From the New York Times Opinionator: The Power of the Playground. I agree. Play, play, play…


@INET-BW: Discipline and punish

Ken Rogoff and Larry Summers were on the program today at Bretton Woods, and they stole the show. Both are Harvard professors, both have been in and out of policy making, both are intellectual leaders of the economics profession. On any criteria, these are not men of “new economic thinking”. Rogoff of his own initiative, Summers pressed towards it, had to defend the state of economics teaching and research.

Two unlikely responses were given, and even more unlikely, they overlapped (when Rogoff spoke Summers was not in attendance).

1. The first was to describe the failing of economics as a subject of “sociology”. As economists, and practitioners, both men were baffled by how young people in the profession are more interested in formal puzzles and define research as model building taking any empirical work as distraction. Both men confessed they were the same when they were starting. Unfortunately, no sociologist was in the audience, however…

2. The other response, more interesting because of its bizarre possibilities, saw Rogoff and Summers defending rational expectations models and efficient market hypothesis as an integral part of economics education and research because both provide “discipline.” No one followed up asking what discipline meant.

The panoptic suggestion hints that economists have a bit of the sociologist in them after all…

@INET-BW: Clear skies with a chance of economics

For the next three days, a few of us are blogging the Institute of New Economic Thinking’s Bretton Woods Conference. It is an unusual event, as unusual as the Institute’s patron, George Soros, who somehow manages to be a player in politics, finance and culture on both shores of the Atlantic. A number of principals are walking about Mount Washington: policy makers (Summers and Sachs will drop by), media (Wolf and Tett from the FT, Cassidy from the New Yorker), bloggers (Huffington in on the guest list) and plenty of economists.

Historians are here too. (Skidelsky, Keynes’s biographer is sitting in front of me.) One of INET’s core business is to foster the teaching and the research into economic history and the history of economics. I am sure this will scramble some folk’s disciplinary grids, of who fits where, and the dangers of being an historian and analyst without due distance to one’s subject, that trouble of being too “embedded”. That is why I am taking this assignment more as the anthropologist (as I imagine them) than as the colleague. As in a field assignment I come prepared with my trusted Marantz recorder, a set of agreed questions that i discussed with colleagues in the course of the last week, and a set of empty notebooks to be filled. I also thought of wearing my khakis to make the transformation complete, but upon visiting I discovered it was going to be cloudy and cold, and there is still snow on the hillsides.

(Ben and Floris will likely take this experience differently, I am looking forward to some contrast)

TV guide

Lots happening this week’s end and weekend. Harvard’s Program on Science Technology and Society is hosting a “STS 20+20”. By the cryptic title an event that promises only to excite the converted to science studies. The tone is not very hopeful either:

This meeting is the product of a year of conversations across several continents and dozens of institutions. It weaves together the hopes, aspirations, and—yes—frustrations of STS scholars from around the world who have committed their careers to studying the central role of science and technology in our social, political, and moral lives.

The meeting is in part a stock-taking. After two decades of increased public funding for STS, what can we say about our achievements as a “thought collective”? What have we learned from speaking the truths of our field to the power of established disciplines? Which areas of work do we recognize as displaying the greatest theoretical depth and creativity? What do we impart to STS scholars-in-the-making, and what can we do to ensure that their ideas are heard more widely and that they find appropriate academic homes? The three-day program addresses these questions: first, STS and the disciplines; second, STS and its theories; third, STS’s institutional challenges and opportunities.

In part, too, the meeting is a provocation: an invitation to reflect on the conditions needed for this field to thrive and grow—in keeping with the importance of its mission. As with any provocation, the questions we hope to explore may have conflicting answers. Ideas will be generated throughout the meeting from both our physical and virtual audiences. This website, managed by a local team of scholars, is part of an effort to make the meeting as inclusive and participatory as possible, both during the event and after it.

Overall, this is a meeting to rethink questions that all STS scholars have grappled with at some point in their intellectual lives. Why do STS? What makes it interesting, distinctive, coherent, relevant, and deserving of stronger institutionalization?

This meeting—diverse enough to be representative, yet small enough to foster conversation—offers a rare opportunity to think together about these issues, in the company of others who share our concerns and our convictions.

But the program is marvelous, today, tomorrow and saturday. It kicks off with Ted Porter on “Does STS Matter, and to Whom?” and later today at 5 pm, Eastern, there is “STS, Economics, and Sociology: Do Economists Make Markets?”. If like me you can’t attend, you can still be a fly on the wall through the live video feed from 2pm, US eastern time.

Did Duke University blacklist Milton Friedman?

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.

Continue reading “Did Duke University blacklist Milton Friedman?”

The octopus

The debate that began in the comment box has now moved to Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality with All Ten Tentacles. I confess that I misjudged this affair. I thought I could jest with DeLong and I now get my comeupings, a good post by him but prefaced by a sort of character assassination that extracts the first two items of our discussion but forgets to pick up the other two (where in my humble opinion I look a bit better… and make clear my motivation is not “protecting my turf” it is calling for better scholarship). And now a lot of angry folks coming over to visit this blog ready to trash at our poor academic ethics.

I think DeLong has been very thoughtful and I relish the chance to answer him. This is not the first time that I read him on the topic. In 2008, I had noted his retelling of formative experiences with the history of economics, and the new post echoes the earlier one.

DeLong’s critique is that an historian should never dismiss the possibility that Adam Smith was offering a composite of economics, psychology and philosophy, and take a priori the alternative claim that Smith’s writings are part of that much broader unity Foucault called Episteme. I don’t see in DeLong’s post a fleshed out the argument about why one should opt for the Janus faced reading. There are a few clues, he rejects my reading as “fastpaced” (and we know “fast is bad”) and the double reading is well, twice a “fastpaced” one. On recall of his earlier 2005 post on the Episteme, I imagine that DeLong is suggesting a test on the episteme thesis. Or perhaps he is just setting up a more layered, plural set of readings, “let a thousand flowers bloom”. I think this is all reasonable.

But what if I don’t want to test the episteme? What if the history of economics is not even about “reading” and nailing down an interpretation?

DeLong’s emphasis is on “reading”, but historians of economics can do about other things too, with other records, with other questions. (As Vivienne Brown has long noted, there is an abuse of the canon in projecting upon Smith the problems of today’s social science. To no other author in economics does this happen as much as for Smith, the poor guy is cited for all kinds of conflicting purposes.) I am no Smithisian scholar, I write on the history of economics post-1945, but I have been privileged to teach the topic. In that setting I have come across some of the Smith literature, extensive as it is. Given that the subject of the working paper that started this all was the place of the economist in society (the worldly philosopher) I would have thought that a more fruitful approach would be to escape the tired debate about where Smith fits in the disciplinary grid. Is he a psychologist? A philosopher? An economist? What a tangle that is, particularly if the authors that argue that moral philosophy was then understood as part and parcel of natural philosophy are right (vide Schabas, vide New Voices), in that sense he would be a physicist too…

And does it get one anywhere? I think an historian of economics approaching this topic might do better by asking what work Smith’s text did in his society. What contexts nurtured its production and what debates it fortified and participated in? Why then not recognize that there is a whole school of political thought, the Cambridge School, Quentin Skinner, Emma Rothschild, and others that have approached Smith from the perspective of political history and seen how this work fits the pre-revolutionary debates of the Enlightenment. (This work, to which Tribe is somewhat associated too, runs into the 19th century in the work of Donald Winch, into the 20th century (this time without economists) with Stephan Collini). What made me cringe is that to look at the disciplinary grid is so far away from the issues and from an understanding of what history can contribute to the question posed.

The same is true of my other complaint that is missing from the re-posting. A reference in the Shiller’s text to the Baltimore Sun as record of the professionalization of economics. This seems to trivialize how momentous the academicization or professionalization of economics was… I would suggest the work of Mary Furner, Robert (Bob) Coats, Dorothy Ross, Ted Porter, Tim Leonard among others that have written about the Progressive Era and its formative influence on the American social sciences? And on the general topic of the profession how about reading the work of the Berkeley sociologist Marion Fourcade.

I don’t want to be writing down a reading list here, it seems inappropriate for this medium. The Shillers’ intuition that history matters for the subjects they raise is absolutely correct. Maybe they can write this history, but in the working paper they are far from it.

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.