Thursday, March 13, 2008

Krugman Paper: A Serious Comment

Aside from the point about relativity that I mentioned in my previous post, what struck me about the paper was its tone–the implication that economics, like the paper, was about boring and obvious points made with unnecessarily fancy mathematics. That may, for all I know, be an accurate description of economics as taught and practiced at Yale at the time. It is very far from the feel of economics as it was being done, at about the same time, at Chicago.

As it happens, my first published article in economics, written at about the same time, was on almost as odd a topic–an economic analysis of the size and shape of nations, purporting to explain features of the changing political map of Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire to the present. It was, however, intended seriously, and is one of the pieces I'm still proud of. A few years back I came across someone's discussion of the literature on the size of nations. My article was the first one listed and the second, by Jim Buchanan, was about ten years later.

I think it's still an important difference among economists and economics departments, and one that young academics ought to care about. I remember a long time ago commenting to a graduate student at Chicago that it seemed to me that there were a lot of economists who didn't really believe in economics. It was what they did in working hours, not how they thought about the world. His response was that some of his fellow graduate students had noticed that–when visiting other schools.

I was reminded of that incident when visiting one of the colleges my daughter is considering for next year. Wandering around the economics department to get a feel for the place, I spoke with three faculty members–none of whom struck me as an economist in my sense of the term. My daughter, having audited an econ class, commented to me on the fact that a student had made a comment which any economist should have responded to with some version of "that sounds plausible but is wrong because"–a point that would seem obviously right to a non-economist, obviously wrong to an economist. The professor simply let the comment go.

I don't know enough about economics department to say which ones currently are in what category, with two exceptions. Chicago, so far as I can tell, is still a place where economists believe in economics. So, less obviously, is George Mason. One simple test, I suspect, would be to have lunch with members of the department, perhaps also with graduate students, and see what they talk about.

I should add that my point is not that economics is true, although I think it largely is. I am not inclined to take theology very seriously. But if I did take a course in it, I would expect to learn more, and have a more interesting time, if the professor was a believer than if he were an atheist.


At 12:20 PM, March 13, 2008, Blogger Joe Bingham said...

I haven't been to U of Rochester, but my impression is that economists there are believers. (That's where Landsburg is; much of my impression is from his descripions of his colleagues.)

At 12:36 PM, March 13, 2008, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

Sometime in the past year or so I read a scholarly book that analyzed economies of scale in relation to the size and centralization of political units, looking at the impact of four information processing technologies, from writing to the microchip, and four military technologies, starting I think with the chariot. Unfortunately I either didn't note down the title and author or have mislaid my record of both! It's a fascinating subject and one I would like to see more work on. I'm interesting in it, among other reasons, in relation to worldbuilding for roleplaying games; if I make up an imaginary world I would like its system of political actors to be plausible.

At 11:06 PM, March 13, 2008, Blogger James A. Donald said...

Economics is politically incorrect. Therefore, at most universities, people who believe in economics cannot be given tenure.

At 6:20 PM, March 14, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

DF said:
"Chicago, so far as I can tell, is still a place where economists believe in economics. So, less obviously, is George Mason."

Are you eff'n kidding me?!? What do you mean by "believe"? Do you mean that they believe in completely out of place formalism that essentially makes much of their contributions irrelevant? It's not the Chicago of your father's time.

At 1:58 PM, March 15, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And by the way, if I had to pick between the two - U. Chicago or GMU - in terms of which institution is doing real economics and is juiced about it, I'd pick GMU. There's no "less obviously" about it. It's quite obvious where real economics is being done and it ain't in Hyde Park.

At 6:26 AM, March 16, 2008, Blogger Mike Huben said...

Ah, the embrace of what Daniel Dennett condemns as "greedy reductionism".

"But in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers often underestimate the complexities, trying to kip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation."
Darwin's Dangerous Idea, p.82.

If anything, that's the cardinal sin of GMU economists such as Bryan Caplan.

And of course greedy reductionism is the basic error of any ideological thinking.

You can "think of the world" in terms of almost any field. Chemistry, pharmacology, physics, parasitology, etc. Excitement comes when that seems revelatory. Ridicule comes when the greedy reductionism becomes apparent.

At 7:15 PM, March 25, 2008, Blogger Matt B said...

I had a similar experience at a professional economics consultancy located in Berkeley. They would write excellent, rigorous pieces for their clients by day, but in private conversation would toe the (modern) liberal line in all dimensions and often, it seemed to me, in defiance of economics. It shocked me at first, but I now better understand just how deeply many people in Berkeley care about modern liberalism.

At 4:06 PM, March 27, 2008, Blogger James A. Donald said...

We see a similar problem throughout all of academia: Thus, for example, with Anthropogenic Gaia Warming, whenever inconvenient observational results show up, they search for some imaginable source of error, and having managed to imagine one, consider the job done, and the inconvenient observation refuted. Conversely, if an observation seems to support Anthropogenic Gaia Warming, they ignore glaringly obvious sources of error, such as the urban heat island effect.

Similarly history is being industriously rewritten according to the theory that what dead white males wrote does not matter.

The entire intellectual enterprise of western civilization is collapsing under the force of political correctness.

At 10:40 AM, March 29, 2008, Blogger General Specific said...

"I should add that my point is not that economics is true, although I think it largely is. I am not inclined to take theology very seriously. But if I did take a course in it, I would expect to learn more, and have a more interesting time, if the professor was a believer than if he were an atheist."

I disagree with the above. For several reasons. (1) I agree with Mike Huben's comment on ideology. Learning from ideologues is a great way to become UNinformed through bias. (2) Learning is assisted when people are excited about the topic. But excitement does not equal 100% ideological committment. Atheists can be excited about theology and its arguments, history, etc. (3) If you really want to learn, you want a balance between atheists and theists--not ideological purity.

What you make is an argument for bias, not an argument for balanced learning.


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