordinated, and _if_ you value people not being put out of work, _then_ the thing for people to do who have those values is to support an NGDP policy regime.

    This seems clear enough to me, and I’m amazed you are having trouble “getting it”.

  44. Gravatar of orionorbit orionorbit
    7. March 2012 at 03:44

    Our disagreement on the EMH from your last post on the topic is indicative of why there is something very suspicious about Putnam’s view. He seems to forget that economists don’t use “efficient” as in ordinary language, it’s just a word that describes a model of stock prices in which participants don’t make any systematic errors. If we wanted, we could have discussed the whole matter avoiding all “value heavy” terms with mathematical terms. So even though our opinions on market efficiency differ, we can use neoclassical econ to pin down our disagreement in differences about whether we have enough data to conclude that systematic errors from which one can profit do happen. We also reserve our right to change opinion if further data disprove our views.

    So the positive/normative distinction is very useful here, since it allows us to agree on the piece of data that we’d have to observe in order to conclude our viewpoint is wrong. So what Putnam is essentially arguing is that either:
    a. economists should only speak to each other using math as their language, which we already do to large extent
    b. economists should shut up about anything that can not be boiled down to mathematical tools that can be shown to be good or bad predictors of the world as we observe it, or at least when they talk about it add the disclaimer that “this is a value judgement”.

    but a is very obviously trivial, while b is less obviously so, but still obvious enough to make you wonder if Putnam has a real understanding of how economists work. In all published work in top journals, all the mathematical/statistical arguments are laid down clearly and the focus of the discussion is CLEARLY whether these models are good in predicting reality or not. Of course every now and then there will be some normative judgements on the conclusions, but then Putnam’s criticism boils down to “economists don’t put the proper disclaimers and asterisks in parts of their texts that are not strictly economics”, i.e. trivial.

  45. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    7. March 2012 at 08:20

    Intersting speculations. As to your question,

    “Is claiming that the world is better off because of a young father’s death (for abstract social welfare reasons) an example of the autistic cognitive profile? I.e. the ability to see past the emotional considerations? Or a sign the speaker lacks the common touch to connect with average people? Or both? Just asking”

    I’d say that people’s reaction depends on who you have in mind. Generally somebody who would say the world is better off with a “young father’s death” would be viewed very pejoratively. However, to use the most extreme example, would the world be better of with a young father’s death if that young father is Adolph Hitler?

    As to Breitbart I was no fan and can’t claim I will miss him. I do feel that his impact on social welfare was awful and that he brought nothing redeeming to society whatsoever, he was just a smut peddler in the tradition of Matt Drudge to serve the interests of the American Right.

    However, I acknolwedge that on a human level it’s hard to be happy about the loss of human life-maybe a Hitler is an exception. To the extent that Breitbart had loved ones I don’t know that I would gloat about it, for me human death is always tragic. the tragic condition of mankind.

    If anything even as his political enemy, I’m unsatisfied with his passing. He was very successful in his antisocial agenda and what pleasure can you take in his dying? For I want to see harm come to his ideas not to him personally. To me those who opposed Breitbart like myself were denied the chance to defeat him in the world of ideas. There’s no real closure. The agenda that he served will live on without him with him serving as somethig of a martyr to his followers who will continue his miserable project.

    His agenda isn’t dead even if his physical body is. So what I owe him is to take him seriously enough as to fight his legacy. If I had a choice I’d rather see him alive and well. If anything that’s the problem with Yglesias-he assumes that Breitbart’s agenda dies with him.

  46. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    7. March 2012 at 15:22

    The one thing I should change in my above comments is referring to Breitbart as a Right wing smut peddler. What I really meant to say is he was a Right wing smear merchant.

  47. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. March 2012 at 18:16

    Greg, It seems to me that ought = ends and is = means.

    To me, “maximize aggregate utility” is both ought and ends. Pragmatic libertarianism maximizes aggregate utility is both “is” and “means.”

    orionorbit, Your critique seems very persuasive to me, but perhaps I should hold off final judgment until I’ve read what he has to say.

    Mike Sax, I didn’t read Breitbart so I won’t comment on his style, but otherwise your comments seem reasonable.

  48. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    8. March 2012 at 18:45

    “Greg, It seems to me that ought = ends and is = means.”

    Scott, I’m adding a dose of complexity here. In freshman econ, you ask the students to tax their mind and go beyond what T. Sowell calls “Step 1”.

    You might say to a freshman, “Stay with me know”.

    I’m asking you think about this, drop the freshman brain lock, and take “Step 2” — i.e. to acquire an understanding of the explanation / values distinction and relation as explicated by Menger & Mises, etc., and I’m asking you to even open yourself to “Step 3” which is the difference between two different distinctions: distinction (1) the distinction between a) the _purpose_ behind making factual statements and b) the _purpose_ behind declaring a moral “thou shall” or “thou shall not”; and distinction (2) the distinction between c) an explanation; and d) particular values or ends which people in fact have.

    Now, that is a lot for a freshman to keep in his head when attempting to move beyond Step 1. People can typically hold only one relation thought in their head at a time. Here we have several, and they _aren’t_ the same relation, either.

    Note well:

    Identifying someone’s ends or values or referencing in an if-then argument is NOT the same thing as me telling you what you morally ought to do.

    If you don’t get that, please explain what you don’t get.

    Note well:

    An explanation is part of an explanatory complex, involving problems to be solved, a breadth of unarticulated background understanding, empirical patterns identified in the problem, and patterns identified in the explanation, contingent and possibly false causal mechanisms, and all sorts of theory-laden premises and perceptions which might loose their status with the success of an alternative explanation, etc.

    Identifying an explanation is different than simply making a flat statement about some particular fact of the matter, e.g. the cat is on the mat.

    Note well:

    We can talk about the relations between alternative causal mechanism (posited by some explanation) and difference ends or values desired.

    We _can’t_ talk about the causal relations between a fact of the matter and an articulated moral dictate or an articulated moral evaluation, e.g. “The boy stepped on the ant” vs “It’s wrong for boys to step on ants”. There are no facts that make it wrong.

    If you don’t get that, please explain what you don’t get.

    Note well:

    The fact that someone has ends and values is different that articulating the dictate that someone or anyone ought to have those ends and values.

    Note well:

    The Menger / Mises explanation / values distinction does not involve any normative statement of what anyone ought to do or value or morally judged.

    Lacking _that_ means the Menger / Mises distinction lacks the second component if Hume’s distinction between verbally asserting a factual claim and verbally asserting a moral dictate or ethical evaluation or moral ought.

    If you don’t get that, please explain what you don’t get.

    You tell me that you are always sincere. A sincere person would point out what it is in particular they can’t figure our or what they are incapable of getting.

    You haven’t yet done that.

    I look forward to some help in identifying what part of this your don’t get.

  49. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    9. March 2012 at 07:35

    Greg, Of course there are facts that one can bring to bear on whether stepping on an ant is wrong. For instance, does the ant suffer pain?

  50. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    9. March 2012 at 09:37

    Scott, read some G. E. Moore.

    There is always some “non-natural” moral element added to each one of these “facts” which makes it not a fact but a moral evaluation implying an “ought not”.

    You can always ask, “Is it wrong for an ant to suffer pain?” Etc.

    And turtles all the way down.

    So this is steering of the conversation into a cul de sac is another rathole.

    Let’s go back to “Stay with me”.

    Scott writes,

    “Greg, Of course there are facts that one can bring to bear on whether stepping on an ant is wrong. For instance, does the ant suffer pain?”

  51. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    9. March 2012 at 10:27

    Sorry about the tone. It can be frustrating when you’re trying to explain something, and you fail.

  52. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    10. March 2012 at 21:11

    Scott, you’ve never indicated what it is you’ve failed to comprehend.

    Sort of insincere of you .. again.

  53. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    12. March 2012 at 07:08

    Morgan the one thing you can say in Ted Kennedy’s defense regarding Chappaquidick -and you can’t say for Breitbart-is it wasnt deliberate.

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