07 March 2012

On Steve Lansburg

I hardly am a fan of Rush Limbaugh. His recent bad behavior simply confirms my assessment. Turns out that calling Sandra Fluke a slut and prostitute are just the tip of the iceberg; he actually had a multi-day rant about she and her imagined proclivities. And then he offered a half-hearted apology. (I actually don't give a hoot about such apologies. They are empty ritual.) He is losing advertisers in droves. Good. The Republican elite has, predictably enough, basically stood by mumbling. To his credit Obama stepped up.

Now, one of my colleagues at the University of Rochester has decided he really needed to offer his insights into the debacle. Steve Landsburg, economist and peddler of opinion, has defended Limbaugh's language as "analytically astute." You can find a report here at the WSJ. Landsburg's own posts are here and here. The President of the University has made clear his views on Landsburg's screeds. According to the WSJ report, Landsburg insists:
“[While] Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatsoever. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered."
Actually, it is Landsburg who deserves the derision. His primary mistake? Like many economists he mistakes the real world for the fictions captured in economic models. The agents who populate such models are sociopaths. Literally. They lack moral sense. They lack emotion. They are hyper-rational. All that may be - actually it is - useful in making economic models, which are meant to explore the conception of narrow instrumental rationality. But in actual life, such characteristics reflect a genuine tone-deafness. It is just the sort of tone-deafness that we see in sociopaths. Landsburg seems unable to differentiate between living in his textbook and living in the world of actual people. (Do you think of your children as externalities? Do you talk about sex in terms of getting 'the incentives right'? Do you tell that to your kids or your actual or potential partners?) In his various opinion-makings, Landsburg seems to present such thinking as a virtue. That is more than reason enough to take a pass on his various writings.

If Landsburg is as concerned with consistency as he suggests, perhaps he might entertain the notion that one way of treating people with respect entails leaving them to make choices for themselves. Contraception is just a tool for allowing such choice. And calling people bad names when they make choices you don't like. Well, that is not respecting them.

It is easy to anticipate Landsburg's retort. He will point to his gambit of trying to differentiate Sandra Fluke and 'her position.' That is pretty weak tea even for an economist. It amounts to saying "I have nothing against you, it is simply that I don't like what you think or say." Given that speech is action, one is culpable or laudable for what one says just as for what one does. We may not want to toss you in jail for speaking (although there are some who evince no qualms on that score), but I assure you that there are views that make me consider someone an ass or a jerk. How do you reach that sort of conclusion and 'not have anything against' the person you attach those labels to? Good luck with that Steve. In the actual world, if not in some economic model of the world, pretending that for 'analytical' purposes you can treat - and speak publicly of - some actual person as a whore or a slut without demeaning them is an intellectual and ethical failing.

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