History of Economics Playground

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Inside Economics

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Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job forces us to fundamentally rethink the connections between economics and policy making. This entangled relation runs along a number of dimension. First there is the performativity of economics: in which ways do economic theories shape the ideas of policy makers and hence the policies they enact (i.e. the Donald MacKenzie story)? Are economists and their rational market hypothesis, CAPM models and what have you responsible for the deregulation that led to the recent financial turmoil? If so, how should economics and its relation to policy making be reorganized institutionally? Second, is it at all possible to be politically and ideologically value-free as an economist? If so, how do we distinguish a value-free economist or economic theory from value-laden ones? If not, should economists always state their ideological points of view in the first disclaimer-footnote of their papers? Are there other ways to sufficiently disentangle ideology from science? Third, should economists be allowed to be paid by the private sector for their academic work? Do we need an economic code of ethics or some other kind of formal arrangement to distinguish more clearly between academic credibility and financial gain?


Luckily, we economists need not figure this out all by ourselves. In fact, the last few years have seen a surge of books discussing the role of science in the contemporary for-profit world. Gaye Tuchman’s Wannabe U (2009) tells the story of the middle ranked university that aspires to become an elite university in an age of auditing and ranking in which universities are run by business men in business suits.  Yet, although the undertone is clearly critical, Wannabe U first of all is a careful and engaging ethnographic reconstruction of the archetypical Western university that had to transform itself in the 1990s from a public institution to a private enterprise. Moreover, it reads like a novel. 

The different contributions to Harold Kincaid, John Dupré and Alison Wylie’s Value-Free Science? (2007) discuss the topic from a philosophical and theoretical point of view. The basic message is that the old fact-value distinction cannot be maintained. To some extent, that is an almost trivial point. The more important argument, therefore, is that although at some level we all know that the fact-value distinction cannot be maintained, we constantly act as if it does. That, the authors argue, is a fault of contemporary society that needs to be cured. Scientists should make clear how facts and values mingle in their work, politicians should not be allowed to rely on “objective facts,” and moral convictions should never be argued to be based on values alone. Yet, convincing as the book is, it is somewhat unfortunate that the authors do not translate their calls for action into concrete measures.     

Theodore Brown’s Imperfect Oracle (2009) is the book of a distinguished chemist, successful university administrator, and well-informed reader of sociology and philosophy who towards the end of a long career reflects on the waning authority of science. The key premise is that with all the problems the world currently faces, there is so much science could offer. Yet public opinion accepts less and less of science and scientists. Thus, the central question Brown addresses is how to restore the authority of science. This book should perhaps be read not so much as a deep or new account of the place of science in contemporary society, but rather as a well-written intellectual autobiography of one of those scientists who ruled the universities in the post war decades.  

In contrast to these three general accounts, the different contributions to Hans Radder’s The Commodification of Academic Research (2010) seek to investigate the topic from the bottom up. The book provides detailed accounts of the politics and economics of patents on academic research, the management of data , and the different sources and consequences of financial interests in academic research. Sometimes, the authors force themselves somewhat unnecessarily to infer more general claims about science, private enterprise, or autonomy. But the chapters offer enough in simply describing the different elements of corporate science.  

To save the economic discipline it would certainly help when all economists would read Kincaid’s Value-Free Science?. But before answering the bigger questions of whether economics should have a code of ethics, and how universities and research should be funded and organized, we would perhaps do good to first understand the system itself. What would most help the discussion now are detailed sociological, economic and historical accounts of how the economic discipline, economic departments, and economists function and have functioned. Both in the bygone days of the public university and authoritative science, and in the contemporary era of auditing, ranking, financial interests and business suits. Much like Tuchman’s Wannabe U or Radder’s Commodification perhaps. By chance, that happens to be what I’m doing and I’m willing to offer my expertise. Who gives me grant? I’m (still) quite cheap.

Written by Floris

20 April 2011 at 5:41 pm

@INET-BW: Upon leaving Mount Washington

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Who goes with Fergus?

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,                    
And dance upon the level shore?                                         
Young man, lift up your russet brow,                                            
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,                      
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
 
And no more turn aside and brood,
Upon love’s bitter mystery;                                                        
for Fergus rules the brazen cars,                   
And rules the shadows of the wood,                 
And the white breast of the dim sea                         
And all the dishevelled wandering stars. 

The place invites poetry. By the way, all sessions can be viewed from the webiste – check out in particular the last session featuring Gillian Tett of the Financial Times moderating a disucssion between Paul Volcker and George Soros.

Here’s what it all looked like through an amateur lens.

Written by Floris

11 April 2011 at 2:24 pm

@INET-BW: Who’s the iNETiest of them all?

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There are a lot of universities represented here, but who are the most likely candidates for participation and who might one expect INET to be interested in? I don’t have anything to do with INET monetas, but know that so far they have partnered with the LSE in London and Oxford University and I presume they are looking for other friends and partners in crime. Using the participant list and some nimble excel sheets, it turns out that the American North East is well represented (to be expected), and there are definetly a top ten (well, nine) coming out for new thinking:

  TOTAL Student Attendee Grantee inet board
Harvard 7 2 5 0 0
Boston 6 2 3 1 0
Columbia 6 1 3 2 0
New School 5 1 2 1 1
Balsilie int’l affairs 5 4 1 0 0
Berkeley 4 1 2 0 1
U. Mass (Amherst) 4 1 2 1 0
Central European U. 3 0 3 0 0
McGill 3 2 1 0 0

 

So it’s the local schools first, with Harvard and Boston topping, but Columbia, New School and Balsilie have a very strong presence here, with students and faculty showing up. So perhaps some potential partners are to be found in this list, it seems full of good candidates both for new economic thinking and new ideas. As for INET’s current partners, they find themselves in the ‘also rans’ with 2 representatives each. Although, you can’t say they aren’t in good company: Bard, Cambridge, Carleton, Duke, Freie (Berlin), LSE, MIT, New South Wales (Sydney), NYU, Oxford, Roosevelt, Santa Fe Inst, Stanford, UCL & UCLA.

Written by Benjamin

10 April 2011 at 8:46 pm

@INET-BW: Anglo-Saxons versus the Germans

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For one and a half days we had Anglo-Saxons talking finance and financial crisis: Keynesian stimuli, surplus countries bashing, drawing China in, and bullying of the Euro area and in particular Germany’s role in it. If there was one message, it was that it is all about (the politics) of money. So I was curious to hear what the first German speaker, Dalia Marin from the University of Munich would argue: would she defend Germany against the Anglo-Saxon condescencion? Would she defend the cause of the surplus countries? No, she talked about firms, trade and increasing firm production (example: cars). Will the twain ever meet?

Written by Floris

9 April 2011 at 9:38 pm

Posted in Economics, Events

@INET-BW: Revolutionaries at INET, well sort of…

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Typical anti-capitalist liberals... What do you mean you're Tea-Partyer's?!?

Security is tight here, I mean passport checks in the bus coming in, a K-9 unit, police presence, big private security guys with ear-buds and lapels roaming the corridors, and big signs on everyone’s chest to show that they belong. And for the first time in my life I’ve been picketed. Well, ten guys with placards, but when I went to take a picture and talk to them, they hadn’t yet showed up today. Disappointing as it was already 11am – and we were on-site at 7.15.  So who are these people. Rumours suggest that they are not your usual anti-capitalists (despite their lone sign that was left behind), but they are tea-partyers.

I will try and run out during lunch (it’s a bit of a walk from here to the entrance) and see if I can’t catch them for a chat about their wants and needs. Hey, we are supposed to be rowing bloggers and this is too good to miss. Also, I am a bit baffled about this.

In the meantime, Tiago and Floris interviewed Akerlof (v. cool I am told), Richard Koo (Nomura Research Institute) just gave a talk about what we can learn from Japan. Yes learn from Japan. His slides are really worth looking at as they tell a story of how government can step in, and how money supply changes can occur without affecting the underlying economy. Duncan Foley (paper) preceded him to point out that if you net out the sectors where the national accounts impute Value Added, then the picture of the 2000 and 2008 recessions look a lot worse (and similar) than we may have thought. Oh, and on Q4 2010 figures, the US is looking very double dippish…

Written by Benjamin

9 April 2011 at 3:23 pm

@INET-BW: Discipline and punish

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Ken Rogoff and Larry Summers were on the program today at Bretton Woods, and they stole the show. Both are Harvard professors, both have been in and out of policy making, both are intellectual leaders of the economics profession. On any criteria, these are not men of “new economic thinking”. Rogoff of his own initiative, Summers pressed towards it, had to defend the state of economics teaching and research.

Two unlikely responses were given, and even more unlikely, they overlapped (when Rogoff spoke Summers was not in attendance).

1. The first was to describe the failing of economics as a subject of “sociology”. As economists, and practitioners, both men were baffled by how young people in the profession are more interested in formal puzzles and define research as model building taking any empirical work as distraction. Both men confessed they were the same when they were starting. Unfortunately, no sociologist was in the audience, however…

2. The other response, more interesting because of its bizarre possibilities, saw Rogoff and Summers defending rational expectations models and efficient market hypothesis as an integral part of economics education and research because both provide “discipline.” No one followed up asking what discipline meant.

The panoptic suggestion hints that economists have a bit of the sociologist in them after all…

Written by Tiago

9 April 2011 at 3:52 am

Posted in Economics, SSK

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@INET-BW: Name Dropping and communists before INET starts

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The INET conference is not intimidating at all. It’s 8.20am, the conference has not started, we are getting on a bus to Bretton Woods from Boston, and next to me are Ha-Joon Chang and Robert Skidelsky discussing structural deficits, while Fitoussi is in front of me after we finished a quick chat about welfare measurement. Bad morning to miss coffee. Two and a half hour later we’ve not only reached Bretton Woods but I’ve reached some new ideas and debates.

Lunch got even better, at the table with Skidelsky, Christian Wigstrom (on the INET curriculum board), Richard Brock, John Kay and Duncan Foley… And the name dropping has become silly by the time we’d made it to dinner. Haven’t made an ass of myself, which is always nice. At this point the conference is yet to start. From that I have a host of things, but for now, the best quote of the day about the 1944 US Treasury chief negotiator at Bretton Woods in 1944: “This is an overstatement, but, Harry Dexter White was a communist.”  –Larry Summers, 8 April 2011. That followed a very warm recollection of Mr. White by the IMF Historian… Lovely

Written by Benjamin

9 April 2011 at 3:06 am

Posted in Economics, Our profession

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