The Economy, or is that Moses’s Shoe?

Hundreds of thousands of economists around the world pore over their subject.  A good number attempt to reduce the economy to scientific laws, which can be expressed as mathematical theorems.  Laws are passed and people are taxed, subsidized or even punished in order to promote the economy.

Just what is this economy?  Before dismissing this question as naïve or impertinent, consider an almost unintelligible sentence from John Selden (1584-1654), a polymath, whom the poet, Milton, described as “the chief of learned men reputed in this land.”  Selden wrote: “We commonly are at What’s the Reason of it? before we are sure of the Thing.”  The two short sentences that follow makes Selden’s meaning clear: “sure of the Thing.  Twas an excellent question of my Lady Connon, when Sir Robert Coggon was magnifying of a shoe, which was Moses’s or Noah’s, and wondering at the strange shape and fashion of it:  But, Mr Cotton, says she, are you shure it is a shoe?”

Just what is this economic shoe?  What we call the economy is just an abstraction.  We just rope off part of our lives and call it an economy.

Imagine encountering a person totally unfamiliar with our way of life who is hungrily inquiring about his surroundings.  Having heard a great deal about our society, our visitor asks to be directed to see the economy.  We should we point him?

Is a nursing mother lavishing love on an infant part of the economy? Her child may well turn out to be a scientist whose work will increase the Gross Domestic Product by billions of dollars.  But then, we know that adversity helps some people develop.  Is someone tormenting a child part of the economy?

Artists squatting in a blighted part of town may be planting the seeds of the next trendy neighborhood, making some property owners fabulously wealthy, while displacing others who cannot afford the gentrified rents.  Are these artists part of the economy?

Also, when disaster strikes, people put aside their thought of the economy.

As you might expect, normally inexpensive goods might cost a great deal in the wake of a disaster.  For example, after Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989, portable generators that normally cost a few hundred dollars sold for thousands.  However, most people find the behavior of such profiteers repellant.  For example, a Newsweek article of October 30, 1989 described the doubling of bottled water prices after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake as “mind-bending audacity” (p. 10; cited in Samuels and Puro 1991, p. 62).

What was mind-bending?  Isn’t that what business is supposed to do?  Sometimes firms do hold prices steady in the wake of disasters, despite the profits that they could earn by charging what the market might bear (Samuels and Puro 1991, p. 62).  For example, Safeway refrained from raising prices immediately after the Alaskan earthquake of 1964 and continued to do so through the month of April.  It raised prices in May, only after management decided that the emergency period had passed (Dacy and Kunreuther 1969, p. 116).  Truck rates were lowered, but only for those commodities that could not be conveniently shipped by boat — the competitive mode of transport (Hirshleifer 1987, p. 141).

Wal-Mart burnished its image by delivering supplies in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but why would the public applaud such actions that violate the logic of the economy?  Maybe economists’ attention is misdirected and it is not Moses’ shoe after all.

Apologies in advance.  This is a very hasty and preliminary stab.  Comments will be appreciated.

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