What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?

the New York Times: “Another academic discipline may not have the ear of presidents but may actually do a better job of explaining what has gone wrong in large swaths of the United States and other advanced nations in recent years.

Sociologists spend their careers trying to understand how societies work. And some of the most pressing problems in big chunks of the United States may show up in economic data as low employment levels and stagnant wages but are also evident in elevated rates of depression, drug addiction and premature death. In other words, economics is only a piece of a broader, societal problem. So maybe the people who study just that could be worth listening to.

“Once economists have the ears of people in Washington, they convince them that the only questions worth asking are the questions that economists are equipped to answer,” said Michèle Lamont, a Harvard sociologist and president of the American Sociological Association. “That’s not to take anything away from what they do. It’s just that many of the answers they give are very partial.”

As a small corrective, I took a dive into some sociological research with particular relevance to the biggest problems facing communities in advanced countries today to understand what kinds of lessons the field can offer. In 1967, Senator Walter Mondale actually proposed a White House Council of Social Advisers; he envisioned it as a counterpart to the well-entrenched Council of Economic Advisers. It was never created, but if it had been, this is the sort of advice it might have been giving recent presidents….

If the White House Council of Social Advisers did exist, one of its great challenges would be to convert some of these findings into actual policy proposals that might help. Part of the ascendance of economics in the policy-making sphere comes from the fact that economists tend to spend more time looking at specific legislative or regulatory steps that could try to improve conditions.

And trying to solve social problems is a more complex undertaking than working to improve economic outcomes. It’s relatively clear how a change in tax policy or an adjustment to interest rates can make the economy grow faster or slower. It’s less obvious what, if anything, government can do to change forces that are driven by the human psyche.

But there is a risk that there is something of a vicious cycle at work. “When no one asks us for advice, there’s no incentive to become a policy field,” Professor Gans said.

It may be true that these lessons on identity and community don’t lend themselves immediately to policy white papers and five-point plans. But a deeper understanding of them sure could help policy makers….(More)”