Virginia Postrel Thinks the Aspen Institute Needs More Economists!
Virgina Postrel thinks that the Aspen Institute needs more of our tribe--a tribe which, as Louis Menand says, "engages with the views of non-economists in the way a bulldozer would engage with a picket fence if a bulldozer could express glee":
Dynamist Blog: Is the Aspen Institute Allergic to Social Science?: Jessye Norman is a great singer with tremendous stage presence, but she's not going to convince anyone who doesn't already agree that the arts should play a bigger role in public education. (You can see her here.) You can't even tell what ideal curriculum she has in mind or whether she wants to direct arts education at the gifted and enthusiastic or at everyone.
The nadir may have been water expert Peter Gleick's proclamation that "less is more," which started with the presumption that conventional production and economics assume more is always more--more resource consumption, more people, etc.--but that fresh water is a finite resource. Yet toward the end of his three minutes he mentioned that the U.S. actually uses less total water each year than it did 30 years ago. What a paradox--except to those who understand the difference between an input, where less is more (profitable), and an output. Economic competition is all about finding ways to offer more value at a lower cost, and one way to do that is to reduce inputs, including water. We don't need some kind of new economic system to produce that result; the old one works just fine. If the Aspen Institute wanted to present this big idea in a serious way, it would have invited someone like Jesse Ausubel, who has spent decades studying dematerialization. Or it could have picked a random economist, strategy professor, or business person. As Jonathan Rauch demonstrated in this January 2001 Atlantic article about oil, there are great stories to be told about how we've come to do more with less.
The Gleick talk also illustrated a bizarre lacuna in the conference in general: a distinct lack of social scientists. The absence of economic thinking is glaring, especially given its dominance in the rest of public discourse, but it's not as though the lineup is full of sociologists or psychologists either. The presumption seems to be that anyone can opine on those topics, especially if they're experts in something else, and that there are no new ideas or discoveries to be found in the social world.