Inside Economics

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.

@INET-BW: Upon leaving Mount Washington

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.

@INET-BW: Anglo-Saxons versus the Germans

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?

@INET-BW: What’s history?

History keeps appearing and reappearing in the different discussions and presentations. But there’s history and history. One reference to history, as Tiago observed in front of the hearth last night, is history as nostaligia: imagine Keynes walking around in this very room!, picture the Americans thrashing the Russians in a agme of softball during BW  ’44!, “as a graduate student, I learned a lor from….” Second, there is the implicit no-history argument, in which ecoomics is one big pile of research from which one may take different sources depending on the issue at hand. Much like philosophy, in which one can as easily apply Aristotle, Hobbes, or Sloterdijk to contemporary issues. History as history is yet to appear.

The Age of In-Between Economists

A weakness of our profession – and perhaps of humans generally –  is that we want to classify. Thus we categorized ourselves and each other as neoclassical, institutional, Keynesian, Marxist and Chicago economists. To some extent, these labels have always been problematic. Where to put John Kenneth Gailbraith, Albert Rees, or Herbert Simon for instance? Moreover, classifications always seem to fall apart when you look too closely.

Over the past years, however, things have become more complicated still with a new generation of economists who, consciously or not, constantly position themselves in between whatever labels and domains are out there. Herbert Gintis is a Marxist, game theorist, behavioral economist, and institutional economist depending on the occasion. Robert Shiller is anything in between traditional finance, behavioral finance, and an applied type of finance research that is more concerned with solving problems in the here and now than advancing a new theory. And then there is someone like Benjamin Friedman. As an economist, I never know where to situate Benjamin Friedman for my students.

Postmodernism may be long gone, but this is the age of the in-between economist. We, the economists, do a paper that may be classified as belonging to this category, but tomorrow we’ll do a paper that may be put into that category. And we don’t really care what these categories are, as long as you classify us and our work in their totalities as in-between.

Interestingly enough, though, we definitely are economists, not sociologists, politicians, writers, or whatever. We’re very much in-between, but we’re also very much economists.

What would Ysidro do?


In a 1950 paper, Paul Samuelson wrote:

The most rational man I ever met, whom I shall call Ysidro [when] told that he did not satisfy all of the v. Neumann-Morgenstern axioms, [..] replied that he thought it more rational to satisfy his preferences and let the axioms satisfy themselves.

This introduced in the extensive correspondence between Samuelson, Savage, Marschak, Baumol, and Friedman the idea of the “Ysidro Man” or “Ysidro functions.” In the letters (but not in published print) Samuelson also introduced his mother – as the non-economist acting on her  common sense. Thus, for instance, Marschak would discuss with Baumol how best to axiomatize the behavior of Samuelson’s mother.

These archetypes are more commonly labelled homo economicus and homo sapiens – very dull terms indeed (and why the Latin anyway?). So, from now on, when we talk about the homo economicus let’s instead ask: What would Ysidro do? And when criticizing that economic conception as unrealistic, let’s do that by referring to what Samuelson’s mother would do.

American economics coming of age

Coming of age refers to a young person becoming an adult, and is one of those universal and timeless themes in art. It is associated with uncertainty about one’s identity and requires experimentation. But it also involves an increasing sense of the bigger world and an awareness that one may have the ability to steer this world a little bit in a direction of one’s own liking.  Later in life, when the novelties of adulthood have become self-evident and one’s position and family secured, that brief coming of age period is treasured as the experience that gave meaning to everything that came after. For the rest of our lives we (and men in particular) tend to judge the novels, music and even arguments appreciated during this time as the best in their categories.

This is how we should read the recently published Top 20 articles in the AER of the past hundred years, composed by Arrow, Bernheim, Feldstein, McFadden, Poterba, and Solow. It documents how American economics came of age during the post war decades, the struggles it had to go through, its experiments, its crises of identity, and even its cherished childhood memory. At the same it is a testimony to the authors’ coming of age as economists between the 1950s and the 1980s. AER’s Top 20 paints a beautiful, romantic picture of the long and winding road that led to the top.

The flip side of all the uncertainty, experimentation and identity crises in this process of coming of age is narcissism, self-love, and overestimation of one’s own achievements. Given American economics and these economists’ position and (late) middle age point of view one would have hoped for a little more reflection on how their coming of age has influenced their judgment of quality.  One would also have expected a greater appreciation of the influence of others and of the particular historical circumstances in which the coming of age happened to occur. AER’s Top 20 is a great story and romanticism at its best, but it’s not history.

But enough whining. When will we get the Econometrica Top 20?