Jargonomics

Tyler Cowen’s and Brad DeLong’s blogs have both directed their readers to the open letter of John Cochrane, Finance Wizard at Chicago. Cochrane is incensed by the protest of 100 University of Chicago professors to the creation of the Milton Friedman Institute. Most of Cochrane’s response is about examining the verbe tense, the sentence subject and political correctness of the protest statement. After prodding, slicing, extracting, replacing, turning and stepping on the statement, he discovers it was written by mediocre conspiracy theorists trying to grab a piece of the funding pie. He is at his best when he goes ape on the term “Global South”

I’ll just pick on this one as a stand-in for all the jargon in this letter. What does this oxymoron mean, and why do the letter writers use it? We used to say what we meant, “poor countries.” That became unfashionable, in part because poverty is sometimes a bit of your own doing and not a state of pure victimhood. So, it became polite to call dysfunctional backwaters “developing.” That was already a lie (or at best highly wishful thinking) since the whole point is that they aren’t developing. But now bien-pensant circles don’t want to endorse “development” as a worthwhile goal anymore. “South” – well, nice places like Australia, New Zealand and Chile are there too (at least from a curiously North-American and European-centric perspective). So now it’s called “global south,” which though rather poor as directions for actually getting anywhere, identifies the speaker as the caring sort of person who always uses the politically correct word.

I confess that for a moment I thought Cochrane had discovered semiotics, but he is too busy doing something else. (Note the always dismissive reference to “bien-pensant”, very midwestern.) What he is doing is defending economics from the invading hordes of social scientists and humanities types that are trying to frame and define his subject. Consider the final segment,

Milton Friedman stood for freedom, social, political, and economic. He realized that they are inextricably linked. If the government controls your job or your business, dissent is impossible. He favored, among other things, legalizing drugs, school choice, and volunteer army. To call him or his political legacy “right wing” is simply ignorant, and I mean that also as a technically accurate description rather than an insult. (Of course, he also has a legacy in the economics community as a first-rate researcher, which is what the MFI will do and honor.)

Cochrane radiates authority in speaking of Friedman and his legacy, not because he was close personal friend, or a colleague, but because he is a straight thinking economist. Friedman is a battleground to define the politics of economics.

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9 thoughts on “Jargonomics

  1. I agree perfectly with your last sentence.
    I wonder about the Chicago University context of these exchanges since I noted a couple of big names from the CU history department (Goldstein and Sewell).
    On a lighter mode, for those who do not know the Chicago campus, the only place to get a sandwich or a quick bite in a descent location inside the campus is the “restaurant” of the Graduate business school. Accordingly, people from other departments, mainly social sciences and humanities are flocking to this place at mid-day. Perhaps, viewed from the economics department, it feels like everyday they are invaded by hordes of social scientists and humanities types that are trying to take food from their mouth… And now they want to take money from our pockets, no way man!

  2. I’m thinking that Cochrane did more harm than good to the MFI cause. The MFI report had been sober and largely in the context of your earlier post: branding and resources to combat in the global marketplace of universities and institutes. This naive response is bound to be followed by a strong counterpunch and, most likely, a lot of backstage deals.

    Dissent at UofC has always met with benevolent eyes and silent denial. A nod, a smile and ‘yes, we will look over it at the next trustees meeting’. The unsuccessful Divest from Darfour campaign is the latest example of this. Essentially, a silent up yours from the Board of Trustees.

    And this will be the decider in the end. It is unwise to ignore the current scramble for resources in academia’s top flight. The Board of Trustees will look at it ‘closely’. And then do a cold-blooded cost benefit analysis. MFI will likely win, but I believe the Board couldn’t not be bothered with Friedman’s freedom legacy, for good or for bad. They will shut down access to the Chilean files – as they do now-, they will profit from whatever bloody opportunity arises in the global markeplace – as they do now – and they will keep on weathering the storm by throwing money at it.

    Next to this, the 101 finger-pointing to their Econ colleagues – and not to the Board – and Cochrane’s amateurish reply will be bound to the dustbin of history, or, as it happens, to message sections in blog posts.

    And, btw, it is only an outsider’s simplification that can allow the latter paragraphs of Loic to stand. It would merit further observation to see that most of the Econ faculty does not go to lunch in the GSB. The Econ faculty is solidly in Social Science’s grounds and they share their grub in the same cafeterias. The geography of departmental eating at the UofC actually tells you a lot about the way the University is run.

  3. On the ‘global south’ jargon, I am not sure if there is any explicit work on how such terms come and go in economics (I suspect there is in linguistics as a whole), but this one is a bit strange frankly.

    I first heard it this May, when we were up at the UN for a workshop, thirty odd people from around the academic landscape, and during the closing remarks the UN speaker suddenly referred to the global south, at which half the academics looked completely baffled, and the other half stiffled a smirk and a grin.

    Maybe I’m getting older, but didn’t jargon use to grow into the discipline, rather than be bluntly introduced from above? or is it just the institutional PC flavour of this one, and seeing it come along which made me sit up and take notice…?

  4. Chicago Boy (aka Vasco),

    As it happens it is the stuff that gets “thrown to the dustbin of history” that gets me warmed up. I am actually ok with that even though it ranks me as a scavenger of sorts.

    Maybe there will be cold blood and the decision will be made on the money bags account, and hence no referendum on the Friedman legacy. Still, it is significant that these polemics occur and recur. There is a real problem here in that we cannot agree, even within academia, on what is economics good for? What does it do in society? The MFI may not be about this, but there is a lot of people out there worried about the question and eager to debate it.

  5. Ben,

    I wonder who were the baffled academics in the audience? Would you get a different response from different disciplines, say an economist vs an anthropologist? The ontological game of naming is of course something economists do all the time, but this is not their kind of naming…

  6. the academics were a mix of economists, anthropologists and sociologists, where the former was primarily people working on development economics from a variety of perspectives such as financial flows, I-O and CGE modelling, trade theory, micro studies etc.

    A good mix, but the jargon came from the UN chaps and as with most of the terms used (and discarded today) I guess it will soon move through the ranks of academia and media.
    on different names which have been used by economists I think we can claim credit (or blame?) for third world, under-developed, less developed country, under-industrialised, developing and now global south in just the last fifty or so years.
    I think we are rather adept at the naming game, when we want to be.

  7. I was wondering if economists do the kind of ontological work biotechnologists do when they define something called a “pre-embryo” as an object that can be experimented upon to extract stem cells (I think that is what they do with it). They rest their arguments on the selfevidence of nature, purposelly eliding its social construction. Economic sociologists/heterodox economists have said similar things about the notion of the market as nature, although many will replace the natural market with the natural institutions or natural culture. In a way it is all very obvious for an economist, a social scientist, that what he does is create social worlds – national accounts, I/O schema, mechanism design, auctions. Maybe this is what that stuff on performativity is all about.

  8. Hi Tiago,

    I must be honest with you, I doubt the majority of economists use the term ontological, and they probably do not concern themselves overly much with the jargon or its meaning. (a fun result in searching the Economic Journal from 1891 to 2006 gives only two hits with articles that use the term ontological, and ten reviews or lists with the term… so that should be an indication).

    I agree with you when you say that social scientists in putting up structures such as the national accounts and circular flows define the realm of their investigation. I do not think that ‘self-evidence’ of nature is something economists can reliably defer to, nor can I think of an example for this to be honest (I mean, our most basic notions of ‘value’ ‘consumption’ ‘utility’ are all theoretical and debated), so I don’t think it is very obvious to economists that they can refer to a natural state…
    In fact, I usually get a bit of heckling when I try to argue that the national accounts in fact define the economy and economic growth when it comes to both empirically measurement and how we think about it… But that’s just me I guess.

    What is performativity? I just don’t know, and I’m unsure how it relates…

  9. I study economics, but I am not an economist. I study hard not to be an economist, and in my writing I am not confident in offering any insight on the economy. My game is history first, social theory second, political theory maybe third. When I used the term ontological it was as description of what economists do, less of what they think they are doing. They thing they are doing science, just that, but that doesn’t get us far, hence my jargon.

    Performativity is a new trend in sciences studies associated with Michel Callon in France and Donald MacKenzie in Edinburgh. Their notion is that economics works because it frames social behavior. Their preferred evidence comes from Finance. In finance you are offering descriptions of realities that are not yet made, belief in the construct leads people to follow its rules. It performs.

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