Hisreco 2017: no decreasing returns, yet.

20170420_180853The 11th History of Recent Economics conference (HISRECO) took place at the University of Lucerne on April 21-22, 2017. As a co-organizer of this conference, with my dear friends Pedro Duarte and Verena Halsmayer, I am not well placed to express an opinion on it. Let’s just say that we haven’t entered the period of decreasing returns yet. We had a very nice roster that included historians of economics, historians and STS scholars, and that my impression last year that the distance between those communities was decreasing has not been proven wrong. This is not to say that all the papers that were presented were perfect: they need not be, anyway. But the free-form discussions we had were as enthralling as ever. A quick summary follows.

Harro Maas (University of Lausanne) wrote on forecasting in the Netherlands, from the early postwar years of the Centraal Planbureau (CPB) to the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. He put in contrast the practices of scientific modeling and the idiosyncratic practices of the quacks. The latter were rehabilitated as the only ones who managed to predict the Great Recession.

Marion Ronca (University of Zurich) talked about Eugen Böhler, the Swiss economist, and his influence on the economic policies of his country. Converted to Keynesianism after fighting against it, Böhler was nonetheless an intellectual who did not fit into the mainstream economics of his time. At the end of his year, he used Carl Jung’s concept of mythos to criticize the discipline.

Laetitia Lenel (Humboldt University of Berlin) studied the first years of the NBER, showing that not only the methodologies used there differed from those adopted at the Cowles Commission but the views of the role of policy as well. While Koopmans and his allies’ endeavors aimed at advising the government, Mitchell and Burns were interested more in collecting facts and educating the public at large.

Sarvnaz Lotfi (Virgina Tech) provided an account of Research and Development (R&D) in the postwar period. Her project is to contrast the views of R&D as the main explanation of macroeconomic growth (following Solow’s residual) with its practical value as shown in accounting, management and law. Ultimately, there is more disparity than consensus in the way scholars and policymakers envisage the value of R&D to a nation.

Roger Backhouse (University of Birmingham) attempted to assess MIT economist Paul Samuelson’s role in influencing the economic policies of John Kennedy. Samuelson did not participate directly in policy advising, choosing instead to reflect on policy through his textbook and interventions in the press. This illustrates his cautious, even ambiguous, stance towards politics.

Cleo Chassonnery-Zaigouche (University of Lausanne) provided an alternative account of the role of economists in the courtroom,  focusing more specifically on James Gwartney’s expertise in racial and gender discrimination on the labor market. The way through which truth is assessed in the court is different from the way it is done in an academic setting, affecting the view of economics as a science in the process.

Francesco Sergi (University of Paris-Sorbonne) studied the standard, internalist, history of recent macroeconomics, that is contained in the manuals used in central banks. He argues that these narratives, which are aimed at standardizing practices, also tend to “decontest the contestation” existing in the field. In his view, new neoclassical macroeconomics – needs to be disaggregated and it is the duty of historians to bring more dissent to the discipline.

Steve Medema (University of Colorado at Denver), finally, wrote on the place of non-welfarism in the debates over the Coase theorem. While economists typically tried to exclude non-welfarist – i.e. social justice related – arguments in the postwar period, those were ubiquitous in the pieces that expressed criticism toward Coases’s idea of a market-based solution to environmental issues. Medema argues that non-welfarist arguments can be considered as proxies to ideology.

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123309e_goodwin_craufurd_hires
Craufurd D. Goodwin (1935-2017)

On a sadder note, we have learnt during the first day of the conference that the great historian of economics and longtime History of Political Economy Editor Craufurd Goodwin had passed away. Goodwin’s vigorous efforts to promote the history of economics did not consist in faint discourses about the vitality of the field but, rather, in his constant allegiance to the highest possible academic standards. The mere possibility of a conference like Hisreco is a testament to the excellent scholarship his endeavor helped to encourage. He was one of the true giants of our discipline and will be greatly missed. Our condolences go to his wife, Nancy, and his friends and colleagues at the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University.

 

2016 as a ten-letter word

proctor
Robert N. Proctor (Photo: Linda A. Cicero)

In the end of November, as it is the case every year since 2004, Oxford Dictionaries revealed their choice for the word of the year. For 2016, they settled on “post-truth”. This adjective, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, echoed a number of events of the past few months, including UK’s vote in favor of Brexit and, most infamously, the election of Donald J. Trump. Following the announcement, a few commenters were quick to observe that “post-truth” could be considered as an emanation of postmodernism, the brain-child of post-1968 French philosophy and critical theory. Whether you buy this or not – I don’t -, there’s no denying that “post-truth” has been everywhere in the press and on social networks. Yet, as a historian of science with little – if any – interest in questions of “truthfulness” and “falsity”, I would like to suggest another ten-letter word for describing more accurately what has been going on over the past few months – and, admittedly, over the past few decades as well, 2016 representing in my opinion some kind of turning point in its development. This word is: “agnotology”.

For those of you who are not familiar with the concept elaborated by Robert N. Proctor in books such as The Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer (1995) and Golden Holocaust – Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition (2012), suffice to say that “agnotology” is the production and dissemination of ignorance – as well as the study of this phenomenon. Proctor’s argument in a nutshell is that knowledge is not created out of a vacuum which we would call “ignorance” but, instead, that both knowledge and ignorance are social constructs, therefore contingent to many social, political and individual factors. The production and dissemination of ignorance, therefore, can be studied using the tools that are traditionally attached to the history of science, making the distinction between science and non-science not so significant in the process. When we look at the history of how the cigarette industry intentionally spread doubts about evidences that linked smoke ingestion to cancer, there were a few scientists to back this claim. At first, I was skeptical about “agnotology” because I had read Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, which does not use the term “agnotology” but tells a relatively similar story of ignorance dissemination, and was unsatisfied with the way they tried to demarcate between the good, disinterested scientists fighting for truth and those who were paid by big corporations to spread false information – I had expressed my dissatisfaction on the INET version of this blog. However, I do not find the same problem with Proctor’s historical narrative which is not so much interested in questions of demarcation but rather in the cultural and political context in which ignorance is produced and disseminated. Accordingly, agnotology has been used in the history of economics by Phil Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah in a way that may seem controversial at first  but which I found, after some resistance, increasingly convincing. After all, agnotology deals with producing and distributing something, so economics should not be too far away when we think about it. Two French economists have recently tried to use Proctor’s work, without using the term ‘agnotology’, in order to build a case against the critics of mainstream economics but in my opinion – which I have expressed in a forthcoming review of their book for a French STS journal -, they fell short of understanding the complexity of the concept and, quite ironically, ended up generating a lot of agnotology over the current status of their discipline.

trump
Donald Trump: the rise of agnotologic governmentality?

But so much for these issues of scientific demarcation – or lack therof. “Agnotology” is an enlightening word to describe 2016 because it is effectively applicable to the political issues of the day. Ignorance production and dissemination is not something which is just relevant to scientific issues. It is actually, a total social fact in the Maussian sense of the term, one that ties together cultural, psychological and political elements. With the election of Donald Trump, I even wonder if it is not possible to assert that we are entering an age of agnotologic governmentality, a way of governing that uses ignorance as a political device. In using the term governmentality, I explicitly refer to Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics. Governmentality, in Foucault’s conception, should not be confused with “government”. A regime of governmentality is enforced, not just by the State, but at many different levels where knowledge and power are connected. Suffice to replace knowledge by ignorance and then you have some idea of what a Foucaldian version of agnotology could look like. Since his election in November, Donald Trump has been a master in disseminating so much information, both in the press and on social networks, that it is almost impossible to assess what his legislature will yield. But of course, this had not begun with his election: this is the way he had behaved since the very beginning of his campaign at the Republican primaries. At the time, it had been summed up in one fantastically short tweet.

Now that “the comments section” has become the new President of the United States, we can argue that the kind of ignorance that such comments section typify will noy only lead  the most powerful nation, but as a result will preside over the way of the world at large. But ignorance is not a “top-down” phenomenon and that’s what makes it so stealth, yet powerful. Ignorance is cultivated at every level of the society and now, through more or less trustable internet news coverage, it is disseminated at a higher speed. Even academics and self-proclaimed “intelligent” people such as you and I can be subjected to it. If you have been a regular user of social networks in the course of the past few months, I defy you to tell me that you have never fallen into a clic-bait, believing for at least a few minutes a piece of information that has been revealed to be either false or (mis)guided by a non-objective source. The bombing of Aleppo, for instance, has been the subject of so much news coverage that it is impossible be sure that everything we were told was true. While there is no doubt that, on one hand, some information has been manipulated by pro-Syrian and Russian medias, we are not so naive as to believe that there is no propaganda on the other side, too. Increasingly complex conflicts and social issues such as this one are not easy to grasp and we can all be deceived. Effective propaganda knows how to exploit the capacity we all have to doubt. It is no surprise that agnotology is often related to neoliberalism. It is not so much, I think, that there is a mechanical relation between the two but, instead, that both are so squeezed in the recesses of our our everyday life that they are difficult to espace, unless we turn off our computers and start leading a more recluse life – which may not be a bad idea after all.

Anyway, I am afraid I have conveyed that 2016 has been a very bad year and this is similar to a lot of rants you have already read elsewhere. I should apologize for my lack of originality. But there is also a more positive message: as historians of science, we may  be able to apply our critical toolbox to the understanding of how we got there and, hopefully, how we will be able to get away with it.

CFP – HISRECO 2017 in Lucerne

city-scapeHistory of Recent Economics Conference University of Lucerne – April, 21-22 2017

The eleventh History of Recent Economics Conference (HISRECO) will be held at the University of Lucerne on April 21-22, 2017. Since 2007 HISRECO has brought together researchers from various backgrounds to study the history of economics in the postwar period. It is the organizers’ belief that this period, during which economics became one of the dominant discourses in contemporary society, is worth studying for its own sake. The increasing availability of archival materials, along with the development of new perspectives inherited from the larger history and sociology of knowledge, has helped to provide insightful histories of the development of recent economic practices, ideas, and techniques. In particular, this area of research offers good opportunities to young scholars who are interested in interdisciplinary approaches to the history of economics.

We invite researchers in all related fields to submit a paper proposal of no more than 500 words. Even though the organizers are open to a wide range of approaches to the history of economics, paper proposals that address the interface between this field and the history and sociology of science, or cultural and science studies will be particularly appreciated. Proposals should be sent electronically (as a pdf file) to Verena Halsmayer (verena [DOT] halsmayer [AT] unilu [DOT] ch) by October 14 2016. Successful applicants will be informed by November 15 2016.

Thanks to financial support from the University of Lucerne, FIPE (The Institute of Economic Research Foundation, Brazil), the European Scientific Coordination Network (GDRI, CNRS) and the KWI (Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut) Luzern, HISRECO has limited funds to partially cover travel and accommodation for up to four young scholars (PhD students or researchers who have obtained their PhD over the past two years, from July 2014 to October 2016). Young scholars should include in their proposal their current affiliation and the university and year of their PhD, if this is the case. Those needing more information about funding are welcome to approach the organizers.

For those who want to know more about HISRECO, a list of past conferences and contributors can be found at http://www.hisreco.org.

The organizers, Verena Halsmayer (University of Lucerne), Pedro Duarte (University of São Paulo), Yann Giraud (University of Cergy-Pontoise), and Joel Isaac (University of Cambridge).

How to soundtrack your perfect failed grant application?

Well, call me. I am a specialist.

There are many ways to do it. Generally your first reaction is a bit extreme, and no one does extreme like Converge.

Then, self-pity comes next. I would advise you to season it with a bit of British wit.

(Of course, if you know some pal who succeeded, you can still hum this, too!)

Then, you must find who’s responsible for your failure and that’s when you try to guess who your referees are.

But the real answer is much too obvious.

Of course, you were not alone on this grant application, so you should let your partners know about the outcome before they ask you.

So there are two possibilities, either you decide to pull yourself together, because, well, you’re a scientist, right?

Or you just let it go and move forward.

Dr. Phil – or how I stopped worrying about economists and embraced neoliberalism.

mirowski_397x267At the latest History of Economics Society Meeting, I, with a number of friends and colleagues (co-bloggers Béatrice Cherrier, Till Duppe and Floris Heukelom), participated in a roundtable devoted to “the practical challenges of writing recent history”, organized and chaired by E. Roy Weintraub. On this occasion, we all gave speeches – mostly drawn from personal experiences – that addressed how writing the history of recent economics is different from doing the history of older economics and the kind of practical issues it required us to consider. Most of our talks addressed at some point or another the relation to current economics: on the one hand, writing the history of recent economics resonates with current research in the field, but on the other hand, economists can disagree – sometimes in print – with the kind of accounts that historians construct about them. So, in sum, writing on recent economics can help you being noticed by economists, but sometimes there is attention you may just want to avoid. Then, at the end of what was an interesting, if somewhat polite, discussion, Philip Mirowski intervened, saying that our talks were, in his opinion, too focused on our relation with economists, that we have no reason to fear them, that they have no interest in history whatsoever, whereas, at the same time, science studies scholars are mostly concerned with economics as a subject, because they feel that the prevalence of economic imperatives on the academia is a threat to the humanities departments in which they are located.

My feeling is that, even though Phil expressed his opinion in his own distinctively provocative way, he was right and that, on the other hand, by focusing too much on the relation between history of economics and economics, we may not be fully wrong, buJHETt still, at the very least, mistaken. For at least one part of the argument is true: economists, on the whole, are not interested in the history of their field and are not likely to be interested in it anytime soon. A bibliographic research I have undertaken over the past few years with my friend and fellow Pedro Duarte – forthcoming in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought -, focusing on the historical pieces published in major economics journal, led us to reach quite clear conclusions:

The trends we observe … seem to illustrate … [the] increasing estrangement between economists, when writing to the profession at large in their general top journals, and HET. Not only have we shown that, in contrast to the 1970s, fewer HET papers have been published recently in most of the top journals we studied, but we also demonstrated that the papers that have been published are so diverse in the methods they use and the issues they address that it is very hard to see them as a coherent whole—not to mention as part of a unified subfield. In particular, the fact that most of these articles rely not on specific tools and methodologies, but, rather, on surveys and quite general statements may have contributed to the conflation of historical investigations and literature surveys. Therefore, practicing economists themselves have become the main narrators of their past, whereas historians are less and less seen as the expert community to be properly consulted when accounts of past economics are needed. … As a result, the issues that are central to the latest developments of the history of economics … and the new tools that historians are using to address them … have yet to make their way into the mainstream literature.

51l-3HtHuvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_On the other hand, sociologists, historians, political scientists, and even management scholars are increasingly drawn to the history of recent economics. They do so because they feel that economics is an important part of today’s social, political and cultural environment and they want to understand it. Of course, there’s nothing new about this. Another friend and colleague of mine, Loïc Charles, has done work on 18th century economics with practicing historians, showing how economic thinking was intertwined with a lot of things happening at the time: international trade (including, most notoriously, slave trade), the colonization of the Americas, the French revolution, etc. But what is specific to the recent – postwar – period, is that economic thinking is not just mixed with other types of knowledge and practices, but increasingly,  is THE knowledge which is used as a way to ground, to legitimize all knowledge and practices. This recent move toward the economization of every aspect of our society is what researchers have come to designate as “neoliberalism”, and this is the one of the main concepts that makes the study of postwar economics a possibly interdisciplinary venture, one that has a lot of chance to attract readers and create scholarship.

For years, I have resisted this “neoliberal” narrative. I thought that neoliberalism was a complotist construction, that it was hard to pretend that a small group of Austrian economists, even helped by some well-organized think tanks, could influence society at large so as to create a culture so ubiquitous that we are all influenced by it, whether we like it or not. But now the literature on neoliberalism has attained a critical mass, and I must say that, altogether, it provides a good analysis grid of what’s happening in the world, even though we think that there is much to criticize in all of these contributions. There’s of course, Foucault’s 1979 course at the College de France, which falls short of details, but sets up the big picture, but in recent years, many other books have helped developed the neoclassical narrative: Wendy Brown’s philosophical account of how neoliberalism is detrimental to democracy, Bernard Harcourt’s assertion that neoliberalism is transforming all citizens into punishable subjects, Sonia Amadae’s claim that the neoliberal citizen and consumer is the strategic rational actor, described in non-cooperative game theory, Elizabeth Popp Berman depiction of the economization of academic science, etc. And of course there are all of Phil Miroswki’s contributions to the subject: see here, there, and everywhere.*

CSISo, is it convincing? Well, let’s take for instance Béatrice’s latest post. She talks about Paul Romer being appointed as chief economist of the World Bank. First, why should we be concerned about this? Why is it so special that there is a new chief economist whereas we do not seem to have much to say about Dr. Jim Yong Kim, who is an American (Korean-born) physician, and is the actual President of this institution? Well, maybe, it is because we feel that economic knowledge is going to be more important than medical knowledge when it comes to decide how countries need to be helped financially. That is something that the neoliberal narratives tries to explain. And what was Romer doing before he got this new position? I quote Béatrice, here: “Romer left academia to engineer a teaching and grading plateform called Aplia.” Some neoliberalism scholars have argued that this kind of platforms offer instances of the neoliberal transformation of education. And what about Béatrice’s last point on how “the replacement of McNamara and Chenery by Alden
Clausen and Anne Krueger in 1982 shifted the Bank’s philosophy toward a ‘Washington Consensus‘ consistent with Reagan’s program”? That is also the subject of many contributions to the history of neoliberalism. In fact, we now have a neoliberal narrative for everything: even TV series are subjected to it.

So, should we embrace all of it? Of course, not necessarily. These accounts are often partial and in need of qualification. Also, I am not claiming that every history about modern economics is underwritten by this neoliberal narrative. There are many other narratives to draw. But this is one strong reading of the current situation, and as such it needs to be addressed. This is also a fascinating laboratory for possible discussions between historians and sociologists of all social sciences, as well as with cultural theorists and political scientists. This is why I expect that when Pedro, Joel Isaac, Verena Halsmayer and I do the next HISRECO conference in Lucerne on April, 21-22 2017 (call for papers coming soon!!), the term “neoliberal” is going to pop up once again on several occasions.

*Not to mention the fact that even notorious neoliberal institutions have ended up acknowledging themselves.

These things take time

Last week, I spent a few days in the Dalton-Brand Research Room, at Duke University, skimming through the Samuelson papers. They make everybody excited there, and for good reasons. Samuelson was all over the place for about 70 years: in the academia, in the medias, in the arcane secrets of governmental policies. As a result, some of his papers read as mystery novels. There are many different plots intertwined there and you just want to read the end of the story – okay, I might be exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. Of course, when one sees this kind of materials, he has many ideas for future papers and want to have them written – and published – as soon as possible. Accordingly, the Samuelson papers seem to generate a very competitive market. There will be a roundtable on “the prospects of writing on Paul Samuelson” at the next HES meeting, (at least) two biographical projects are being undertaken at the moment, and of course, there is also the perspective of the 2013 HOPE conference on MIT, which will hopefully result in a lot of new fascinating contributions, not only on Samuelson but on the many other important economists who interacted in this place where a lot of what constitutes the economists’ workaday toolbox has allegedly originated. There is this sensation that things will come out rather quickly but also an uneasy feeling of misplaced haste and pressure. Of course, I am not blaming anyone: that feeling has gotten all over me as well!

Yet, it is not without an afterthought that, soon after my return to Paris, I grabbed the copy of Robert Leonard’s Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the Creation of Game Theory: From Chess to Social Science, 1900-1960 that I had ordered from my university’s library and which had finally arrived on shelf during my absence. Leonard’s book has been expected  for over a decade and it fully delivers on its promises. It does not rely on a forced grand narrative or on an overly repeated thesis. Instead, it is constructed  like an impressionistic picture, where individual paths and the larger context are subtly intertwined until they finally make sense to the reader. Robert Leonard is never where you expect him to be. When one anticipates pages on abstract formalism, Leonard depicts Chess games and the politics of Red Vienna, when one sees a critique of neoclassical economics, he describes a theory of social interaction and when one thinks of wartime reorganization of science and its aftermath, he tells the ending of a very personal journey. It is meticulously crafted, with an economy of words that makes every sentence necessary. Obviously, these things take time.

In the archives

Taking a quick break from my work in the Samuelson archives – so fascinating, believe me! – I can’t resist sharing the following, which I found in his correspondence files. Commenting on David Landes’ draft on Abba Lerner (subsequently published), as Landes explains that Lerner did not get a professorship in Britain in the 1930s, in spite of his having published 29 papers so far, Samuelson writes in the margin:

Somewhere, you should hint why Lerner never had the job offer Lange did. jew; socialist; bohemian; libertine; no team player; genius.

And he adds in the related letter to Landes:

History [historians] never get things right.

Source: Samuelson to Landes, February 23 1990, Box 84, Folder “Lerner Abba”, Paul A. Samuelson papers at Duke University.

Measuring the “Shock”

You can attest that a concept has become fairly popular when it is used by educated laymen/laywomen in very different circles. Obviously, Naomi Klein’s idea of a “Shock doctrine” is all over the place since we learnt about the tragic earthquake disaster – and its consequences –  in Japan. This morning, I heard on the French public radio a political analyst talking about fears that international institutions may apply to Japan the “shock doctrine”, a word, he noted, that “economists like to use frequently”. In addition, the same concerns were expressed by a Facebook friend of mine as soon as Friday morning who wondered whether the World Bank was going to impose Japanese people a “Chicago School-like Shock therapy” (emphasis added). She is not an economist or a social scientist but a film editor and a street artist. Tiago, I think it is time to revive your “the Evil that economists do” paper!

PS : I refrained from using as illustration one of these terrifying earthquake or desolate lands pictures that have circulated all over the net. I feel uneasy with the ambiguity existing in their intense dissemination, as if people were both appalled and fascinated in an unhealthy way by the Japanese drama. Anyway, you can still donate to one of the organizations that are working on relief and recovery in the region.

The wrong SHOE

From PJ O'Rourke, Eat The Rich, p. 110

A few weeks ago, one contributor to the SHOE (Societies for the History of Economics) list asked a seemingly simple question: “Why did Marshall reverse the axes?”. In economics, indeed, supply and demand curves for a given commodity are usually drawn with prices on the vertical axis and quantities on the horizontal one. It may seem quite puzzling to undergraduate students who cannot understand why they do so, whereas prices are generally considered the independent variable and thus, according to standard practices in graphical representation at least, should be drawn on the abscissa. As another contributor quickly pointed out, the more common answer to this question is given in Mark Blaug and Peter John Lloyd’s Famous Figures and Diagrams in Economics: Marshall used to draw his demand and supply schedules this way because he considered price to be the dependent variable. As most early 20th century English-speaking economists got their economics from Marshall’s Principles, they followed this tradition, even though they rather took prices as the independent variable.

The answer, as Roger Backhouse cleverly notes, is not completely satisfying from a historical point of view, even though it may hold as a methodological explanation. A historical understanding of why Marshall reversed the axes should explore the way he and his contemporary fellow economists considered the place of geometry in mathematics, the way markets operated and more generally how they regarded the status of economics as a field. Though there might not be simple and direct answers to all these questions, one can find useful elements in the existing literature on Marshall, such as Peter Groenewegen‘s or Simon Cook‘s books.

Other contributors to the SHOE list do not seem more satisfied with Blaug and Lloyd’s answer than Roger but their reasons are diametrically opposed. One scholar, for instance, complains that common explanations refer to “tradition” or “precedent” and think there should be a more “penetrating” answer. But what is history about if it is not about the construction and persistence of  “traditions”? What is a historical explanation if it does not deal with “precedent”? Instead, most SHOE list members who contributed to the topic pursued, message after message, a non-historical line of inquiry. For them, there should be an ontological explanation to Marshall’s reversing of the axes: in other words, the answer should lie in the ‘very nature’ of supply and demand itself and of the mathematical equations that underlie their graphical representation. This is of course wrong from a historical point of view but it is also misleading because it offers a poor view of how visual representations operate. Sociologist of science Bruno Latour has argued, for instance, that two-dimensional representations are useful because they are both immutable and recombinable. We can manipulate them, superimpose them, even though they have different origins and scales. We can even merge them with geometry and use tools upon them – though we cannot measure the sun, we can measure a picture of the sun. The consequence of this is that we cannot reduce graphs to mathematical equations. Supply and demand graphs are not only visual representations of preexisting mathematical equations, they are artifacts that can be used subsequently to produce or spread economic knowledge. This is what economists do when they construct Edgeworth boxes or multiple quadrant diagrams – who complains about “axes reversing” in that case?

Furthermore, in the particular case of Marshall and his contemporaries, the idea that graphical analysis is separate from mathematics is obvious. As Judy Klein correctly pointed out:

According to Marshall, the method of diagrams should be seen as separate from the method of mathematical analysis. By the 1870s, graphs were not substitutes of equations or tables pegged, with apology at the end of a work for the mathematically illiterate; they were tools for exploring and describing phenomena that could not easily be captured by algebra, calculus or words.*

Therefore, it is an anachronism to want to explain Marshall’s use of supply and demand graphs by referring to the equations of supply and demand functions which we are used to think of as premises of these visual representations but which in fact were not viewed as such by Marshall and the likes at that time.

It is quite puzzling – and even saddening – to observe that people who deem themselves ‘historians’ of economics and as such contribute to a ‘history’ of economics list systematically choose to bypass the historian’s toolbox in their discussions.

* Klein, Judy L. (1995) The method of diagrams and the black arts of inductive economics. In Rima Ingrid (ed.) Measurement, Quantification and Economic Analysis. London, UK : Routledge, p. 113.

Sociobiology and vegetarianism

Claude Lalanne - L'Homme à Tête de Chou

My Dear Clément,

As you may know, I am a vegetarian. I have never thought much about the reasons of my rather recent conversion to vegetarianism, though as a historian and as a postmodern constructivist, I would tend to rely on socio-cultural explanations and as an economist, on more rational justifications – whether the two are mutually compatible, I ignore. To be a vegetarian in France is not an easy task. You have to struggle with the weight of culture: foie gras, confit de canard and so on. At least, I can still enjoy the incredible range of French cheeses we have, though I have to override the fact that most contain animal rennet – but I am not against inconsistency, which is what  every non-vegetarian tries to pinpoint about you as soon as they learn about your diet, as if they did not commit inconsistencies themselves all the time. One of the reasons I turned to vegetarianism is justly because I was a bit fed up with this French cultural exception. We believe we cook better food than most of the other world citizens – and the latter often believe it to be true as well. Yet, most of our ‘wonderful’ French cuisine is about putting a piece of factory farmed meat in a frying pan with chopped shallots and pretending it is a work of art – by comparison, I would invite you to taste my wife’s bread-and-mushrooms vegetarian terrine or my own eggplant and chick-peas tajine, which are far better. When I try to make my dietary choice more ‘rational’ – because my interlocutors seem to favor rational explanations – , I tend to rely on economic arguments. The fact that we eat only 0.25% of the edible livestock, that most of the resources that could serve to feed people in developing countries are instead used for feeding factory farmed animals, that 8 to 11 % of the weight of the meat that is sold to consumers actually consists of wasted waters that the profession calls “fecal soup” and that we actually eat only a minor portion of the livestock we kill – as Jonathan Safran Foer notes in Eating Animals (p.50): ‎”Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across” – are all arguments that make me quite comfortable as a vegetarian.

At this point of my message, my dear Clément, you must wonder what this has to do with you, right? Don’t worry. I am now coming to my central question. I have never been much convinced by naturalistic/positivistic justifications for vegetarianism and anything that relies on animal suffering to claim animal rights, though striking a chord, does not seem convincing to me as a rationale – you would have, to be convinced, to compare the suffering of factory farmed pigs to that of starved children in Ethiopia or slaughtered Libyans, which is not something I want to do. But other people find these arguments perfectly suitable for grounding their claims, such as most people at PETA. I was then wondering whether sociobiology has been used by animal rights advocates. After all, sociobiology use the exact same tools to study social behaviors in human and animal populations, and by doing so, it tends to instill the idea that animals, like humans, may have rights too. [Of course, as some eminent (sic) researchers in our field have tried to show you during your first conference presentation a few years ago, it can also argue the exact contrary, that because we behave just like animals do, we can be treated the same way, hence the campaigns of sterilization of some populations, and so on.] For instance, in Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, I was surprised to see some PETA member mentioning Richard Dawkins‘s research as one that helps ground animal rights. Culturally, I think it is quite interesting because people tend to think of sociobiology as kind of right-wing entrenched because of its hard scientism, positivism and probably because E.O. Wilson himself seems to fit the image of the Republican type of public intellectual. But it might not be necessarily so. I think that you would agree that sociobiology as it is currently practiced is an Anglo-Saxon invention and it is precisely where vegetarians are the most numerous and the most vocal – I would put aside religious vegetarianism, as practiced in some other areas in the world. Have you ever located in the sociobiological literature a fraction of authors that more or less explicitly advocate animal rights? Admittedly, it does not have a lot to do with the history of economics, yet I am quite interested in the question.

Kind regards,

Your friend Yann

The End of Relativism?

The beginning of a new year is always the occasion to reflect on the recent past, as the posts of my fellows Benjamin, Clément and Béatrice [to whom the opposite Calvin & Hobbes comic strip is dedicated] have shown. Though their interrogations mainly concern the purposes and practices of historians, I would like to add another one, which may be a bit more ‘philosophical’ – pardon the grand word! What has struck me during the year is the slow decline of what some thinkers call relativism.

Relativism (not to be confused with moral relativism), as I have argued here and there, is not the idea that everything is equal or that there is nothing demarcating the good and the bad, the true and the false. Instead, it is the observation that what we call truth or scientific facts or fair decisions is affected by the context in which we are located and that they can be appraised differently in different communities or cultures. It is not surprising that relativism – a term sometimes used pejoratively by its detractors – has been associated with literary theorists such as Stanley Fish, because rhetoric is where it is used more conspicuously. My literary style will greatly change depending on the people I am addressing to and, as a result, the meaning of what I am saying too. For instance, while writing a scientific paper, I can call some previous contribution ‘misleading’ or ‘unfortunate’ while in front of friends researchers, I will call it a ‘piece of crap’, and back at home, in a sign of deep fatigue and irritation,  I will paraphrase Lennon and call it ‘the shittiest pile of shit ever’. Talking about Samuelson in a private correspondence, Stigler wrote Friedman: “It may merely be prejudice, but I’m inclined to write him off as an economist” [in Hammond, Making Chicago Price Theory: Friedman-Stigler Correspondence, 1945-1957, p. 97]. This is certainly not something he would have used – in spite of his renowned acerbic wit – in publication, and though Samuelson may have been conscious of such animosity he certainly did not take it into account when he called Friedman “an able scholar” and “an old friend” [Samuelson, Economics From the Heart, p. xi). There is nothing abnormal in this. Whatever our opinions are, we have different ways of communicating them to our interlocutors – from our closest friends to the scientific community and the public at large.

This, however, has seriously been threatened in 2010 and I will only mention two events that struck me in this respect: the first one is the fact that a few people have been legally fired from their jobs after talking badly about their supervisors on Facebook, the other one is the whole Wikileaks affair. In the former, it is quite striking that people who have written on their wall a few negative words about their work environment – like calling their boss an idiot, or their job crappy – have been recognized as guilty of serious professional mistakes while we know that everyday people spend most of their time at the workplace, near the coffee machine for instance, unfearfully disparaging other colleagues and immediate superiors. Why is something that is considered normal in the workplace is suddenly demonized when it is done outside of it? The wikileaks affair is quite similar, as it simply shows that when diplomats talk between then, they do not adopt the same discourse that they will use publicly. Is there anything shocking about that? I don’t believe so. You may have to deal in a friendly manner with that head of state you believe is an arrogant and disagreeable human being, especially if world peace is threatened. Similarly, you can perfectly envision with some allied country the use of the military force  toward a country you are simultaneously conducting amiable negotiations with – just in case this does not work, as Clausewitz believed . The fact that these seemingly inconsistent behaviors are suddenly judged negatively by law courts and the public opinion at large will make people adopt the same discourse whoever they talk to. Whether we are blogging, writing academic papers or chatting on our Facebook walls, should we adopt the same writing style? Some people obviously believe we should and the huge informational database that is constituted on the internet seems to put some pressure upon us to do so as well.

How much our practices as historians [of economics] are to be affected by that? I believe History as we construct it is built upon the idea that things – ideas, objects, etc. – evolve and differ in different periods of time and among different communities. If they do not, there is simply no story to be told. The denial of relativism is then the denial of historicity. Happy new year!

HSS 2010 – Lost in the supermarket

HSS meetingThis is not only a metaphor. The History of Science Society’s 2010 annual meeting was held at the Hyatt Regency in Montreal and the hotel is indeed located in a mall!

Because our methods and interests are increasingly evolving toward those of the history of science, it seems logical to want to get closer to the HSS community as well. Problem is: is there such a community? And if so, can we really get the gist of it only by attending a few sessions more-or-less randomly? Apparently not. Though I enjoyed some nice presentations such as David Kaiser on the role of hippies in drawing cohorts of students to physics departments and was fascinated by the new publications on the University of Chicago Press’ stand, I was mostly unable to identify new trends in research. Some attendants do archival work of some kind, some other visit museums and others curate exhibitions. While classic intellectual history and attempts at reinterpreting the canonical literature are still going strong, some others are making movies and investigate the more cultural aspects of science. In front of this methodological bonfire, it is difficult to have an accurate vision of what History of Science is in 2010. One meaningful anecdote is that I unexpectedly met Jonathan, a friend I had not seen for a long time. I knew Jonathan as an American writer, musician and poet living in Paris. I thought he was undertaking work in literary criticism. I knew his interest had moved toward the philosophy of science – well, honestly I had forgotten this information – but I would not have imagined myself attending his presentation at the HSS meeting – I have to add here that it was a joint HSS/PSA (Philosophy of Science Association) meeting but Jonathan’s session, though dealing with philosophical aspects, was really part of the HSS part of the event. My failure in identifying my friend as a member of the community I am targeting says much about the diversity of styles that co-existed there.

Another remark on the meeting: I realized looking at the book of abstracts that unlike HET meetings, the HSS meeting mostly draws North-American and British researchers. While the Dutch and the Germans are well represented, the French and the Italians, who are attending the ESHET and HES meetings en masse, are  barely visible at the HSS.

Last but not least, another contributor to this blog was there (as well as a former one), so he may also have something to say.

Rudolf Modley (?)

There is a frequent bias in the history of science – and the history of economics alike. We are mainly interested in people who have published, and particularly in people having published in the main field we are interested in. People having greatly contributed to the development of departments – think of Aaron Director and Gregg Lewis at Chicago, for instance – or operating at the crossroads of disciplines are often neglected. When my co-author Loic Charles and I began to be interested in the history of visualization in the interwar social sciences in general and in the dispersion of Otto Neurath‘s pictorial statistics in the US in particular, we quickly found that one man was particularly influential in these developments: Rudolf Modley.

Modley, a former student of Neurath in Vienna, moved to the US in the early 30s, where he was appointed as curator of social sciences at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, under Waldemar Kaempffert (Neurath’s cousin). Modley, after experiencing numerous difficulties, created a flourishing business in illustrating magazines, newspapers, official reports and pamphlets with Neurath-like Isotypes. The name of his corporation, Pictograph Inc., could be seen anywhere in these different medias. As Loic and I put it in our paper: “the American reader was [then] more likely to encounter Modley’s version of [pictorial statistics], rather than the original [Neurath’s]”. One could dismiss Modley as someone who’s only responsible for the little men and women we find on our bathroom doors. After all, Modley’s pictorial statistics was almost completely stripped of the theoretical and political contents Neurath would attach to it. Neurath himself was quite critical of the way his former disciple used his method. On the other hand, social scientists were very interested in Modley’s enterprise. In the course of our research, we have encountered some important names of social scientists of the period (including economists) who were quite eager to participate in the diffusion of Modley’s little men. On the whole, Modley is one of the central characters in the Americanization of Neurath’s visual method, namely its transformation from a tool of conceptualization into a tool of illustration and consequently, its move from social sciences to propaganda and finally, to graphic design.

Though he was the object of only one scholarly article (Crawley 1994) and was briefly mentioned in another one (Lupton 1986), Modley has lately attracted more and more fans on the internet. You just have to google his name to find several blog posts and websites devoted to his use of Neurath’s method. By contrast, when I began being interested in Modley while finishing my PhD dissertation in late 2007, there was almost nothing to be found on the internet. Meanwhile, websites devoted to pictorial statistics are flourishing (see examples here or here). Loic and I would like to take advantage of this recent proliferation and try to gather as much information as possible on Modley from all those contributors. In particular, if some people do know whether some archives exist and if so, where they are located, that would be highly useful for further research. Besides, we would be curious to know the various background of those who have contributed to disperse Modley’s pictures on the internet and how they got interested in his work in the first place.

Pop Economics

It’s quite unlikely that the highly influential rock snob web-zine Pitchfork has anything to say about economics. Hence my surprise to read this in one of their latest columns:

But in a low-trust and low-money environment, behavioral economics is politically irresistible: It’s simple, it’s barely noticeable, and it’s cheap. More, it promises a kind of psychological judo. We could batter ourselves senseless and penniless again st people’s irrationality and selfishness while trying to change their behavior. Or we could use those very traits to “nudge” them in a desired direction. No wonder business people, as well as politicians, like it so much– it seems to offer solutions to all kinds of sticky behavioral problems.

The rest can be read here.

Besides, it seems that people interested in indie pop music are increasingly driven toward economics, as exemplified by Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party people, 9 Songs) and Mat Whitecross’s (Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll), recent adaptation of Klein’s Shock Doctrine. After all, Mick Jagger was at the LSE and he retained Robbins’ lessons.

Experiencing the Shock Doctrine

Thanks to some friends journalists, I got an invitation for a press projection of The Shock Doctrine, a movie by British directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross based on Naomi Klein‘s much discussed bestseller, which will be released on March 3 in France. For 82 minutes – it does not seem very long but, believe me, it is – I have been exposed to unbearable images: the massacres in Chile and Argentina, the bombing of the Russian Duma, the collapse of the Twin towers, the tortures at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, tsunamis and hurricanes, dead bodies in the streets of New Orleans, Milton Friedman being held responsible for all these horrors. The images are so violent, indeed, that I could not keep myself from thinking that the directors were themselves nurturing some kind of fascination for it and were trying to apply the Shock Doctrine to the spectator – that poor little me huddled up by fear and anxiety in his red velvet seat. Are you more virtuous than your opponent when you end up using the tools you are denouncing? Then, came to mind this sentence by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (roughly translated by yours truly): “We are not responsible for the victims but in front of the victims. And there is no other way than imitating an animal (growling, digging, giggling, convulsing) to escape the scurvy. Thought itself is sometimes closer to a dying animal than a living man, even a democrat.”