The soulful present of the dismal science

I have just finished the Soulful Science (subtitled “What economists really do and why it matters”) by Diane Coyle. I recommend it strongly to you. It is both useful and well written. The book aims at presenting a survey of the hottest research topics in today’s economics for a general audience, each chapter being more or less devoted to one theme. It is always easy to criticize such or such choice made by the author and every reader will certainly find something either missing entirely or discussed too rapidly, so I will not go into this. Besides, I tend to agree with the selection made. One of the thing that needs to be underlined is that there is no chapter devoted to macroeconomics (although there is one on the new economics of growth). This choice is interesting because it means that the most interesting developments in recent economics concern micro rather than macroeconomics (I tend to agree with this). Another point that should be emphasized is that there is a whole chapter and parts of at least two others devoted to economic history. My two favourite chapters are the 4th and the 5th, “What is all about” and “Economics of humans”, which discuss the economics of happiness and behavioural economics, respectively. Diane Coyle succeeds in being informative, but not technical, complete, but not boring and her writing aptly conveys well the sense of intense creativity that you get from reading this literature.

The general tone of the book is optimistic on the future of economics and slightly defensive at the same time, rehearsing a bit too often how economics has reshaped itself as a soulful and useful social science. I have no doubts that economics had endured a profound change during the last twenty years and that, in a large part, as a results microeconomics is much more nuanced, both in its methodology and in its results, than it used to be in the heyday of the rational choice revolution in the 80s and 90s. However, this not true to the whole of economics. As Diane Coyle half-heartily admits in the concluding chapter, the recent evolution in economics have been also and for a large part driven by a computer revolution and the subsequent development of econometrics and not necessarily for the best: “The availability of cheap computer power and easy-to-use software does still [LC: I would say “strongly”, instead] encourage sloppy applied work”. In my point of view, it is particularly evident in economic history where there is a huge difference between the numerous cliometric papers using bad sets of data without discussing them and the very small number of papers trying to better these sets of data. As a consequence, I am less convinced than Diane Coyle is that modern economic history is both more empirical and more reliable in its conclusions than it used to be. In particular, I found the whole literature based on the construction of cultural indices to measure the impact of culture on development reviewed in the book really problematic: what does these indices really signals besides the naïveté of their authors is an open question.

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2 thoughts on “The soulful present of the dismal science

  1. I want to write a brief post about a piece of David Leonhardt to the New York Times, from a couple of months ago. His assessment is akin to Coyle. It was funny to record reactions at the HES mailing list.

  2. Loic: thanks for pointing out, I hadn’t yet come across the book and have ordered it right away (long live the cheap dollar!).

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