2016 as a ten-letter word

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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.

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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.

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.

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?”

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 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!

Julian Reiss: Evidence for Use

This post was sent by Julian Reiss (Erasmus University of Rotterdam, see here) speaking to the subjects of a recent comments discussion.
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Analytical philosophers of science, especially those trained at an Anglo-American university, tend to ask questions that are abstract, narrow and pertain to somewhat idealized circumstances. They are abstract so that answers stand a chance of being general; they are narrow so that answers stand a chance of being precise; and they pertain to idealized circumstances so answers stand a chance of being correct. ‘Evidence for use’ can be understood as a reaction against this way of doing philosophy.

For this way of doing philosophy comes at a cost: the more abstract, narrow and ideal a question is, the less likely it is to address an issue that has broader social relevance. Proponents of evidence for use urge instead the pragmatist vision of philosophers contributing to solving the pressing social issues of the civilization they are a part of. The idea of evidence for use, then, is that philosophers of science interested in theory and evidence should ask questions and frame answers in ways that have some societal significance.

The idea has origins in Philip Kitcher’s work on the ‘well-ordered science’ (most importantly in his 2003 OUP book Science, Truth and Democracy) and Nancy Cartwright’s recent work on evidence (see for instance her paper ‘Well-Ordered Science: Evidence for Use’ that was published in Philosophy of Science in 2006). A science is well-ordered to the extent that its research priorities are such that they would be endorsed in a democratic deliberation among well-informed participants committed to engagement with the needs and aspirations of others. In other words, Kitcher demands that science should ask the right questions, and in the right ways. Cartwright’s concern is mainly with methodology: how do we devise methods so that the products of science help solving practical problems?

The recent movements of evidence-based medicine and evidence-based policy can illustrate what is at stake here. These movements demand that the causal claims on which we based our policies (such as decisions to approve a new drug or implement a new schooling program) are supported by high-quality evidence, which in their understanding means randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Indeed, RCTs can be shown to prove a causal claim, given certain assumptions. But there are two major problems: first, the assumptions required are exceedingly narrow so that their satisfaction is unlikely except under ideal conditions; second, even when satisfied, the RCT proves a narrow ‘it works somewhere’ causal claim (in Cartwright’s words), whereas what we need to know is that ‘it works for us’. Because the correctness of the claim proved by an RCT depends crucially on the characteristics of the test population, the circumstances of the test and the specific ways of administering the treatment, results are unlikely to continue to hold in the circumstances we are ultimately interested in.

Evidence for use invites us to refocus from questions we can answer easily (such as ‘How do we design an experiment so we can be reasonably certain about its result?’) to questions that matter to society (such as ‘How do we design an empirical study so we can be reasonably certain that a policy based on it will be successful?’). For a recent special issue of the journal Synthese that takes up some of these themes, see here.

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.”

Meet the author

PenguinThe author was Roger Backhouse. And the book was The Penguin History of Economics (UK ed., US ed.).

I teach with Harro Maas, a course “Contemporary Economic thought in a Historical Perspective” at a new venture, modeled on a liberal arts curriculum, the Amsterdam University College. They require the first year courses to have a textbook and since we both admire Roger’s Penguin history we chose that one. It was Harro’s great idea of inviting Roger for a meeting with the students. After discussing the book for 5 weeks, they could ask questions of expansion or clarification or make suggestions to the author on what to write in future editions.

From the 25 students came questions like: what is the best form of economic organization, markets or the state? what works best capitalism or socialism? should we adopt sociological approaches to risk analysis instead of relying on mathematical models? That’s right! Students querying the historian on what economics to believe, and if the past could arbitrate on these dilemmas. Roger did his best to answer and not answer the questions, but not far into the conversation he was politely labeled a Keynesian. The tone was always interested and there was no disappointment from either side, and some questions were properly historical such as why some ideas developed in some countries (often their own) and not somewhere else…

To conclude, a student spoke of a concern that many had voiced before. Roger’s text has too many names, too much happens and it is hence difficult to summarize. The student asked for the ten most important economists of history that would make a summary. Roger gave us then a “Hamlet without the Prince”. The history of economics as the history of its identity, as subordinate to morality, breaking out as a subject in political and moral philosophy, finally in the twentieth century the economic becoming its field of professional and academic expertise.

It was all good! A perfect way to motivate students giving them a sense of ownership of the content… they are on first name terms with the author, and they even drank a beer with him.

(on other reviews Backhouse gets three 4 star reviews on amazon.co.uk, and one 2 star and one 4 star reviews on amazon.com, the American shopper is less impressed)

Getting younger and younger

In the last few, summer, months I have been an unreliable blogger. It is going to get worse. One good reason is that I have set up a new blog that requires my attention.

For 7 weeks in September and October, I teach a class titled generically “History and Methodology of Economics”, which I have ambitiously re-named as “the politics of economics.” The course reviews literature on the place and role of economists in contemporary society from an historical standpoint. Because one of my goals for the class is to develop appreciation for the multiple interpretations of which economics is subjected to, and to the multiple uses given to economic ideas in public life, I asked them to participate in a course-blog. This will be 10% of their final grade. Their task is capture commentary on economics or uses of economics in unexpected places, notably in mass culture.

observer

From my brief, hands in the air, survey, nearly none of the students had experience with the blogging form. So they are learning not only about the practice of observing economics in its historical drift, but also about expressing themselves in a blogging setting. I leave you here an invitation to visit, to comment and to encourage on “Observing Economics“.

Reader Meet Author @ HES 2009

You can call it scandalous; you can call it Mickey Mouse; you can even call it fried chicken, if you want. But the session titled “From History of Economics to Histories about Economics” at the last HES meeting in Denver was just a thrilling experience. Let me explain in a few words what its purpose was. The last few years have witnessed the development of a literature about the history of economics outside of our field. Historians of science, economic historians and journalists (among others) have begun to write about the same issues we are (supposed to be) interested in and most of the time, they do not quote historians of economics. How did it happen? It is very simple, actually, and could be summed up in Stanley Fish’s terms: 1) Do your job, 2) Don’t try to do someone else’s job, 3) Don’t let anyone else do your job. Historians of economics have tried to act as economists, using the past to build alternative economic models or criticizing mainstream economics on its own terms. By doing so, they have created a “What If” History of Economics, one that builds parallel stories that can be understood only within the community, but offers virtually no insight on its recent developments, its status as a science or its cultural influence. On the other hand, you have another kind of accounts, such as Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. They provide a more caricatural view of the economist as a torturer, mass-murderer and conspirator. Historians of economics may find them shocking (that’s the word, indeed), misinformed, misleading and dangerous, but those accounts have a significant appeal beyond our small community, and by refusing to address them in some ways, considering them as popular rubbish, we choose to remain in self-referentiality.

During this session, Loïc Charles, Harro Maas and Tiago Mata presented a perspective on the future developments of our field, not by restating previous positions, but by looking at possible new ways of doing the history of economics. Looking at recent developments in other fields such as history of science, economic history and political science, Loïc observed that non-disciplinary histories of economics are currently being written, offering a new intellectual space of trade between these various communities. Harro, by resorting to the metaphor of the historian as a curator, showed that we can build new narratives on the history of economics if we try to go beyond the text, arranging economics as a series of objects. For someone like me who studies the place of visual representation in economics, this metaphor has a strong appeal. I look at the large amount of visual materials I collected over the years (books, digital pictures and scans) and realize I use them in a very conservative way in comparison to the vast possibilities that are open if I think of them as pieces of art which would have to be curated in an exhibition. Would it provide a different kind of history? Last but not least, Tiago used Fish’s concept of interpretive communities to construct a picture of the public imagination of economics in recent works, without distinction between works intended for an audience of specialists and those intended for a larger audience. In Tiago’s account, indeed, there is no “audience” understood as this abstract mass of people out there, there are only anonymous individuals, internet users and bloggers, all contributing to create some understanding of economics.

I would not assert that these papers are perfect. They were intended for discussion rather than for immediate publication and I should say that the presentation itself seemed to me better than the actual papers. The presentation, actually, was quite spectacular. It had a kind of restrained violence toward the audience – the violence became less retrained during Tiago’s presentation when spectators were exposed to Klein’s striking rhetorics by way of graphic images – and the tension was palpable. In the same way art history has gradually given way to visual studies and visual culture, these papers may be viewed as an attempt to get rid of the “old” history of economics and to replace it by “economics studies” or “economic culture”. This is not a mere question of wording, it is a deeper transformation of our field. The skepticism of many attendants, explicit or implicit, makes sense.

Game over

I’ve been making notes on the media debates about the economic (formerly financial, and credit) crisis. My plan was to write down in notecards: themes, characters, positions, and narratives. Then cover a large table with the color coded cards. Shuffle them. And rearrange them in sequences and distances, taking photographs of each setting. With no pretension of making an art installation. This is my native, Ven diagram, way of thinking through the thematic patterns of popular discourse.

080111-new-yorker2Regrettably I am too slow. My speed impairment is expressed in my street running, my pool swimming, my football striker instincts and my paper writing. Worse still, I don’t usually win games: chess, checkers, Go, Unreal Tournament, Fifa 07. Picking last week’s New Yorker I notice how I lost another race. I feel cheated, my notecards stacked mercilessly into one single paragraph.

Please take a deep breath, and read the following:

This crisis is the culmination of events and trends reaching back, depending on your perspective, four, seven, seventeen, twenty-two, twenty-seven, thirty-eight, sixty-five, or a hundred and two years. (…) The causes are technological, mathematical, cultural, demographic, financial, economic, behavioral, legal, and political. Among the dozens of contributors and culprits, real or perceived, are the personal computer, the abandonment of the gold standard, the abandonment of Glass-Steagall, the end of fixed commissions, the rating agencies, mortgage-backed securities, securitization in general, credit derivatives, credit-default swaps, Wall Street partnerships going public, the League of Nations, Bretton Woods, Basel II, CNBC, the S.E.C., disintermediation, overcompensation, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, Phil Gramm and Jim Leach, Alan Greenspan, black swans, red tape, deregulation, outdated regulation, lax enforcement, government pressure to lower lending standards, predatory lending, mark-to-market accounting, hedge funds, private-equity firms, modern finance theory, risk models, “quants,” corporate boards, the baby boomers, flat-screen televisions, and an indulgent, undereducated populace.

(Friends, family, and fans, worry not, I will pull through and have already a new paper idea: to expose the New Yorker as meta-journalism.)

Self help or science fiction?

Jim-Collins-for-WebBusinessmen are steely figures. They hire and fire. They invest and disinvest. They make decisions in the haze of uncertainty. And for all that they calculate, reason, plan.

Yet, in contrast to this materialistic character, they subscribe to mysticism. Executives are known to pay absurd sums to “management experts” to hear a litany of pedestrian commentary on the great business adventure. For instance, Jim Collins‘ new book, making the cover of Business Week, Why the Mighty Fall: And Some Companies Never Give In. The core of the book is identifying the 5 stages of failure:

    1. Hubris born of success
    2. Undisciplined pursuit of more
    3. Denial of risk and peril
    4. Grasping for salvation
    5. Capitulation to irrelevance or death

In reading it I had the feeling it was a rip off of the Kubler-Ross model, of the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) reordered. It is clearly charismatic for some audiences. (He definitely looks good! Like a younger Michael Porter.) It is undoubtedly successful discourse. But what is it? Is it self-help psychology for organizations? Or is it fiction with scientistic claims to spice the imagination?