4.10.2012

Absolutely

My job as an economic consultant certainly does not lack for variety.  We have had the pleasure of working for community development corporations, affordable housing advocates, environmental groups, and children's museums.  We have also been hired by high-powered real estate developers, casinos, the tobacco industry, and alcohol distributors.  (We're still waiting for calls from the sex industry and the gun lobbyists.)

While you may marvel at our breadth of clientele, you may also question our backbone.  Are we simply mercenaries willing to do anything for a buck?  Is any analytical finding simply for sale?  Do we not have any scruples or reservations?

In response, I'll speak first for my firm and then for myself.  We are most certainly not in the business of being paid for whatever answer our client wants.  We pride ourselves on intellectual honesty and professional integrity, and on always taking the objective and rational approach, even and especially on the day's most contentious issues.  And I think everyone that knows us arrives at the same conclusion.

As for me personally, I am not unlike all my co-workers in that I have certain opinions on certain issues, and in many cases feel strongly about one side versus another side.  But that doesn't prevent me from taking on a particular client or topic without feeling I am compromising myself. Part of this comes from a place of intellectual curiosity and inherent open-mindedness.  If I am presented with a situation that, in my personal life, I might disagree with, I can still be content exploring the issue and being open to seeing all sides of it.

But another, bigger part of this comes from the opinion that, in the economic and political realm, there are no absolutes.  Economists are trained to respect and probe the existence of trade-offs.  No policy, no position, no side is absolutely right or absolutely wrong.  There are pros and cons to everything, and while the pros may outweigh the cons (or vice versa), sometimes that is simply a matter of opinion and perspective, and at all times there are enough pros and enough cons that elaborating on either is helpful to public discourse and executive decision-making.

In this sense, being a consultant to a variety of clients and on a variety of positions, which some may label as "good" and some may label as "evil," is slightly different from another profession in which we consider the ethics of taking on certain clients and positions, which is that of lawyer.  Some may find some lawyers sleazy for taking on certain vilified people or issues, but hopefully we are all open-minded enough to allow for fair representation in legal disputes.

Whereas, while we are certainly hired by a client and are therefore obligated to "represent" them in a similar way that a lawyer does, who we are often really working for is the general public, and our role on an issue is to bring to light some aspect of that issue that hopefully provides insight as to pros, cons, and trade-offs.  In our democratic and capitalist system, this is how decisions are made and objectives prioritized.  There is no absolutely "right" or "wrong" way, but rather a series of trade-offs in a world of scarce resources, with hopefully a fair and thorough presentation of the salient points so that people can navigate the political process towards the best possible outcomes.

I don't think there is any internal contradiction in believing (as I do) that there are moral absolutes but not economic or political ones, that morality is more like science (which obeys fundamental laws) whereas economics and politics are matters of competing opinions and dueling priorities.  Some may disagree with me on both fronts: you may consider me a bigot for believing in absolute moral truths, and/or spineless for not thinking there are absolute economic and political truths.  I hope I'm open-minded enough to hear your push-back and learn from it.  I'm still musing, and would be interested to hear what your take is on such matters.




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