Apr 15 • 1HR 3M

Volts podcast: Elizabeth Popp Berman on the "economic style of thinking" that consumed US policy

Everybody's trying to think like an economist. Ew.

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Back when I started paying attention to climate policy discussions, in the mid-2000s, one thing I immediately noticed is how keen mainstream environmentalists were to develop and champion “market-friendly” policies, the kind of policies that harnessed competition and choice and incentives. Everyone in center-left policy discussions seemed to be constantly auditioning for some imagined panel of economists. They were desperate to pass muster.

In part it could be explained as a response to conservatives, who by then had mainstreamed the myth that “command and control” environmental regulations are unduly burdensome. (In fact, the environmental regulations put in place in the 1960s and ‘70s are some of the most successful in US history, producing benefits wildly in excess of their costs, saving millions of lives in a way that arguably boosted rather than hampered economic growth.) Environmentalists were keen to find bipartisan solutions, to build a consensus from the center out, and they thought that the emphasis on market-based policies would attract support from Republicans. (Spoiler: it did not.)

But it wasn’t a purely defensive move. There was sincere enthusiasm for the project of treating climate change like an equation to be solved in the most efficient way possible, like math, bypassing the agonizing issues of political economy and sidelining mushy, subjective talk of values and rights. It wasn’t imposed on the center-left; the center-left embraced and internalized it.

That has changed somewhat, but not all that much, and it may end up constraining Biden just like it constrained Obama.

Elizabeth Popp Berman

So imagine my surprise as I looked through sociologist Elizabeth Popp Berman’s new book: Thinking Like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in U.S. Public Policy. It turns out this kind of thinking — what Berman calls “the economic style of reasoning” — has taken over not just environmental policy but the entire US policy bureaucracy, to dismal results. It’s as much something Democrats have done to themselves as anything forced by the right.

One always enjoys having one’s priors validated by scholars of much greater distinction than oneself, so I was delighted to read the book and equally delighted to chat with Berman about the economic style, how it came to dominate, and what might come after.