I've been asked to write a paper reviewing "social benefits" delivered through the personal income tax system. I have no idea what this means. In economics, "social benefits" refers to the benefit side of a social benefit/cost calculation; the increase in social welfare associated with a particular project or policy. It has little to do with, say, aged-based tax credits.
Perhaps the person who asked me to write the paper was using "social benefits" as shorthand for "social assistance benefits" - the delivery of income support measures through the income tax system? A look through the draft conference program reveals that's not the case - someone else is writing the refundable tax credit paper. I have a list of other credits to look at: benefits for children (including for arts and physical fitness), those for persons with disabilities, the aged and others. Replacements for or supplements to social assistance programs, such as the working income tax benefit and GST/HST credits, aren't in my job description.
I call this the "social blah blah blah" phenomenon. Long ago, a Far Side Cartoon contrasted what we say and what dogs hear. The Owner says, "Okay, Ginger, I've had it! Stay out of the garbage, understand, Ginger!". The dog hears, "blah blah Ginger blah blah blah Ginger"
In much the same way, when someone like Norman Fairclough writes "The analysis of social practice constitutes a theoretically coherent and methodologically effective focus for social science research" ", all an economist hears is "The analysis of social blah blah blah..."
It is possible to keep an economist's attention by pairing social with a really good economicsy word - as in "social choice", "social capital" or "social cost." But social practice, social cohesion, social exclusion? Social blah blah blah.
Perhaps economists' tendency to ignore the social is just a particular manifestation of a universal phenomenon. Most people have a blah trigger or two. As an associate dean, sometimes I will hand (non-economist) colleagues a table and say "If you just take a look at the latest admission numbers, you will see...". Their glazed looks suggest that they have heard nothing but "numbers blah blah blah."
It can be hard work to understand a completely novel concept. It's easier to fit an idea into a pre-existing mental framework. For example, Nick Rowe's recent post on involuntary unemployment was easy for me to understand, because his explanation of search theory used an indifference curve/constraint apparatus with which I am intimately familiar. To the extent that economists lack a well-developed theory of society, of the social, it may be easier to ignore all that social chit chat rather than struggle to understand what the speaker is saying.
But there is another possible explanation of the tendency of economists to bracket out social blah blah blah. Economics as a discipline generally adheres to methodological individualism: good economics explains phenomena as the result of individual choices, individual actions, individual responses to incentives. The social is not individual, thus it cannot be explained by rational choice, so it's not true, hard-core economics.
Is "social" just a code word for "not economics"?
If so, a rough translation of my invitation to talk about "social benefits" in the income tax system is: "Please talk about those things in the income tax system that can't be explained with economic reasoning."
Alfred Marshall described economics as "a study of man in the ordinary business of life." Humans are social animals. Our ordinary business of life is interacting with other people. Yes, people make rational choices, maximizing well-being subject to a set of constraints. But well-being encompasses, and depends upon, the well-being of others - family, friends, those we love and care for. Constraints include rules and institutions, norms and customs, values and identities.
Really hard core economists don't ignore social blah blah blah. They go out and model the sucker.