The Problem with the Math

Economic systems are at their core designed to solve social problems, not just stymie them

Image courtesy of Pexel

With the approaching Presidential election Americans are paying more attention to politics, and with that attention comes the familiar tension between what voters want, and what they are told they can’t have.

Universal health coverage, free college tuition, maternity (even paternity leave) and childcare, despite being widely available across most of the world, are simply “too expensive” for Americans. The problem, we are told, is with the math. When candidates propose solutions that are popular with voters, they are immediately asked how they plan to pay for them, even though government pays for things all the time without having to justify the price tag. When it came to the Iraq War and recent Republican tax cuts, the math didn’t seem to matter.

Economic analysis can provide a useful tool, but it has been overly dominant in American public policy and too frequently used to obscure the debate. Technocrats have used costs and technical analysis to scare the public out of the conversation, and shift the focus away from the larger social problems this country faces. By making the technical analysis of the solution the problem instead of the pressing social issues, they drive the debate away from action and maintain the status quo. It is one of the reasons unpopular policies, rather than the solutions supported by the public, get enacted.

It’s also why Andrew Yang’s “Math” slogan is so interesting. By invoking the technical upfront, he relies not on engaging critics in the wonky details but rather appeals to math itself to waive away concerns. At it’s core, Yang’s campaign is pointing out that the math can just as easily serve as a tool to actually solve a social problem, as stymie a solution. Whether you agree his Freedom Dividend is the best response to automation or not, the debate becomes a question of values and ideas, not just economics. That’s important because we seem to have forgotten that economic systems are fundamentally about solving social problems. Even a classic economic problem like the commons is at its core about protecting the space to serve and support the many social needs of the community, and not just provide an economic benefit.

In many ways the success of candidates like Bernie Sanders and the surprise showing of Yang this cycle is largely due to the recognition by voters that policy debates need to center on values, and not only the economic analysis that has typically been used to draw distinctions between candidates. Voters are increasingly seeing that the “math” is just an excuse when it could be a tool leveraged to serve our values, rather than a balance sheet.

This shift also helps explain why conservatives, despite decades of lip service to deficit reduction, have overseen the deficit double under President Trump . Voters only care about the cost when they aren’t getting what they want.

It may also explain in part why Warren has faltered. By engaging her critics with a detailed plan to pay for her policies rather than doubling down on her willingness to push through she shifted away from her visionary ideas to the familiar terrain that has erroded so many previous reforms — a fight over cost. Because the problem with math is that for far too long it has been used to serve the technical, rather than the social good. And it’s ultimately the social good that counts.

I write about economics, technology and media. My views are my own.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store