Bad job

Imagine I write a paper on Behavioral Macroeconomics making off the cuff observations about the latest financial products and how my bank manager frames that information, and noting my friends and neighbors’ flight to safety or to risk on the flimsiest of whims. Imagine I make no reference to secondary literature, or to methodology as I approach the questions.

Were I then to submit this piece to general appreciation, say get Robert Shiller to referee it. How do you think he would assess my effort?

I am sure we would be fast and dirty in telling me to do something else with my time.

I have not written a paper on Behavioral Macroeconomics and have no intention of doing so. But Shiller has written a working paper, kind of on the history of economics (Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper No. 1788 – Economists as Worldly Philosophers). There is no thread to the argument, no understanding of context, and zero references to the vast body of work by historians on his subject. The working paper, I am sure, will get plenty of readers, downloads and comments. But were I ever to referee it, I would be fast and dirty in telling him to do something else with his time.

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27 thoughts on “Bad job

    1. You want me to referee it? Someone missed the point of my post.

      Economics appears somehow ready formed and fully bounded from the beginning. Take this: “Adam Smith was a professor, not of economics but of moral philosophy. His The Theory of Moral Sentiments, first published in 1759, was a mixture of philosophy, psychology, and economics.” — the anachronism of the statement makes me cringe.

      A reference to a Baltimore Sun article to announce the emergence of economics departments? What about saying something about the importation of the German Research University or the context of the Progressive Era shaping standards of expertise and advocacy and trust in numbers.

      And then the whole thesis is pants. Economists never stopped being “worldy philosophers” even if the public sphere has changed and become less accepting of certain brands of generalists — vide a forthcoming conference and special issue of History of Political Economy on Public Intellectuals in Economics (shameless self-plug).

      I could go on ad nauseum. Nearly sentence by sentence.

    2. Tiago wrote:

      >Someone [i.e., me] missed the point of my post…

      Nonsense. I am not stupid. I did not miss the point of your post.

      I do maintain that if you dislike it enough to trash it, you owe people who ask an explanation of why you dislike it.

      And I must say that you are not doing too well. Your complaint about Shiller & Shiller’s “Adam Smith was a professor, not of economics but of moral philosophy. His The Theory of Moral Sentiments, first published in 1759, was a mixture of philosophy, psychology, and economics.” is “the anachronism makes me cringe.”

      But Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy. Theory of Moral Sentiments was published in 1759. TMS does contain a braided mixture of ideas that we would now classify as being ideas in philosophy, society, and economics.

      Certainly if I were writing it (or editing it) I would write “…was a mixture of ideas that we now think of as belonging to three distinct academic disciplines: philosophy, psychology, and economics.”

      But that hardly seems cringe-inducing.

      You are coming off as much more interested in policing your sub-disciplinary boundaries and in protecting your turf than in communicating with people who are interested in issues you claim to be interested in..,

    3. I know you didn’t miss the point, but you just missed the joke.

      It is regrettable if I am coming out as policing sub-disciplinary boundaries, Mark T. certainly gave it that spin when he made notice of my post. However, if I can testify to my own motivations, I am reacting to a poor piece of scholarship, failing on standards that are shared across the profession: statements on methodology, review of the secondary literature, careful reference to evidence. I worry that when it comes to writing about the history of economics, many in the profession feel entitled to lax on such standards. And when that comes out as “history of economics” it looks bad on me, and anyone else trying to make a living doing the “history of economics” well. It is self serving but not as “protecting your turf” implies.

  1. Interestingly, the article is co-written with his wife, Virginia, who is a Child Psychologist at Yale. I wonder what her contribution to this paper is, though.
    Also, it seems that this paper could have been commissioned by a generalist economic journal. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was published by the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Then, I wonder who is going to read it and what kind of insight she/he is likely to make out of it. It would be fun to trace future citations.

  2. There is yet another dimension to this: the sense that anyone can write history, anyhow. I’m sure that economists would be much more careful in using (and talking about) statistics and mathematics, for instance. They would not say that the Weierstrass theorem more or less guarantees that a continuous function on a set has a maximum: they would go back to an analysis book and be exactly precise about it (you need a continuous function in a compact set). But no need to go back and see what has been done on the history of their discipline. Much worse if this kind of writing is commissioned by generalist journals like JEP. I hate to see historians as gatekeepers—because I think we can use our time in much more productive and fun ways—, but this view that anyone can sit and talk about history in any way they find convenient (which usually means not being well informed about the field) just contributes to the public image of history as a pastime. This may call people’s attention to interesting historical questions, but I wonder whether it is the appropriate way of doing so…

  3. Maybe that we are playing the gatekeepers. But on the topics touched by the paper – interdisciplinarity, the economists as public intellectuals, and looking at lessons from the past -, historians and sociologists of science have some qualifications, no?

  4. Pedro, I wholeheartedly agree with every word of your comment (except the Weierstrass part I had no idea about ). And I greatly admire your moderation and diplomatic skills, which I’m unable to display in such situation. Economists’ idea that writing history requires no particular training, nor laboriously acquired skills, is simply arrogant and unworthy of the intellectual standards they claim to come up to.

    1. That’s exactly right!
      If I may go back to Brad DeLong’s reply, I’m aware that it is important not to have an attitude of policing people but rather try to engage them in a conversation. I modestly say that I’ve tried to do so, a few times (when I had the opportunity of talking to an established economist who constructed historical tales). In one occasion (at an AEA session in 2010), the economist excused himself for not “being an historian” because he was just telling a story that he heard from another important figure in the field. Fine excuse. But why not mentioning that historians may have something else to tell about that issue? Why not having the slightest curiosity about what historian may have said about them? Going back to my original point, when economists refer to statistics and mathematics, even informally, they are very concerned about not giving the image of “waving too much their hands”, which requires them to understand what has been done in those fields, and the academic standards they (and economists) have. With history, no worries, we can just keep telling tales, which are told with specific intentions (to socialize youngsters, to give a notion of progress in the field, and so on) but when someone asks you why you did so, you can just excuse yourself that you’re not an historian… So, trying to engage with people who are interested in issues historians are interested in certainly requires historians not to be cops, but it simultaneously require a sense from the other side that they are not inventing the wheel, even if they are just telling tales about it.

  5. As a (short period) long term reader of this blog, I cannot but feel that – yet again – the original post, and indeed much (not all) of the subsequent replies, are all askew (crooked timber). And this because (most of) the participants in this blog have (a) a very strong (professional + other?) self-identification as “historians”, but that they also (b) cannot but think of themselves as economists first and foremost.

    I must confess that I find this basic orientation confusing and unhelpful, and conclude that most of the problems complained about (which do, on the whole, seem – at least to this outsider – to have much to do with sub-disciplinary policing) are self-created (and, to a wider audience, pseudo problems only).

    The conceptual fault here appears (all too often) to be that a perenial idea of ‘economics’ is projected back onto the past. If this idea is discarded, and it is recognized that whatever Smith or 9say) Say were doing, it was certainly not what modern economists are doing (or think Smith and Say were doing), then one breaks free from modern economics and what modern economists have to say about the past (assuming one is not engaging in a direct conversation with them) becomes – simply – irrelevant. (Then one could spend one’s time actually talking history as opposed to complaining about economists).

    My first post on this blog was just over a year ago, and was induced by my sense of internal confusion at finding a group of self-declared historians engaging in the economists’ game of the day of paying obituary tributes to Samuelson. Today, a year on, my sense of identity confusion on this blog remains.

    Simon

    PS. Langauge police ref: () for //

  6. The sad truth is that, on the whole, the Shillers’ paper has nothing to with the history of economics. Two paragraphs on Smith and Keynes are not enough to ensure it is so.
    But most importantly, the paper has also nothing to do with the academic standards people can rightfully expect, whether they are located in a history, literary criticism, graphic design, physics, neuropsychology or economics department. Period. The truth is that the paper is as academic as the kind of conversation I have on a weekly basis with fellow historians (or economists) about how the profession is turning these days. This has in fact nothing to do with defending our boundaries or the place of historians of economics in the profession. It is just about the only moral we should be concerned with: the academic one. And this moral consists in: citing references, being explicit about your main thesis and substantiating your arguments using the standards which are established in the field within which you are operating. And this is just what Tiago is infuriated about. Tiago cannot be dissatisfied with the content of the paper. It has none!
    Yet, as Pedro rightfully points out, the paper also gives us a clear signal about how low are people’s expectations when it comes to history of economic thought – I am using the ‘old’ expression on purpose. For this reason, I also take this kind of waffle as a warning sign about the state of our sub-discipline.

  7. Let me add my own thoughts about the Shiller paper.
    1) Obviously, Shiller’s paper is merely one example in a whole range of papers of mainstream economists who write one ‘historical’ paper. I think this could be a nice topic for a conference. Why is it that time and again economists not normally interested in history all of sudden churn out one or two ‘historical’ papers? Why exactly is it that in these exercises they’re not in the least interested in ‘real’ history of economics? And why exactly is it that we self-proclaimed true historians consider this truly crap history?
    2) Partly answering these questions: I think that to many economists history does not exist. That is to say, to most economists economics is simply one big pile of articles and books that one can draw on in different ways depending on the occasion. For the argument Shiller wants to make in this paper, it turns out he needs the big-stature economists. Not because they’re historical figures, but because they’re The Big Guys. The reason that they’re all quite a few years in the past is that it takes a while to determine who is a truly Big Guy.
    3) This paper is about the financial and economic crisis, and about the current state of economics. It is NOT about history. The Shiller’s make an argument about what should be changed in present economics, and use the Big Guys to make their point. Therefore, it should neither be judged as a historical article.

  8. So, let me see if I get this right: historians love to complain about how much more relevant they could be. Then, the second someone who actually matters to public discourse like Brad DeLong shows up, the line is: what business do you have observing anything about the history of your own profession without having first absorbed the history-of-economics sub-literature?

    As someone who cares deeply about history-writing, my policy is to let amateur history be, because history is a public resource and people can and will use it as they like. Reserving my critical judgment for the professionals, I’ll just say I generally cringe whenever I read Tiago’s self-indulgent, half-baked observations on this blog. I let that slide, too, because, hey, it’s a blog. But when you act like that much of a jerk to your guests, you deserve your isolation.

    1. Will, as far as I can see, the problem is not that there IS amateur history, but that it is the ONLY kind of historical work accepted in most economic journals. Are you suggesting we shouldn’t care?

    2. No, I don’t think I’d go that far, but one does have to recognize that amateur history is a sort of side-feature to most professions, and that it will often not engage with any professional history that might exist, but that it will appear in mainstream places. I realize that history of economics is in a different position from history of science, because you all have a desire to actually be a part of the economics profession, but at the same time, you have to take the reality for what it is: you’re not.

      This means that you have to play cards with the hand that is dealt you: if you don’t have a very big house, you simply can’t afford to make other people master shibboleths before they’re allowed to enter. I mean, Krugman, DeLong, and others have often commented on the need for better sense of history in the economics profession. To me that’s a real opportunity to prove one’s worth by offering pointed criticisms of the most important points of extant histories (not shibboleths like anachronistic terminology) as well as by offering well-developed alternatives. When one is on the outside, it’s simply not prudent to get prickly about things.

  9. Will, it seems like you have a point. Civil discourse in science is essential, and Marvel-like confrontations between self-appointed super-heroes and super-villains should not have a place. Does that mean that blog posts should be as dull as an abstract submission? The blog post by Tiago expressed an emotion (yes, anger) which is perfectly sane: what, you see that wowww cool, a paper making historical and methodological references is discussed at the NBER and the AEA – and when you read it, it turns out to be, as you say, amateur history – as if history of economics literally did not exist as a field. A blog is a good place to vent the accumulated pressure, I find. True, Tiago’s style is certainly irritating, but it might be worth discounting that and focus on the valid points he makes – a lesson I learned by reading Philip Mirowski 😉

    1. Quite true, and historians should call attention to when history is being used to make points that the historical record cannot demonstrably support. At the same time, I think there’s an art to knowing when to come down off the roof. Tiago did indeed attract attention, but then when the sort of person whose attention you’re seeking asks you a question, I find it’s advisable to answer it to the best of your ability, even if the question is phrased somewhat curtly (I mean, the original post was itself hardly an exercise in diplomacy.) Especially when your blog suddenly finds itself two steps removed from Conscience of a Liberal, that’s a fine time to take things a little more seriously and to stop complaining about professional disregard for what you do, and to show what you’ve got.

      For my part, I’m never going to read this Shiller paper, but I would be interested to know what narrative it espouses, and why that narrative can or cannot be supported by the historical record, and why that matters. I don’t care if it doesn’t tick the proper boxes. This blog is apparently at least occasionally read by at least some people in economics (as well as at least one historian of science); I really think you all should use it to promote what specific things you and your colleagues have come up with to whomever is willing to listen. Personally, I’ve always hoped by reading it I would get a little more insight into what is going on in History of Economics than I really do.

      On Phil Mirowski’s example: I have an enormous amount of respect for him and his work. He has put in a simply astounding effort to coming up with a rigorously formulated alternative history, as I call for in my response to Beatrice. It may well be that no approach could crack the lack of interest within mainstream economics to the historiography of economics, but I’ve always thought his work would have more power and influence if it took a more sympathetic and searching attitude toward why historical actors understood what they were doing to have value.

  10. Dear Will, I was somewhat startled by this: “I’ll just say I generally cringe whenever I read Tiago’s self-indulgent, half-baked observations on this blog.” I did not know my writing (wholesale) caused this kind of emotion, and I hope you will (would have) challenge me when I deserve it. I am depressed that the admiration I have for your writing and comments is not reciprocated.

    I don’t feel that I abused Brad deLong. If anything I know he knows the standards of historical scholarship (he is terrific economic historian) and as such dispensed a paternalistic, sit-in-my-lap-my-son tone from someone that is his junior. I wanted to make sure, short and clear, that my objection was to the quality of the said work. If you have even a glance at the piece in question you will see how hard it is to be serious and constructive about it. And I really really didn’t want to write a referee report!

    There is much talk out there about the marketing of scholarship and the history of economics too, I don’t think that is my role. If I ever become involved with the institutions of our field, or its journals, I will surely become more interested. And if you want more of that, the SHOE email list has that same discussion every month. For now, my contribution is to be passionate about the topics of my interest and to try to write compelling, thoughtful, researched work.

    Amateur history has its place and it is not the scholarly venues. Isis does not publish amateur history. I note that Nature/Science when they need history go look for historians. In contrast, journals in HET very often commission essays from prominent economists, for reasons that are instrumental to getting their engagement. The notion that we are trying to keep economists out is absurd, failing to understand our predicament (institutional and intellectual). We (at the blog) have never discriminated against economists when they do good work that we admire, and they do it, Glen Weyl is an instance that comes immediately to mind. We are fans, and invited him to write a piece for the blog, which he has for now declined to do.

    We are doing nothing odd here, just feeling our way on how to write better history and be better scholars.

    1. Well, now you’ve done it, Tiago. Your very considerate reply actually inspired me to go and look up the Shiller and Shiller working paper, take the twenty or so minutes necessary to read its 13 double-spaced pages, to see what all the fuss is about.

      I didn’t think it was too bad as these things go. It’s basically a think piece that draws on bits and pieces of history to try and draw out some basic trends — in that respect, it’s actually not all that different from what Lorraine Daston writes!

      Personally, I would place it in a long line of polemical reflection, which attributes intellectual failures to a narrowness of technical vision, not so dissimilar actually from columnist David Brooks’s fascination with what he views to be the anti-technocratic implications of the “new humanism”.

      It’s certainly not a well worked-out history, but it doesn’t try to be. It’s essentially saying that past economists could think outside their boxes, and now they can’t, illustrated with a few choice quotes. I think the cherry-picked evidence from the greats may create a mistaken impression of some “worldly philosopher” golden age is probably misleading.

      I also think the conclusion that it is this narrowness that led to a blindness leading up to the recent crisis is a bit of a cliché. Is there evil in the world? It must be specialization! model-fixation! The argument is actually not too different from S. M. Amadae’s account of rational choice theory (complete with the interest in the overbearing effects of Pareto optimality!)

      Although I’m not an economist, so I can’t properly judge the specifics, I do find the Krugman view more appealing, which states that certain schools of economics do not seem to reflect on the parameters defining the argumentative validity of their models, and that their sense of history does not recognize the present-day validity of arguments that have, of course, been modified, but would allow one to discern and properly characterize the economic phenomena under observation. This has nothing to do with a lack of worldliness or specialization, per so, so much as it stems from a lack of appreciation of the entire array of arguments available.

      I’m also interested in Krugman’s view that a lot of economic advice on public offer does not even seem to rely on models at all, which he has used to counter Christina Romer’s claim that anti-stimulus arguments are based in narrow models.

      But, back to the point at hand, I would tend to read the Shillers’ working paper as a kind of blog post. I think you’re cringing at the off-the-cuff observational quality of it that I have to admit I don’t really like in your posts — which is doubtless why I reacted as I did: even without reading the paper, I detected some hypocrisy. It may be irksome that reflective pieces don’t have to abide by the same standards of rigor as historians, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. You’re not exactly rigorous in your off-the-cuff observations on your profession either.

      Anyway, I do want to make clear that I don’t know how you divide up your work and style between blog and professional output, and I’m unfamiliar with the latter, so I don’t want any readers to assume I have any authority at all to comment on it. As to the former, sure, it irks me a bit, but unless some standard develops, everyone has to have their own blog style, so I say: keep up with yours.

      But, yeah, when economists do visit to ask a questions, I don’t think it’s so hard when you slime a piece, to offer a few comments upon request as to what the work is, what your key objections are, and why it’s important. Regardless of whether or not you’re trying to sell the profession, it will help make the profession look good.

  11. I think that it’s rather telling that Tiago seems surprised or even indignant at the idea that he might be expected to give a specific critique of the paper, and even more so the idea that he should give a better historical description of the same phenomena. By doing so he might have entered into dialogue with Schiller and might even have educated him. But he didn’t even think of that.

    Academic disciplines overlap, and academic writing exists at different levels of generality. These areas of overlap can be quite fruitful, if both sides are willing to play. But Tiago isn’t.

    Tiago gets an F, for the reasons indicated. And he cares what I think even less than he cares what DeLong thinks, and I’m cool with that. But I think that he’s at risk of being used as Exhibit A in a study of academic overspecialization and disciplinary jealousy, and if that happens, he won’t be able to say a word, because academic overspecialization and disciplinary jealousy are not topics about which he is expert.

  12. First of all, I would just like to point out that my scientific background is from the natural sciences. Having said that, I would just like to comment as a general academic on the last two replies.

    First of all, Will states that he tends to read the cited paper, which has been published on a peer-reviewed journal, “as a kind of blog post”. And seems to find no problem in this fact. Again, I must confess my lack of familiarity with the field, but I believe that the standards of a blog post should be rather different from those of a refereed paper. Some of these standards, I believe, go across the whole spectrum of natural or social sciences. These include the proper use of references, suitable application of models (or development thereof) and nomenclature. If these are not respected, then yes, the manuscripts should be left on a blog, where the standards are loosened. I fear for your profession if this is not the case.

    Secondly, but still strongly related to my comment above, John praises the benefits of interdisciplinary research, without apparently knowing the meaning of such expression. A mathematician frying an egg is not an interdisciplinary effort. It is only interdisciplinary when you actually cross two disciplines. This means that you must make use from the strengths of both fields (the one from where you start off, and the one which you are adding) while respecting both standards. If you just ignore the previous work and measures of the field you are less familiar with, then you are the one who is not “playing”.

    1. I didn’t say “interdisciplinary”. I said that disciplines overlap. Most economists have, as part of being an economist, some idea of the history of their profession. Shiller was writing to that.

      There are other people, historians of economics, who have a different and much more fine-grained idea of the history of economics. These people could, in fact, improve the ideas of the former group, by communicating with them. But what we see here instead is indignation that Shiller said anything at all.

  13. Again, what Shiller and Shiller are saying in that paragraph that Tiago finds cringe-inducing hardly seems to me to be cringe inducing. Indeed:

    * Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy.
    * His Theory of Moral Sentiments was published in 1759. The *Theory of Moral Sentiments indeed does contain a braided mixture of ideas that we would now classify as being ideas that belong to the disciplines philosophy, society, and economics.
    * The only just complaint I see against Shiller and Shiller’s claim is that it should have read:

    In fact, I would in fact go considerably further and argue that the claim that TMS (and much more so WN) is not “a mixture of philosophy, psychology, and economics” is more false and misleading than the claim that they are “a mixture of philosophy, psychology, and economics.”

    You can look back into the past before 1759 and 1776–in which case TMS and WN are not a mixture of philosophy, psychology, and economics” but rather culminating works of the “moral philosophy” episteme, to use a Foucaultian http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Episteme term.

    You can look forward into the future from 1759–in which case TMS and WN are indeed a mixture of philosophy, psychology, and economics, as some pieces are thereafter read as foundational discussions of issues that the new disciplinary epistemes were to pick up and run with, and some pieces remain in the ongoing tradition of philosophy.

    A good historian of thought looks both ways: neither denying that TMS can be and has been fruitfully read as a work of “moral philosophy” rather than as a braided combination of philosophy, psychology, and economics; nor denying–as Tiago appears to wish to–that TMS can be and has been fruitfully read as a braided combination of philosophy, psychology, and economics.

    Indeed, the reason that a good reading of TMS is Janus-faced–rather than the exclusively past-faced reading that Tiago wishes to impose on us as the only legitimate way to read TMS–is the reason that we return over and over again to TMS and even more so to WN: Adam Smith is not just another moral philosopher working within the tradition of moral philosophy. Adam Smith wants to do much more. Adam Smith wants to change the game. And Adam Smith succeeds.

    If I may crib from my own contribution to John Holbo, ed. (2007), Framing Theory’s Empire (West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press) http://www.amazon.com/Framing-Theorys-Empire-Valve-Event/dp/1602350140

    I first ran into these ideas of “anachronism” in the reading of Adam Smith when Associate Professor of Social Studies Michael Donnelly recommended taht I read an excellent book by Keith Tribe, Land, Labour, and Economic Discourse. Tribe, writing in a Foucaultian frame, introduced me to the idea that the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations that contemporary economists read was not the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations that Adam Smith had written. This was especially true for the Wealth of Nations. The Wealth of Nations that economists read was made up of two books: Book I on markets, Book II on capital, and there they tended to start. The Wealth of Nations that Adam Smith wrote was made up of five books: Book I on the “system of natural liberty,” Book II on accumulation and the profits of stock, Book III on the economic history of Europe and why the empirical history of its economic development had diverged from its natural history, Book IV on the mercantile and physiocratic systems of political economy, and Book V on the proper management of the affairs of the public household by the statesman.

    The Wealth of Nations, Tribe claimed, could not be a book of economics because a book of economics had to be about the economy. And there was idea of “the economy” back in 1776 for a book of economics to be about. What was there? There was the undifferentiated stuff of the mixed social-cultural-political-trading system that governed production and distribution: material life. There was the study of the management of public finances. This was conceived in a manner analogous to the domestic-economic management of household finances. Just as–to Robert Filmer and others–the King was the father of the people, so the King’s household–which became the state–had to be properly and prudently managed.

    In the words of James Steuart, who wrote his Principles of Political Oeconomy nine years before the Wealth of Nations, in 1767: “Oeconomy, in general, is the art of providing for all the wants of a family, with prudence and frugality. What oeconomy is in a family, political oeconomy is in a state.” It is managing affairs to make the people prosperous and the tax collections ample by governing “in such a manner as naturally to create the reciprocal relations and dependencies between [inhabitants], so as to make their several interests lead them to supply one another with their reciprocal wants.”

    There wasn’t, Tribe argued, an economy that an economist could write a book of economics about until the 1820s or so.

    Strip Tribe’s (and Foucault’s) arguments of their rhetoric of apparent contradiction and you can understand that within the mystical shell there is a rational kernel. It is–or, at least, I read them as–an injunction to analyze a school of thought in more-or-less the following way:

    (1) Read not just one or two important books, but a whole bunch of books that talk to our past each other and use the same or similar vocabulary in order to identify the school you will look at. (2) Strip your mind of what they must be talking about, and look with fresh eyes on what they are talking about. (3) Examine what rhetorical, conceptual, and intellectual moves are common within the examples you have of this “discursive formation.” (4) Think hard about what rhetorical, conceptual, and intellectual moves you would think you would find in these books–but don’t. (5) Think hard about what rhetorical, conceptual, and intellectual moves you do not expect to find prominently in these books–but that you nevertheless do find. (6) Present to the world, in as clear and straightforward a way as you can, what this particular form of discourse was–what it thought the world was like, what it saw as important, what its particular blindnesses were, what its particular sharp points of insight were. (7) Do not, ever, grade a discursive formation of the past by how much it falls away from the ideas of the bien-pensant of today. The past is another country.

    And I became convinced that Tribe and Foucault were at least partially right: It was, indeed, only with Ricardo that the operation of what we now say is the economy–the production, exchange, and distribution of goods and services all mediated through market exchange–was seen as something that was important enough, or separate enough, or coherent enough to be something that it made sense to write books about, and, indeed, something that it made sense to be an expert in. David Ricardo was a political economist. Adam Smith was a moral philosopher. To try–as somebody like Joseph Schumpeter was–to grade Adam Smith as if he were engaged in the same intellectual project as Schumpeter was somewhat absurd.

    Tribe applied this methodology to Adam Smith, his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. What they were doing, before Ricardo, was Political Oeconomy–writing manuals of tactics and policy as advice to statesmen, although manuals restricted to what Adam Smith would have called (did call) a subclass of police: how to keep public order and create public prosperity. Hence for Adam Smith Book V of Wealth of Nations is the payoff: it tells British statesmen what they ought to do in order to make the nation prosperous, their tax coffers full, and thus the state well-funded. Book IV is a necessary prequel to Book V: it tells the statesmen in the audience why the advice that they are being given by others in other books of Political Oeconomy–by Mercantilists and Physiocrats. Book III is another necessary prequel: it teaches statesmen about the economic history of Europe and how political oeconomy of various kinds has been practiced in the past.

    But Tribe’s (and Foucault’s) methodology, while it is partially right, is also partially wrong. Their theoretical framework collapses when we work back to Books II and I of the Wealth of Nations. For Adam Smith is not the prisoner of the discursive formation of Political Oeconomy. He is not the simple bearer of currents of thought and ideas that he recombines as other authors do in more-or-less standard and repeated ways. Adam Smith is a genius. He is the prophet and the master of a new discipline. He is the founder of economics. And he knows that he is a genius. And he wants to change the game.

    Adam Smith is the founder of economics because he has a great and extraordinary insight: that the competitive market system is a remarkably powerful social calculating and organizing mechanism, and that the sophisticated division of labor to which a competitive market system backed up by secure and honest enforcement of property rights give rise is the key to the wealth of nations. Some others before had had this insight in part: Richard Cantillon writing of how once you have specified demands the market does by itself all the heavy lifting that a central planner would need to do; Bernard de Mandeville that dextrous management by a statesman can use the power of private greed to produce the benefit of public utility. But it is Smith who sees what the power of the “system of natural liberty” that is the market could be–and who follows the argument through to the conclusion that it forever upsets and overturns the previous intellectual moves made in and conclusions reached by the discursive formation of Political Oeconomy.

    And once I had worked my way through to this conclusion, Tribe’s and Foucault’s ideas of “discourse” and “archaeology” were not my masters, but my tools. I needed to supplement their ideas with another set of ideas–call it Thomas Kuhn’s idea of “scientific revolutions” or Louis Althusser’s idea of “epistemological breaks.” Adam Smith intended the Wealth of Nations to be read not as a contribution to but as a transformation of the discourse of Political Oeconomy. And it was–to an extent he could hardly have imagined.

    Thus it is not “anachronistic,” or it is not only “anachronistic” to write that Smith’s corpus is a braided mixture of what we now call philosophy, psychology, and economics. If it were only anachronistic to write that, we would not now be reading Adam Smith at all any more than we are now reading James Steuart at all: we simply would not care.

    The fact that we do care today, and care a lot, about Adam Smith tells us that Tiago’s dismissal of Shiller and Shiller’s claim as simply “anachronistic” cannot be fully correct.

  14. I am clearly late in getting here, as we are now in multiple posts and http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2011/03/is-adam-smith-partly-an-economist-or-wholly-a-moral-philosopher.html“>fora, but I think I have to agree with Will Thomas and John Emerson (both here and over on Brad’s blog) that there is more boundary policing and specialisation than is useful for a conversation. A better debate about what is in the paper should have taken place, and it does over on Brad’s page – where opinions remain divided I should add. But if nothing else, I’ve been encouraged to read a new paper, and pick up Holbo’s and Tribe’s books, to further educate myself. Seeing how many people are interested in History of Economics and its uses has possibly been the biggest winner of this, and the points being made about obscurity (here) and over-specialisation are well made, perhaps that is part of what the Schiller’s are talking about…?

  15. Thanks for your effort Mr. DeLong. The original point was not about, as you very well know, ‘were A. Smith longjohns blue or white’, but we all appreciate you dusting off the B- senior thesis and cramming it anyways.

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