Archive for the ‘Publics’ Category
Great ideas are earned through hardship. It is a conviction that requires no argument, inscribed into our collective consciousness. As I have been writing/researching about Milton Friedman’s popular writings, I was surprised by the (popular) claim that Friedman was for many years an outcast in the economics profession, the proof was that such a respectable place as Duke University refused to carry his books (the specific source was a celebration of Friedman’s life by Robert Samuelson in Newsweek).
Milton and Rose Friedman write in their autobiography Two Lucky People, page 341 in the 1999 edition, of a letter sent to them by Mark Rollinson in 1989, who 30 years earlier had been a student at Duke University,
My years at Duke … were not happy ones. … To make matters worse, most of my fellow students and all of my professors held my views on several subjects in overt disdain.
One day after particularly severe ridicule in an economics class I went to the professor after the session and told him that I was quite certain that I was not stupid and I asked him if there were not at least some economists who shared my views. “Oh yes,” he said “as a matter of fact we’ve discussed you frequently here at the faculty level. You’re nearly a clone of some chap in Chicago named Milton Friedman. It’s truly amazing.”
Well, I went running over to the library with your name in hand, only to find that you were in the name catalogue. On consulting with my professor later, he explained that Duke had a system of screening new material by the appropriate department and the Economics Department did not consider your work worthy of carrying.
Whereupon I went to the Dean of Men … and made an offer: put Friedman into the library or take Marx out; otherwise I would write a letter to the editor of every newspaper I could find.
They opted to add you and keep Marx.
When you received the Nobel Prize, I was prouder probably even than you, as you might imagine.
You can attest that a concept has become fairly popular when it is used by educated laymen/laywomen in very different circles. Obviously, Naomi Klein’s idea of a “Shock doctrine” is all over the place since we learnt about the tragic earthquake disaster – and its consequences – in Japan. This morning, I heard on the French public radio a political analyst talking about fears that international institutions may apply to Japan the “shock doctrine”, a word, he noted, that “economists like to use frequently”. In addition, the same concerns were expressed by a Facebook friend of mine as soon as Friday morning who wondered whether the World Bank was going to impose Japanese people a “Chicago School-like Shock therapy” (emphasis added). She is not an economist or a social scientist but a film editor and a street artist. Tiago, I think it is time to revive your “the Evil that economists do” paper!
PS : I refrained from using as illustration one of these terrifying earthquake or desolate lands pictures that have circulated all over the net. I feel uneasy with the ambiguity existing in their intense dissemination, as if people were both appalled and fascinated in an unhealthy way by the Japanese drama. Anyway, you can still donate to one of the organizations that are working on relief and recovery in the region.
The beginning of a new year is always the occasion to reflect on the recent past, as the posts of my fellows Benjamin, Clément and Béatrice [to whom the opposite Calvin & Hobbes comic strip is dedicated] have shown. Though their interrogations mainly concern the purposes and practices of historians, I would like to add another one, which may be a bit more ‘philosophical’ – pardon the grand word! What has struck me during the year is the slow decline of what some thinkers call relativism.
Relativism (not to be confused with moral relativism), as I have argued here and there, is not the idea that everything is equal or that there is nothing demarcating the good and the bad, the true and the false. Instead, it is the observation that what we call truth or scientific facts or fair decisions is affected by the context in which we are located and that they can be appraised differently in different communities or cultures. It is not surprising that relativism – a term sometimes used pejoratively by its detractors – has been associated with literary theorists such as Stanley Fish, because rhetoric is where it is used more conspicuously. My literary style will greatly change depending on the people I am addressing to and, as a result, the meaning of what I am saying too. For instance, while writing a scientific paper, I can call some previous contribution ‘misleading’ or ‘unfortunate’ while in front of friends researchers, I will call it a ‘piece of crap’, and back at home, in a sign of deep fatigue and irritation, I will paraphrase Lennon and call it ‘the shittiest pile of shit ever’. Talking about Samuelson in a private correspondence, Stigler wrote Friedman: “It may merely be prejudice, but I’m inclined to write him off as an economist” [in Hammond, Making Chicago Price Theory: Friedman-Stigler Correspondence, 1945-1957, p. 97]. This is certainly not something he would have used – in spite of his renowned acerbic wit – in publication, and though Samuelson may have been conscious of such animosity he certainly did not take it into account when he called Friedman “an able scholar” and “an old friend” [Samuelson, Economics From the Heart, p. xi). There is nothing abnormal in this. Whatever our opinions are, we have different ways of communicating them to our interlocutors – from our closest friends to the scientific community and the public at large.
This, however, has seriously been threatened in 2010 and I will only mention two events that struck me in this respect: the first one is the fact that a few people have been legally fired from their jobs after talking badly about their supervisors on Facebook, the other one is the whole Wikileaks affair. In the former, it is quite striking that people who have written on their wall a few negative words about their work environment – like calling their boss an idiot, or their job crappy – have been recognized as guilty of serious professional mistakes while we know that everyday people spend most of their time at the workplace, near the coffee machine for instance, unfearfully disparaging other colleagues and immediate superiors. Why is something that is considered normal in the workplace is suddenly demonized when it is done outside of it? The wikileaks affair is quite similar, as it simply shows that when diplomats talk between then, they do not adopt the same discourse that they will use publicly. Is there anything shocking about that? I don’t believe so. You may have to deal in a friendly manner with that head of state you believe is an arrogant and disagreeable human being, especially if world peace is threatened. Similarly, you can perfectly envision with some allied country the use of the military force toward a country you are simultaneously conducting amiable negotiations with – just in case this does not work, as Clausewitz believed . The fact that these seemingly inconsistent behaviors are suddenly judged negatively by law courts and the public opinion at large will make people adopt the same discourse whoever they talk to. Whether we are blogging, writing academic papers or chatting on our Facebook walls, should we adopt the same writing style? Some people obviously believe we should and the huge informational database that is constituted on the internet seems to put some pressure upon us to do so as well.
How much our practices as historians [of economics] are to be affected by that? I believe History as we construct it is built upon the idea that things – ideas, objects, etc. – evolve and differ in different periods of time and among different communities. If they do not, there is simply no story to be told. The denial of relativism is then the denial of historicity. Happy new year!
Analytical philosophers of science, especially those trained at an Anglo-American university, tend to ask questions that are abstract, narrow and pertain to somewhat idealized circumstances. They are abstract so that answers stand a chance of being general; they are narrow so that answers stand a chance of being precise; and they pertain to idealized circumstances so answers stand a chance of being correct. ‘Evidence for use’ can be understood as a reaction against this way of doing philosophy.
For this way of doing philosophy comes at a cost: the more abstract, narrow and ideal a question is, the less likely it is to address an issue that has broader social relevance. Proponents of evidence for use urge instead the pragmatist vision of philosophers contributing to solving the pressing social issues of the civilization they are a part of. The idea of evidence for use, then, is that philosophers of science interested in theory and evidence should ask questions and frame answers in ways that have some societal significance.
The idea has origins in Philip Kitcher’s work on the ‘well-ordered science’ (most importantly in his 2003 OUP book Science, Truth and Democracy) and Nancy Cartwright’s recent work on evidence (see for instance her paper ‘Well-Ordered Science: Evidence for Use’ that was published in Philosophy of Science in 2006). A science is well-ordered to the extent that its research priorities are such that they would be endorsed in a democratic deliberation among well-informed participants committed to engagement with the needs and aspirations of others. In other words, Kitcher demands that science should ask the right questions, and in the right ways. Cartwright’s concern is mainly with methodology: how do we devise methods so that the products of science help solving practical problems?
The recent movements of evidence-based medicine and evidence-based policy can illustrate what is at stake here. These movements demand that the causal claims on which we based our policies (such as decisions to approve a new drug or implement a new schooling program) are supported by high-quality evidence, which in their understanding means randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Indeed, RCTs can be shown to prove a causal claim, given certain assumptions. But there are two major problems: first, the assumptions required are exceedingly narrow so that their satisfaction is unlikely except under ideal conditions; second, even when satisfied, the RCT proves a narrow ‘it works somewhere’ causal claim (in Cartwright’s words), whereas what we need to know is that ‘it works for us’. Because the correctness of the claim proved by an RCT depends crucially on the characteristics of the test population, the circumstances of the test and the specific ways of administering the treatment, results are unlikely to continue to hold in the circumstances we are ultimately interested in.
Evidence for use invites us to refocus from questions we can answer easily (such as ‘How do we design an experiment so we can be reasonably certain about its result?’) to questions that matter to society (such as ‘How do we design an empirical study so we can be reasonably certain that a policy based on it will be successful?’). For a recent special issue of the journal Synthese that takes up some of these themes, see here.
Why is it that everytime I write the words “economics’ cultural authority” my referees from history and other social sciences, read “neoliberalism’s cultural authority”?
It’s quite unlikely that the highly influential rock snob web-zine Pitchfork has anything to say about economics. Hence my surprise to read this in one of their latest columns:
But in a low-trust and low-money environment, behavioral economics is politically irresistible: It’s simple, it’s barely noticeable, and it’s cheap. More, it promises a kind of psychological judo. We could batter ourselves senseless and penniless again st people’s irrationality and selfishness while trying to change their behavior. Or we could use those very traits to “nudge” them in a desired direction. No wonder business people, as well as politicians, like it so much– it seems to offer solutions to all kinds of sticky behavioral problems.
The rest can be read here.
Besides, it seems that people interested in indie pop music are increasingly driven toward economics, as exemplified by Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party people, 9 Songs) and Mat Whitecross’s (Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll), recent adaptation of Klein’s Shock Doctrine. After all, Mick Jagger was at the LSE and he retained Robbins’ lessons.
I teach with Harro Maas, a course “Contemporary Economic thought in a Historical Perspective” at a new venture, modeled on a liberal arts curriculum, the Amsterdam University College. They require the first year courses to have a textbook and since we both admire Roger’s Penguin history we chose that one. It was Harro’s great idea of inviting Roger for a meeting with the students. After discussing the book for 5 weeks, they could ask questions of expansion or clarification or make suggestions to the author on what to write in future editions.
From the 25 students came questions like: what is the best form of economic organization, markets or the state? what works best capitalism or socialism? should we adopt sociological approaches to risk analysis instead of relying on mathematical models? That’s right! Students querying the historian on what economics to believe, and if the past could arbitrate on these dilemmas. Roger did his best to answer and not answer the questions, but not far into the conversation he was politely labeled a Keynesian. The tone was always interested and there was no disappointment from either side, and some questions were properly historical such as why some ideas developed in some countries (often their own) and not somewhere else…
To conclude, a student spoke of a concern that many had voiced before. Roger’s text has too many names, too much happens and it is hence difficult to summarize. The student asked for the ten most important economists of history that would make a summary. Roger gave us then a “Hamlet without the Prince”. The history of economics as the history of its identity, as subordinate to morality, breaking out as a subject in political and moral philosophy, finally in the twentieth century the economic becoming its field of professional and academic expertise.
It was all good! A perfect way to motivate students giving them a sense of ownership of the content… they are on first name terms with the author, and they even drank a beer with him.
(on other reviews Backhouse gets three 4 star reviews on amazon.co.uk, and one 2 star and one 4 star reviews on amazon.com, the American shopper is less impressed)
In the last few, summer, months I have been an unreliable blogger. It is going to get worse. One good reason is that I have set up a new blog that requires my attention.
For 7 weeks in September and October, I teach a class titled generically “History and Methodology of Economics”, which I have ambitiously re-named as “the politics of economics.” The course reviews literature on the place and role of economists in contemporary society from an historical standpoint. Because one of my goals for the class is to develop appreciation for the multiple interpretations of which economics is subjected to, and to the multiple uses given to economic ideas in public life, I asked them to participate in a course-blog. This will be 10% of their final grade. Their task is capture commentary on economics or uses of economics in unexpected places, notably in mass culture.
From my brief, hands in the air, survey, nearly none of the students had experience with the blogging form. So they are learning not only about the practice of observing economics in its historical drift, but also about expressing themselves in a blogging setting. I leave you here an invitation to visit, to comment and to encourage on “Observing Economics“.
You can call it scandalous; you can call it Mickey Mouse; you can even call it fried chicken, if you want. But the session titled “From History of Economics to Histories about Economics” at the last HES meeting in Denver was just a thrilling experience. Let me explain in a few words what its purpose was. The last few years have witnessed the development of a literature about the history of economics outside of our field. Historians of science, economic historians and journalists (among others) have begun to write about the same issues we are (supposed to be) interested in and most of the time, they do not quote historians of economics. How did it happen? It is very simple, actually, and could be summed up in Stanley Fish’s terms: 1) Do your job, 2) Don’t try to do someone else’s job, 3) Don’t let anyone else do your job. Historians of economics have tried to act as economists, using the past to build alternative economic models or criticizing mainstream economics on its own terms. By doing so, they have created a “What If” History of Economics, one that builds parallel stories that can be understood only within the community, but offers virtually no insight on its recent developments, its status as a science or its cultural influence. On the other hand, you have another kind of accounts, such as Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. They provide a more caricatural view of the economist as a torturer, mass-murderer and conspirator. Historians of economics may find them shocking (that’s the word, indeed), misinformed, misleading and dangerous, but those accounts have a significant appeal beyond our small community, and by refusing to address them in some ways, considering them as popular rubbish, we choose to remain in self-referentiality.
During this session, Loïc Charles, Harro Maas and Tiago Mata presented a perspective on the future developments of our field, not by restating previous positions, but by looking at possible new ways of doing the history of economics. Looking at recent developments in other fields such as history of science, economic history and political science, Loïc observed that non-disciplinary histories of economics are currently being written, offering a new intellectual space of trade between these various communities. Harro, by resorting to the metaphor of the historian as a curator, showed that we can build new narratives on the history of economics if we try to go beyond the text, arranging economics as a series of objects. For someone like me who studies the place of visual representation in economics, this metaphor has a strong appeal. I look at the large amount of visual materials I collected over the years (books, digital pictures and scans) and realize I use them in a very conservative way in comparison to the vast possibilities that are open if I think of them as pieces of art which would have to be curated in an exhibition. Would it provide a different kind of history? Last but not least, Tiago used Fish’s concept of interpretive communities to construct a picture of the public imagination of economics in recent works, without distinction between works intended for an audience of specialists and those intended for a larger audience. In Tiago’s account, indeed, there is no “audience” understood as this abstract mass of people out there, there are only anonymous individuals, internet users and bloggers, all contributing to create some understanding of economics.
I would not assert that these papers are perfect. They were intended for discussion rather than for immediate publication and I should say that the presentation itself seemed to me better than the actual papers. The presentation, actually, was quite spectacular. It had a kind of restrained violence toward the audience – the violence became less retrained during Tiago’s presentation when spectators were exposed to Klein’s striking rhetorics by way of graphic images – and the tension was palpable. In the same way art history has gradually given way to visual studies and visual culture, these papers may be viewed as an attempt to get rid of the “old” history of economics and to replace it by “economics studies” or “economic culture”. This is not a mere question of wording, it is a deeper transformation of our field. The skepticism of many attendants, explicit or implicit, makes sense.
I’ve been making notes on the media debates about the economic (formerly financial, and credit) crisis. My plan was to write down in notecards: themes, characters, positions, and narratives. Then cover a large table with the color coded cards. Shuffle them. And rearrange them in sequences and distances, taking photographs of each setting. With no pretension of making an art installation. This is my native, Ven diagram, way of thinking through the thematic patterns of popular discourse.
Regrettably I am too slow. My speed impairment is expressed in my street running, my pool swimming, my football striker instincts and my paper writing. Worse still, I don’t usually win games: chess, checkers, Go, Unreal Tournament, Fifa 07. Picking last week’s New Yorker I notice how I lost another race. I feel cheated, my notecards stacked mercilessly into one single paragraph.
Please take a deep breath, and read the following:
This crisis is the culmination of events and trends reaching back, depending on your perspective, four, seven, seventeen, twenty-two, twenty-seven, thirty-eight, sixty-five, or a hundred and two years. (…) The causes are technological, mathematical, cultural, demographic, financial, economic, behavioral, legal, and political. Among the dozens of contributors and culprits, real or perceived, are the personal computer, the abandonment of the gold standard, the abandonment of Glass-Steagall, the end of fixed commissions, the rating agencies, mortgage-backed securities, securitization in general, credit derivatives, credit-default swaps, Wall Street partnerships going public, the League of Nations, Bretton Woods, Basel II, CNBC, the S.E.C., disintermediation, overcompensation, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, Phil Gramm and Jim Leach, Alan Greenspan, black swans, red tape, deregulation, outdated regulation, lax enforcement, government pressure to lower lending standards, predatory lending, mark-to-market accounting, hedge funds, private-equity firms, modern finance theory, risk models, “quants,” corporate boards, the baby boomers, flat-screen televisions, and an indulgent, undereducated populace.
(Friends, family, and fans, worry not, I will pull through and have already a new paper idea: to expose the New Yorker as meta-journalism.)
Businessmen are steely figures. They hire and fire. They invest and disinvest. They make decisions in the haze of uncertainty. And for all that they calculate, reason, plan.
Yet, in contrast to this materialistic character, they subscribe to mysticism. Executives are known to pay absurd sums to “management experts” to hear a litany of pedestrian commentary on the great business adventure. For instance, Jim Collins‘ new book, making the cover of Business Week, Why the Mighty Fall: And Some Companies Never Give In. The core of the book is identifying the 5 stages of failure:
1. Hubris born of success
2. Undisciplined pursuit of more
3. Denial of risk and peril
4. Grasping for salvation
5. Capitulation to irrelevance or death
In reading it I had the feeling it was a rip off of the Kubler-Ross model, of the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) reordered. It is clearly charismatic for some audiences. (He definitely looks good! Like a younger Michael Porter.) It is undoubtedly successful discourse. But what is it? Is it self-help psychology for organizations? Or is it fiction with scientistic claims to spice the imagination?
If you may permit me, and with gratitude for the kind reception you once devoted to me, to have the attention of your just glory to remark that your star of justice, your joyful star, is in risk of being tainted by the most obscuring and indelible of threats.
Professor George Akerlof, Nobel Laureate of 2001, spoke in these terms to Bloomberg Radio on the 1st of April.
I feel that the most important animal spirit about the job market is what is creating the number of jobs we have. And for that, I think confidence is one. I think that stories about the economy is another. And the general feeling by the public, that the possibility that people may sell snake oil… And there is a long chapter about that.
Only today I heard Professor and Judge(!) Richard Posner speaking to Bloomberg Radio:
Animal Spirits is a John Maynard Keynes expression, and he said – and I think very insightfully – that because businessmen operate in a very uncertain framework, you known, uncertain environment… If you build a plant and its not gonna yield revenues for several years, you are really taking a shot in the dark. Because in a few years your markets may change, competitors may eat you alive, and so on. So you need some feeling of confidence, spirit, daring. And in a depression the economic environment becomes so uncertain, that people begin to freeze. So you see a lot of hoarding…
(Posner also adds that Frank Knight was an influence on Keynes. Sure, and the Easter Bunny was roommate to Santa Claus. No?)
Here is what John Maynard Keynes actually wrote:
Even apart from the instability due to speculation, there is the instability due to the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectations, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits – a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.
It is, I hope apparent, that Keynes idea of an urgency to action, the animal leap away from reason and best judgment, has nothing to do with either “confidence” or the drive of the “entrepreneur.” It is not the memory of man Keynes that I wish to preserve from blemish. It is mine and the public’s right to sanity in preserving the meaning and sense of words, their power to guide our thoughts. In Akerlof or Posner there is just nothing animal about them spirits.
I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My inflamed protest is simply the cry of my soul. Let them dare, then, to bring me before a court of law and let the proceedings take place in broad daylight! I am waiting.
With my deepest respect, Sir.
To echo Yann’s reflection on wikipedia, I want to say a few words on my difficulty using economic blogs as an historical object. There are the very few posts I publish on this blog and there are the numerous I trash before they reach the playground. One reason for this is that I’m often left wondering about the significance of the opinions, anecdotes, controversies and disputes I find on the web, and on economists’ and journalists’ blog in particular –from Mankiw and de Long’s blogs to New York Times columns including Krugman’s,to the freakonomics and marginal revolution blogs and others. Does such and such opinion reflect a wider one within the profession (and which professin matters: academic economists, economists working in administrations, banks, columnists, journalists…), does such and such event reflect a general move, a cultural evolution, an historical trend ? What are the blogs that matter and how do they matter? I remember this discussion we had with Tiago on wikio, technorati, and other ranking tools, where “authority” (in technorati) is estimated by counting the links to a blog within the last 6 months or 30 days. We discussed the limits of such tools (you have to ask to be registered, so what if you don’t want to enter the game?), in particular the use of links as a yardstick (what if a blog function as a forum where people discuss in the comments rather from blogs to blogs, what if “visual” content such a charts or videos is generally more “linked” that columns or texts), and most important, we discussed the meaning of such ranking. Tigao found them useful as measures of conversation, social networking. I found them limited and problematic as measures of influence (as regards the spread of ideas, the impact on decision makers, for instance), popularity and power. There are two sets of questions recurring with my everyday use of blogs:
-How do we use them in a research on the history of current economics? Will they replace Friedman’s Newsweek columns? Or do they vividly display science in the making the way the minutes of the first Mount Pelerin Society or Herbert Simon’s handwritten notes of meetings at the Ford Foundation do? Or rather opinion in the making? How to make sense of the comments which feed blogs when then are mostly anonymous. How are we to handle the multiple identities of those researchers-academics-columnists-bloggers-citizens-public intellectuals? Are blogs a separate forum? Do they replace others or get a new function?
-How do you proceed to feel the zeitgeist of our times? Do you have a list of blogs and sites to eat up with the morning coffee ? If so, how does such list evolve over time? Do you just swin with the tide, jumping from links to links? What media and ideas do you choose to remember our times and how?