Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
History keeps appearing and reappearing in the different discussions and presentations. But there’s history and history. One reference to history, as Tiago observed in front of the hearth last night, is history as nostaligia: imagine Keynes walking around in this very room!, picture the Americans thrashing the Russians in a agme of softball during BW ’44!, “as a graduate student, I learned a lor from….” Second, there is the implicit no-history argument, in which ecoomics is one big pile of research from which one may take different sources depending on the issue at hand. Much like philosophy, in which one can as easily apply Aristotle, Hobbes, or Sloterdijk to contemporary issues. History as history is yet to appear.
A weakness of our profession – and perhaps of humans generally – is that we want to classify. Thus we categorized ourselves and each other as neoclassical, institutional, Keynesian, Marxist and Chicago economists. To some extent, these labels have always been problematic. Where to put John Kenneth Gailbraith, Albert Rees, or Herbert Simon for instance? Moreover, classifications always seem to fall apart when you look too closely.
Over the past years, however, things have become more complicated still with a new generation of economists who, consciously or not, constantly position themselves in between whatever labels and domains are out there. Herbert Gintis is a Marxist, game theorist, behavioral economist, and institutional economist depending on the occasion. Robert Shiller is anything in between traditional finance, behavioral finance, and an applied type of finance research that is more concerned with solving problems in the here and now than advancing a new theory. And then there is someone like Benjamin Friedman. As an economist, I never know where to situate Benjamin Friedman for my students.
Postmodernism may be long gone, but this is the age of the in-between economist. We, the economists, do a paper that may be classified as belonging to this category, but tomorrow we’ll do a paper that may be put into that category. And we don’t really care what these categories are, as long as you classify us and our work in their totalities as in-between.
Interestingly enough, though, we definitely are economists, not sociologists, politicians, writers, or whatever. We’re very much in-between, but we’re also very much economists.
Throughout my PhD years, I have consistently avoided conducting interviews. The reason I was giving was that my protagonists were either too dead or had already given too many interviews so that nothing new would emerge from an additional one, and anyway, what was the point of asking economists about their “worldview”? The true reason was that I was totally freaked out by the sole prospect of having to seat in front of a figure of the past, ask a few questions carefully crafted and wait for them to jump in.
When I began to work on MIT, it quickly became clear that this time I would have to face the necessities of oral history. While several of my narrative’s protagonists have been interviewed over and over, they had very scarcely been confronted with questions dealing with their home institution, with the daily organization of research, with the design of curricula, with recruitment, etc.
To overcome my apprehension, I set out to read, listen, and watch economists’ interviews. But historically oriented interviews are not so common. And the bulk aims at getting information on such and such contribution of the interviewee, or on his contribution to such and such school of thought. Only the list of questions prepared by Ross Emmett for his Chicago Oral history project echoed my intent to catch the daily humming and diffuse zeitgeist of an institution. And unfortunately, neither the audio/video files nor the transcripts are publicly available to date.
Then, I questioned those of my young fellows who were seasoned veterans of oral history, and who even unbelievably seemed to take pleasure at such ventures. Questions on the first contact, the unfolding of the interviews, the kind of questions to ask, the traps to be avoided, the different techniques for face to face interviews and email requests.
Their responses consistently stressed the importance of having the least possible influence/ imprint on the researcher interviewed, whether in the initial message sent, the attitude adopted, the open and scarce questions asked, the lack of comments made about the economist’ responses during the interview. It seemed important that the interviewee knew the least possible about our projects, our frameworks, the historical narrative we wanted to supplement or challenge. And of course, oral history was much much preferred to written contacts, even if I had to wait months or years for an encounter. These advice did nothing to soothe my fear and left me with a feeling of uneasiness, although I could not pinpoint its underlying cause.
Then, I screwed up my first interview. Because of an unexpected encounter with my “target” that I discovered would not be subsequently available, I had to ask unprepared questions without any record device and “over the counter,” or rather over a plate of cheese and pasta with two hundreds persons and a pianist filling the background with laughters, murmurs and worn out jazz standards. My questions lacked the most basic diplomatic veneer (So black and glossy/ On my word, sir,/ With voice to match/ You were a bird, sir/ Well fit to be the Phoenix of these days….), and anyway I couldn’t even hear half of the responses.
The following week, my brand new -and still unused- recorder got stolen from my suitcase during my hectic trip back to Europe. A sign, for sure.
These trials and tribulations at least brought the reason for my uneasiness to the fore. The underlying thread of all the tips I received was that the economists interviewed should truly be considered as objects of study. But I did not see them as objects, I saw them as witnesses. As partners. I did not want to hide my intentions, my research, at least not in the second part of the interviews. In case I wouldn’t get substantive answers to my questions, I wanted to be able to confront the interviewee with his history, to put the copy of a 1957 letter from Solow to Fisher on the table and tell him : here’s what he (you?) was writing at that time. I wanted to be able to say “Emmett has shown in recent research that the workshop system was essential in building a common intellectual ground for the Chicago School, what about MIT ?”, and I wanted to be able to consider the response (in this case “Workshop only came late to MIT because Samuelson was opposed to them. He thought the worskhop system was the end of economic generalists”) worthy of consideration, even if biased. And they were telling me I shouldn’t.
Now I’m sitting at my desk, gloomily looking at the stack in front of me: the oral history reader, a book on the voices of the past, a few articles (list in Mata and Lee 2007). I wonder whether after swallowing these hundred pages with like a bottle of Lagavulin, to give me courage, after buying a new recorder and giving a first set of interviews, I’ll be back into the ranks of wisdom, I’ll agree with them. And from time to time, the possibility that the situation is even worse crosses my mind. Maybe deep down I don’t consider the interviewee as a witness, but as a suspect? In this case, will this literature and a baptism of fire will make me a good cop, will turn the Harry Bosch in me into an Adamsberg?
Coming of age refers to a young person becoming an adult, and is one of those universal and timeless themes in art. It is associated with uncertainty about one’s identity and requires experimentation. But it also involves an increasing sense of the bigger world and an awareness that one may have the ability to steer this world a little bit in a direction of one’s own liking. Later in life, when the novelties of adulthood have become self-evident and one’s position and family secured, that brief coming of age period is treasured as the experience that gave meaning to everything that came after. For the rest of our lives we (and men in particular) tend to judge the novels, music and even arguments appreciated during this time as the best in their categories.
This is how we should read the recently published Top 20 articles in the AER of the past hundred years, composed by Arrow, Bernheim, Feldstein, McFadden, Poterba, and Solow. It documents how American economics came of age during the post war decades, the struggles it had to go through, its experiments, its crises of identity, and even its cherished childhood memory. At the same it is a testimony to the authors’ coming of age as economists between the 1950s and the 1980s. AER’s Top 20 paints a beautiful, romantic picture of the long and winding road that led to the top.
The flip side of all the uncertainty, experimentation and identity crises in this process of coming of age is narcissism, self-love, and overestimation of one’s own achievements. Given American economics and these economists’ position and (late) middle age point of view one would have hoped for a little more reflection on how their coming of age has influenced their judgment of quality. One would also have expected a greater appreciation of the influence of others and of the particular historical circumstances in which the coming of age happened to occur. AER’s Top 20 is a great story and romanticism at its best, but it’s not history.
But enough whining. When will we get the Econometrica Top 20?
Paul Samuelson asked in the title of a commentary to John Chipman’s book on Pareto (Box 6, Rare Books, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University): “Do you
have talent for economic theory?”, and started it as follows:
You should cultivate chiropractory or plumbing if you can’t give the right definite answer to the following question:
“If the minimum cost of achieving at least adequate amounts of calories and vitamins is $39 per year, what must the minimum cost be of achieving exactly the specified amounts of calories and vitamins?”
Does anyone want to try, just for fun, to formulate a question that would serve similarly to the history of economics? Hum… I guess it should start with Smith and end with Keynes…