September 18, 2019 | 49° F

O'BRIEN: Politics ought to build more on empiricism

Opinions Column: Taming Tribalism


If you ever decide to take an introductory course in economics at this or another university, one of the first things you will learn is the difference between two basic frameworks of economic analysis. The first, called positive economics, aims to describe the world as it is. This may mean calculating the effect of a particular policy on economic growth, poverty or the federal budget deficit. 

The second is normative economics, which attempts to describe the world as it should be. This could include judgments on the fairness of distribution of income, valuing social welfare or examining a potential policy with an eye toward some definition of justice.

When discussing politics, we spend an overwhelming majority of our time within the latter framework. Most people have no appetite for empirical estimates, instead applying their almost instinctual systems of values and morality to whatever issues are up for debate. While in an ideal world, voters would spend time looking at the empirical estimates of the policies and platforms they support, this is an unreasonable expectation. In fact, it may be outright irrational for people outside of the political sphere to spend their precious hours hunched over academic studies. 

Nevertheless, missing the distinction between these two systems causes problems, often leaving us feeling as though we are not even discussing the same subject. Take, for instance, a recent progressive proposal to raise the top federal marginal tax rate to 70 percent on incomes more than $10 million. This elicited apocalyptic reactions from many on the Right. 

Infamous anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist even compared the proposal to slavery. Others predicted it would have large negative effects on economic growth. Of course, none of these terrifying predictions were based on genuine economic modeling or good faith attempts to gauge the effects of this rate. Instead, they began from a moral opposition to the idea and expanded from there to conclude it would also be catastrophic. After all, if an idea is so morally reprehensible, it must also be an economic disaster, right?

As it turns out, the proposal will likely not have much of an impact on the broader economy, let alone meet these dire predictions. Very few people make $10 million per year, and according to the conservative think tank, Tax Foundation, even a rate this high will not significantly change how much they work. They estimate the tax would raise only a modest $20 billion per year. I am personally ambivalent on the idea, but see the utterly cartoonish rhetoric about it as a disservice to public discourse.

This example is one of many that highlights the need to separate our moral system of values from statistical truths. We may think a policy violates our definition of morality, but that should not serve as an excuse to be dishonest about its actual effects in practice. It is reasonable to think it immoral for government to take 70 percent of each dollar earned above $10 million without believing such a tax will plunge the national economy into recession. 

Unfortunately, it seems many are not secure enough in their moral beliefs to admit that many ideas they view as immoral may not be so catastrophic in their effects. According to new research from political scientist Timothy J. Ryan of the University of North Carolina, people who attach absolutist moral convictions to political issues tend to dismiss cost-benefit analyses. In other words, the more empirical issues become moral issues, the less fact-based our politics will become. 

On some issues, there is no getting around long-entrenched morals. Abortion, for instance, will never become an empirical, technical debate. Stances on abortion are based in faith, which is almost by definition unfalsifiable. But for the political issues most of us confront on a day-to-day basis, this is not the case. 

Why should anyone who has not examined the economic modeling of higher taxes on the wealthy have such strong opinions on what its effects would be? Why should anyone who has not studied the empirical effects of conservative proposals to cut government spending have such strong opinions on how they would affect poverty? Sure, you may have sturdy moral views on what government should or should not do, but that is a separate and distinct set of questions. 

In that sense, perhaps it is best if we reduce the role of absolutist value judgments in politics and leave a little more room for evidence and data to sway our opinions. After all, if the actual results of an “immoral” policy are surprising or counterintuitive, we may find that we like the end result. But if we continue flinging absurdities at each other, not only will our debates become further detached from reality, but the governments we elect will become further paralyzed and ineffective. 

Connor O'Brien is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in economics. His column, "Taming Tribalism," runs on alternate Thursdays. 


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

YOUR VOICE | The Daily Targum welcomes submissions from all readers. Due to space limitations in our print    newspaper, letters to the editor must not exceed 500 words. Guest columns and commentaries must be between 700 and 850 words. All authors must include their name, phone number, class year and college affiliation or department to be considered for publication. Please submit via email to by 4 p.m. to be considered for the following day’s publication. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff. 

Connor O'Brien

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Targum.