Dismal results

Liam Julian

It's dubbed "the dismal science" because economics offers conclusions that may "work," but which often ignore ethical and moral considerations. Today at Marginal Revolution, economist Alex Tabarrok makes the dismal case that we should pay organ donors for their, you know, organs. (Iran does it, he writes, and while the Mullahs' methods seem effective, "better follow-up of donors would be an improvement." Follow-up of donors, one would assume, is a pretty basic aspect of any??body-parts donation system.)

Evermore, it seems, education reformers are turning to economics for answers to education-related problems. Not a few commentators (including Mike and Diane Ravitch) have complained that many such economics-based answers eschew considerations of instruction and curriculum. Education's economic solutions also sometimes neglect to account for unintended consequences, many of which pose ethical problems.

Take, for example, the suggestion that schools pay students for good test scores or attendance (the latest instance of which comes from New Jersey). It doesn't render the repulsion that paying organ donors does, but it still involves ethical considerations (e.g., Is it right to pay a young person to do that which is expected of him, will benefit him, and his peers do for free?) and unintended consequences (e.g., creating students who work hard only when shown the money).

We debate such policies in terms of whether or not they'll work, but rarely do we scrutinize the collateral damage they may cause and ask if the possibility of their supposed benefits outweighs the possibility of their unintended consequences. Certainly this happened with lax charter school??laws, and partly because of it, many??charter schools??are in fact quite "dismal."