As a child, I was a bad baseball player because my mind wandered.  Adults and teammates tried to improve my performance with a classic adage: “Always keep your eye on the ball.”  I didn’t change, but their advice was excellent nonetheless.

Laymen often criticize economics for its arcane complexity.  When I talk with non-economists, though, so many gravitate toward Rube Goldberg stories.  Random example: Yesterday someone suggested to me that failing to fire under-performing government employees is actually economically beneficial, because secure jobs sustain the middle class, the crucial bedrock of our economy.

When I encounter stories like this, I reply with an adage I urge my fellow economists to adopt: “Always keep your eye on production.”  Whenever analyzing an economic problem, you should, by default, ignore longs chains of social causation and ignore distribution.  Instead, remember that mass production is the root cause of mass consumption.  Then ask yourself, “How will whatever we’re talking about change the total amount of stuff produced?”

Application to yesterday’s random example: What happens to production when lots of skilled workers enjoy pay and employment even if they’re unproductive?  Production falls, impoverishing society.  Subtler analyses must strive to keep sight of this basic truth.

“Always keep your eye on production” superficially sounds free-market or right-wing.  But it’s non-ideological.  Think about tax policy.  The adage urges us to forget distributional effects and focus instead on how taxes alter behavior – which along many prominent margins, they plausibly don’t.  “Always keep your eye on production” also reminds us to think long and hard about what “production” really is.  When pondering pollution policy, for example, the saying makes us reflect, “Is clean air, like a car, a valuable consumption good?”

As a moralist, I freely admit that my proverb could be misused.  As a social scientist, however, I find “Always keep your eye on production” wonderfully clarifying.  Productive societies are rich societies.  The rest is details.